In the afternoon the swell pulses. Consistent. Full power.
At Pipe, the dropping tide and the building swell trigger something that only happens a handful of times each winter. Second Reef starts happening.
Back out to the car, shaking with nervous energy. Suit up. Hide the keys. Pick the 8’5” Andrus, the middle size of the three boards in the car. Choose the big leash with the quick release grenade clip. Put some fresh wax on the old board. Heart rate up… long, slow exhales to deal with that. A bit of sunscreen. A swig of water. Pick up the gear and go.
With big Pipe, when you decide to surf it, the best thing to do, is not watch the waves anymore.
The place is mesmerizing, like a cobra snake swaying in front of you. If you allow yourself to sit down and watch… an hour might slip by. If you let your guard down and become a spectator, you change. The waves hypnotize. On the warm sand it’s so comfortable and safe and enjoyable. You forget what your plans were. You relax and stare out to sea, and you are lost.
When you walk down to the water’s edge you are headed into a different world. Squat down to put on the leash. Stretch your back, your neck, and roll your shoulders forward, drop your head between your knees. Close your eyes tight for a moment and shut out everything. Exhale everything from this life on land. And then you’re watching for a break in the sets to paddle out. Down there, just before you jump in, when you see someone get exploded out of a huge barrel or if you see someone fall from the sky and get smashed into the reef, it’s different. You’re down low with the water, and you ignore them, and what you’re focused on is having good timing and making it through the shallows safely.
On big Second Reef days, when it’s consistent and full energy, it can be difficult to find a good moment to jump in and go.
Sometimes, with full energy, you enter the water and give it your all, and the current rips you down past the lifeguard stand, and the sandbar close-outs smash you non-stop to shore, and that’s it. You turn back to the beach, climb from the water winded, put your head down, tail between your legs, and walk the half-mile of deep, soft sand back to where you started, and try again.
Big boards make it all the more difficult to break through into deeper water.
Eventually though, you push yourself past the shallow-reef violence and out into the calm waters offshore.
Now, paddle deep and way outside, where there’s plenty of elbowroom. Find the spot where you look back to shore and you see straight up the Off the Wall beach access. When you look towards the lifeguard stand at Ehukai, their little white hut looks tiny and cartoonish, and you raise your eyebrows at the distance covered on a good ride.
This is big-wave-surfing. If you want to catch the huge ones, a nine foot gun will get you in. But it’s not easy to fit a big board into a bending, bowling cavern, and choosing the perfect equipment isn’t easy.
It’s a big playing field; you look around and start to see in detail who else is out there with you. Maybe forty yards in towards first reef you spot the brothers Christensen chatting quietly. Danilo Couto’s there too. A big set breaks deep, way out towards the Rockpile, and you realize it’s Jensen dropping in, smooth- trying to push around a massive section of whitewater, getting mowed. And then Slater gets zipped out on a jet ski. He jumps off on a tiny board, smiles at the crowd and disappears into the mass of boogies inside. Twiggy shows up with a smile on his face. And later Gavin Beschen takes his place alongside the rest, focused for battle.
When the biggest wave stands up outside, crumbling on third reef, and pulling itself together, growing above the little surfers, all the fears and nervousness of the beach vanish, and the risks involved in connecting a ride through to the first reef don’t matter. All that is important is the majesty of this flexing beast, this huge swell rolling in towards the shore. There’s a few seconds to assess where and how it might break, and to spin towards the beach and put all of your muscle into paddling for it.
And usually, these beautiful beasts pass by un-ridden. And it’s a rollercoaster of emotion as the unbroken wave passes underneath. You paddling with everything you’ve got. The wave feathers a hundred feet inside of you. And you watch with your glory melting into a fleeting sadness, and you have to shrug all that off and turn back to the horizon and begin, again, to wait.
The one you want looks like it’s gonna break right on you, and it looks like you’re too deep, and it bulges and growls, mean and dangerous.
And in the end, your instinct does all the work.
When the board under your feet flutters in the lip, it’s beyond you how you rodeo ride it and stick it back down on the face, get it onto its rail and drive through that first wild section. And it’s a culmination of every wave ridden, every challenging drop ever attempted. And out there, with the big board, when everything goes right, it’s amazing.
Your first one from out second reef has a huge wall, a huge bowling section ahead, and when you get in close to first reef, the section ahead is closing, and you pull off the top, for there’s no chance of finding a line.
And then comes the scramble back to deeper, safer water. And you realize that the heavy surfers sit in there, in the shallows, all the time. The guys who catch a lot of waves, the guys who are really looking to get barreled are sitting right there underneath those second reef rollers.
Out in the deep, minutes can turn into hours if the swell is slow, and the time is spent re-adjusting from the wind and the slight current pushing and pulling you off your mark… if you have a mark.
If you want a wave, and if you have the hours to invest, you can catch a beauty.
Sit there on the board, and wait. Tense. And somewhere in the back of the brain, instinct takes over. You can feel it. The first wave of a set pushes past, and there are three more out the back, and every muscle is ready for what comes next. The second wave stands up outside and the four surfers sixty feet outside of you scrape for it, but they can’t get in, and you’re spinning. Paddling full speed.
With the blinding spray, and the blood pumping into the brain, vision switches from normal intake, to a third party view, kind of like a glimpse from above. Maybe it’s the other half dozen focused riders out there watching, and it’s what they see coming back… a more three dimensional view… time moves different in these situations, and the brain deals with information in a different way. It’s not the modern high tech world. It’s as primal as nature gets. Man acting outside his normal, tame reality. This is man challenging the raw power of the Pacific.
It’s almost impossible to understand what went into making that wave. Two thousand miles away a huge winter storm spun across Alaskan waters. The terrifying open ocean storm you hope never to be stuck in. Hurricane force winds scraped that cold dark, huge sea that eats container ships, and for hundreds of miles the energy that those gales created accelerates to the south east across the ocean, prodded by more stiff ocean breezes, and the swell enters the clear blue water of Hawaii with the momentum of all those silent miles crossed. And, of all the shallow reefs you might meet that incoming energy, you’ve chosen this spot, the Banzai… a catcher’s mitt like no other.
And you’re in, just behind the peak, a tall spot on an already large wave, and it feels good to shoot around that first section and skate in towards first reef. It’s high speed and bizarre. Careful turns to miss the people scrambling to get out of the way. Twenty minutes have gone by since someone rode one through right here, and the danger you present to these other surfers has them almost in a panic. Decide on your line through First Reef, and as you get there… you’re swatted down by whitewater and the ride is over.
That’s when the real fear comes in.
Cart wheeling under this big white water is terrifying. Arms and hands go rigid over the head, elbows out ready to take the impact. Fists clenched behind the skull, chin tucked. This is where people die. This is what sends us to the E.R.
You fly across that shallow reef with your improvised arm helmet and you dread the bottom.
But this time you never touch the reef, and after your wave passes by, you take two more on the head, and luckily, it’s fine. You’re back on your 8’5 pushing past boogie boarders and back out into deeper water. A bit frustrated that the wave ended badly, but relieved that board and body are still both in one piece.
You’re back in your spot. It’s afternoon, but there’s hours left, and you want one more. You want a huge barrel. You want one to connect all the way through.
And your third wave comes. A nice big one, and you’re in the right spot. And you’re up and riding like nothing, and you feel confidence as you power through into the inside. These waves are so good.
And the bottom turn into the first reef feels good, and in the periphery you see people tossing their boards and diving, and then, in an instant your board is gone from under your feet, right where you should be pulling into a mind-boggling barrel. You are not sure if it was white water, or a boil, or what, but, down in the flats, you slap the water hard. Belly. Chest. Face. And that initial contact hits hard like concrete, and your left rib gets smashed and ripped, and under water you’re concerned about the people near. But equally concerned about that lower rib. And your hands aren’t protecting your head this time, but holding the left ribcage, and trying to feel what has happened. And after this wave passes, you’re stuck in the water for a bit, and take another one on the head, and come up growling in pain, holding those left ribs, and frustration and anger and fear are bubbling, and you force yourself onto the old board and paddle over towards the channel, part of your mind trying to convince you that you’re ok, but the pain is substantial.
And you sit there in the channel in two worlds, one amazing, one frightening.
Outside your injured body, you watched two surfers… first a regular footer, he drops in on a mental one, lip throwing above him, and rides it perfectly. The second wave is Mark Healy, airdropping into a huge blue barrel and shooting full momentum past, and holding that speed, paddling back for another, and his eyes are the bloodlust of battle, and he’s screaming like a Viking. Howling like a wolf. Watch him paddle by. Know something of what is coursing through his veins.
But me, in another world, I’m damaged, sitting there in the channel, trying to decide if fluid is filling up my chest cavity, if a lung is punctured… What type of swelling is this? Why is my heart going so chaotic, so fast? Slow it down, look to the beach.
Hank is close on his jet ski, and I tell him I’m injured. He says that he kind of saw me go down, but he didn’t have a good view. I must have fallen deeper then I thought, and he asks me if I need a ride in to the beach, generous of him, cause it’s not an easy thing, and I say, ‘no, I can make it in,’ and I turn and try to catch one that’s too heavy, and pu ll back, and start paddling for the lifeguard stand, and get a small one through the sandbar, stand up straight legged, and ride it calmly to shore, holding my rib.
And I step up onto the sand, and who knows how long I’m out of the water for…weeks… I hope not months. And in my daze I look back at those waves, and I know that I love second reef Pipe. I love her terrifying beauty. I love the gamble of the ride. The danger is worth it. The anxiety is good. Full size Pipeline, her excitement is like no other.