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Lopez came down from the patio of the Pipeline Hilton wearing a red wetsuit vest, his signature surfboard under his arm. "Got to get one good ride before the sun goes down," he said, trotting toward the surf. He paddled out to the lineup and caught a small wave as a warmup. He got tubed on his second ride, the only surfer to catch a tube in nearly an hour, but his board popped out of the white water without him when the tube closed out. "Lopez!" someone shouted from the beach, pointing toward him as he swam after it.
For the rest of the afternoon he caught ride after ride, many of them tubes. He caught many more waves than the others. One of his tube rides was so long and thrilling he must have heard harpsichord music inside it. It threatened to close out on him two or three times, but he tucked like a downhill skier and sped on, his form blurry through the clear wall of water, and was spit back into daylight the instant the wave crumbled. The sun, veiled by one last tube, set behind Kaena Point, but the surfers stayed out until the moon rose and lit up the sandbar under them. Later that week, when the moon was full, they would be surfing at 1 a.m.
The preliminary heats for the Masters, which eventually would be won by Australian pro Simon Anderson, had been held earlier in the week. The waves had been gnarly eight-to 10-footers, from the northwest, particularly dangerous conditions, because they broke directly on top of the reef and northwest swells tend to close out all at once. The toll was heavy that day: One surfer cut his head, and another gashed his knee on the reef; one Australian needed 150 stitches after the nose of his board struck him on his forehead, and a local Pipeline specialist broke an ankle.
The last of those victims is the epitome of the Pipeline surfer. Bruce Hansel moved to the North Shore four years ago, when he was 23. He had started surfing at nine in Florida, and he grew up reading about the Pipeline in surfing magazines—and idolizing Lopez ("He's an inspiration to us all"). During his high school years Hansel would drive to North Carolina with his surfboard to spend the summer at Cape Hatteras, which has the biggest waves in the East. He was also a goofy-foot, which further made him Pipeline material. "The only contest I ever really wanted to be in was the Masters," he said from an easy chair in his house on the beach. He was positioned so he could look out at the ocean. There was a jug of water and two kumquats on the end table at his elbow and a stereo speaker pointed at each ear. Hansel gazed down at his left leg, stretched before him and supported on bolsters from a couch. It was encased in a cast from thigh to toe. "It's always been my dream to surf the Pipeline and make it into the Masters," he said.
The Masters is an invitational, and his first year on the North Shore, 1977, Hansel was just another unknown from the East. Still, he lobbied his way into a slot as an alternate, which meant he was seeded somewhere about 50th, but didn't get into the field. It was the same the next year. In 1979 he was again an alternate, but this time he was allowed to participate. He was eliminated in his first heat. He was a non-participating alternate in 1980, but in 1981, after four years on the North Shore, he was recognized as a Pipeline regular and for the first time was invited as a full-fledged Masters contestant.
He opened his scrapbook and turned it to a page with a photo clipped from the National Enquirer of him taking off on a 15-foot wave. "That was the kind of wave that got me in the preliminaries," he said.
It was a 25-minute heat, and the surfers were to be judged on their three best rides. Hansel's first ride had been modest, but a good opener. His second had taken him all the way to the shore, and he was stoked as he paddled back out, knowing there were only a few minutes remaining in the heat but that a good ride would advance him. "There it came, a big set," he said. "I saw the wave I wanted. I might have let it go by, but being a contest I had to take it. It wasn't a very pretty wave; it was an ugly one, in fact, but I was still happy. I said, 'Yay, this is it, this is my big chance.' On the takeoff I really felt like this was what my life had been all about."
His turn down the face of the wave was a split second too slow. Said a fellow surfer, who watched from the water, "He hesitated, and he was done."
When the guillotine hit him, Hansel was hammered into his board like a nail into a two-by-four. The impact broke his ankle in three places. It required two pins in his ankle and two in his fibula to patch him up. "When I got out of surgery, I found out I'd gotten second in the heat because the wipeout was worth some points," he said. "Sitting in the hospital bed for the next two days, I kept thinking how close I'd been to making it."
At Hansel's plaster-covered foot was a wildly painted surfboard, which he had airbrushed himself. He airbrushes boards for a living at his small shop near Sunset Beach. "I'm very fortunate," he says. "I've got two art forms: surfing at the Pipeline and airbrushing. For the next few months I'll just concentrate on the one." By spring he hopes to be back on his board.