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Thunder From The Sea
Sam Moses
March 08, 1982
Every winter huge swells roll across the Pacific to Oahu to create the Banzai Pipeline—magnificent tunnels of roaring water that are surfing's greatest challenge
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March 08, 1982

Thunder From The Sea

Every winter huge swells roll across the Pacific to Oahu to create the Banzai Pipeline—magnificent tunnels of roaring water that are surfing's greatest challenge

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But Lopez isn't a follower. He's one of the few remaining surfers to whom the pastime is still more of an art than a sport. A native of Honolulu, he moved from the North Shore to Maui in 1974 to escape the crowd—surfers, in particular. "I've never seen so many people on the beach," he said recently upon observing a relative handful. His appearances at the Pipeline have been spotty since 1975, but he hasn't really left it. He's part owner of a three-story cedar house smack-dab on the Pipeline; the two rooms on the second floor are his. "I can always come back here on special days and get a few waves," Lopez says. "That's really all I need now. That seems like enough."

Lopez, a goofy-foot, is the only surfer ever to make the Pipeline look easy. Never the most radical, he's still the best when the tubes are 10 to 12 feet and perfect. He has a remarkable ability to stay cool in the pocket. He has been filmed inside long tubes casually wiping the spray from his eyes. "The faster I go out there, the slower things seem to happen," he says.

But Lopez has taken his lumps. His board once gave him two black eyes, and another time he was unable to walk for two weeks because his tailbone was cracked after a free fall that ended in two feet of water in the trough. He laughs at the notion that he's the alltime king of the Pipeline. "The king of the Pipeline is the wave," he says. "The best anyone can do is survive it."

But that's exactly it: What makes Lopez different from the other Mr. Pipelines is that he got away with it. Says Edwards, "I know Gerry. I see him all the time, and we don't even talk about that place. But he must have some secret. He doesn't seem to me like any foolhardy daredevil. I think he must have figured out something nobody else ever knew."

Lopez chuckles at that notion. "The whole trick is catching the wave at the right place at the right moment," he says. "It sets up the whole ride. If I've figured out anything different, that's it. It seemed obvious to me. It's just a matter of being in touch with it. There's virtually an 'X' out there in the water to tell you where to catch the wave. I paddle around, and when I see a swell coming, I go right for the X. The wave and I meet right there, and I take off and catch it, while the other guys turn and see that I'm gone and just say, 'That——.'

"But what really makes the difference," he adds, "is learning to stay away from the waves that can hurt you."

One Sunday last December, the swells at the Pipeline were rising higher than the horizon. White-caps rolled over the outside reef, and by the time the waves reached the lineup they were inconsistent and threatening. Lopez sat in the living room of his apartment in the three-story house—called the Pipeline Hilton by surfers—with one eye on the Bengals-49ers game on television and the other on the sea. Occasionally he would walk to the balcony and peer between the coconut palms at the surf. No one was in the lineup, but surfers were crouched on the beach, watching and waiting.

All morning no one dared to go out. Lopez continued to watch football, lying on the couch, so relaxed that every breeze from the balcony threatened to roll him onto the floor. He smoked a joint, only passingly interested in the game, and never took his eyes off the waves for more than a minute or so. Finally, one surfer went into the water; three others followed. "Cannon fodder," Lopez muttered. "I might have thought about going out 10 years ago, but no way now. I wouldn't even consider it. I can wait. There will be a better day. I don't need to take those chances. I don't go for the 50-50s anymore. The 75-25s O.K., but not the 50-50s."

If it had mattered to Lopez to prove that he was still Mr. Pipeline, he would have been first out there, of course. How they would have talked about that; how that would have perpetuated his reputation. But perfect surfers don't have the same competitive drive that most other athletes do. What makes Lopez surf-idol material is that he has just the right amount of indifference and just the right amount of esthetic awareness. It wouldn't have looked neat to surf those imperfect waves.

There had been a lot of commotion that week because of the Masters, a professional contest held at the Pipeline each December for the past 10 years and one of the events on the International Pro Surfing circuit. Though he has won the event twice, Lopez hadn't entered this time. The idea of surfing whatever waves broke on the day chosen by some promoter displeased him; besides, he wasn't really interested in having his surfing judged. Late on the afternoon before the Masters, he watched some of the pros and semipros, as well as a few hot young local surfers, riding the Pipe. The waves were mellow six-footers. Mind-surfers squatted in the sand, their erect boards casting long shadows in the low sun. There were a few empty green beer bottles and rusty cans strewn about the beach. An old yellow Lab stalked a piece of driftwood. A girl wearing a bikini that could have fit inside a walnut shell high-stepped in the soft sand. Coconut palms leaned toward the ocean, their roots exposed by the storm tides. There was a pile of decaying palm fronds and two broken surfboards, like snapped jousting poles.

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