I tried surf bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.
They call the North Shore of Oahu "country." Lush dairy farms abut the ocean, and the smells of manure and sugarcane rise from the furrowed fields along the narrow Kam Highway. The North Shore catches the northeast trade winds, which blow in from North America to sway coconut palm fronds and erase footprints on the beach at night, leaving fresh windrows in the sand by morning. In the dark, the whoosh of the trades can be mistaken for the sound of the breaking surf, which rumbles like a distant train. It's the rumble that reminds one: More than country moods, more than warm winds, the North Shore is big waves.
The North Shore lures surfers the way Hollywood lures actresses, their heads full of dreams of glory. The surfers get off the plane in Honolulu in December and, with their boards under their arms, head for the North Shore. There they rent beach houses along the 12 miles from Kawela to Haleiwa, less for the pleasures of oceanfront living than for the utility of it: To check the surf each morning, all they have to do is raise the bamboo blinds. They don't need cars, are indifferent to phones and avoid shoes. They take only night jobs or those with employers who accept the Six-foot Rule: When the surf hits six feet, the employee hits the surf. They may do it at Sunset Beach, with its classic waves; Waimea Bay, with its towering surf; Rocky Point; Velzyland; Off-the-Wall; Pupukea; Gas Chambers; or others. For more than 20 years, North Shore winters have been a rite of surfing. The surfers keep coming back, year after year, in search of the perfect wave. If it exists, it will break somewhere on the North Shore.
Some surfers believe they've already found the perfect wave. They call it the Banzai Pipeline—Banzai for the attitude one must adopt to surf it, and Pipeline for the long, hollow tubes it forms as it breaks. People line the beach just to watch the Pipeline roll in, and they stay until sunset, because it's difficult to turn away. One starts to go but then looks back for just one more wave. On a good day eight-and 10-foot tubes tumble in, hour after hour. The Pipeline's waves erupt just 75 yards from shore, with manes of spindrift that become miniature rainbows and make the surf seem to sizzle like a good fire. On a spectacular day the waves are twice that high and may peel off for 100 yards or more, the disintegration of the curl chasing the formation down the coast. And if a wave "closes out," or collapses, it looks and sounds like an avalanche.
Other waves around the world form tubes—Uluwatu, near Bali, has cleaner curls than the Pipeline does—and waves come bigger. The surf at Sunset—and Waimea and Haleiwa and Kaena, all on the North Shore—is often bigger than at the Pipeline. But no place else has the Pipeline's combination of form and size, and no other wave matches the Pipeline's power in winter. There isn't a significant piece of land in the 2,000 miles between the Aleutians and Oahu, so every North Pacific low-pressure system is felt on the North Shore, which is canted toward that stormy Alaskan archipelago. The tidal wave that killed 159 people on the North Shore in 1946 resulted from an earthquake in the Aleutians.
Because there's no continental shelf around the Hawaiian Islands, ocean swells are untempered as they approach the shore. At the Pipeline, traveling at an open-water speed of 25 mph, they meet a fossilized coral reef a mere 500 yards from land. Oceanographers call this spot the "10-fathom terrace"; it trips the swells, shaping them and causing them to lunge forward until they hit the inside reef, which is only 100 yards offshore and a mere 10 feet below the surface. This second reef curls the swells into the tubes that about 15 seconds later come crashing down—after having provided surfers with the momentum for their ride. The challenge of riding a board while completely enclosed by the tube is what surfing the Pipeline is all about.
"I've surfed the best waves all over the world, and there's nothing as awesome as the Pipeline," says Mark Richards of Australia, the champion professional surfer the last three years. "It completely closes over you and you're inside this huge, green barrel. Water is rushing and gurgling over your head and the whole ocean is shaking. All you can see is a little hole of sunlight at the end of the tube, and you just hold your breath and pray it doesn't close before you get there."
Surfers are rarely so reckless as to charge into the tubes without watching them a while—mind surfing, they call it. Early of a Pipeline morning they'll squat on the beach, their boards stuck bow-first into the sand. The surfers quietly study the waves—how they break, the time interval between them, the frequency of the sets, the onshore and offshore currents, the riptides, the configuration of the coast that day. And because the currents are so strong at the Pipeline, even getting out to the lineup, the area where the swells begin to curl and the surfers straddle their boards as they wait for rides, can be difficult. There's no channel, so the surfer must wait for a lull between sets to paddle to the lineup. If the lull isn't quite calm enough or it doesn't last, white water will hit the surfer head on and steal his board from under him. Often he must compensate for the current by paddling out diagonally to the lineup. Once there, he may wait 10, 20 even 30 minutes for the wave he wants or can catch. "Outside!" a surfer cries when a big set approaches, the way whalers used to cry "Thar she blows!" Then he flops on the board and paddles as hard and fast as he can, trying to match the wave's speed so they unite gently, like relay runners making a smooth baton pass. He must be at the lip of the wave at the moment it curls. If he's too late, it will roll past him; too early, it will break on top of him.
A wipeout isn't the same as falling from a diving board into a swimming pool. For one thing, because a steep wave sucks the water off the already shallow bottom, the depth in the trough may only be three feet—the Pipeline's greatest danger. For another, the wave will almost certainly come crashing down on the surfer, at a force estimated at 1.4 tons per square foot for a 15-footer. Surfers call the falling lip of a wave the guillotine. It can snap surfboards in two, crack necks, spines and femurs and slam bodies against the coral bottom.