The Banzai Pipeline, or simply Pipeline, is a surf reef break in Hawaii, on Oahu’s North Shore. At Pipeline, open-ocean swells meet a patch of lava rock just offshore that slows the base of the waves, creating a wall of water with a hollow curl that’s great for tube riding: surfers can ride inside the barrel or curve of these breaking waves.
During the winter, swells from storms off the Alaskan coast travel across the Pacific toward Hawaii. With no continental shelf around the Hawaiian islands, ocean swells are unimpeded as they approach the shore. At Pipeline, these waves meet a flat tabletop coral reef about 500 yards from land – and this reef, with its caverns and underwater lava spires, is what creates those barreling, powerful waves that surfers can’t resist.
It’s also what makes Pipeline one of the most dangerous reef breaks in the world. A number of surfers have died at Pipeline, and numerous others have suffered injuries – sometimes catastrophic injuries. Laird Hamilton, once described as the world’s preeminent big-wave surfer, calls Pipeline a “bone crusher.” He explains:
I saw guys carried out of Pipeline daily. I saw one guy who had the top of his scalp torn off like a boiled egg after it’s been cut with a knife. I’ve seen guys with broken arms, broken backs, and even broken necks. I once went over [the falls] and landed on my board and split my head open like it was tomahawked.
No matter. Another surfer, Phil Edwards, in talking about his days surfing the Pipeline, describes it this way:
The Pipeline is a geographic anomaly. It’s a spectacle of nature. That reef is radical. Those waves haven’t seen a thing shallower than a mile deep for 2,000 miles, and they come blasting into that coral wall and the top of the ocean just flops off. The result is a beautiful, beautiful wave. If God designed a wave for surfers, he couldn’t do any better than the Pipeline.
And so the surfers come. Every year. Things began to change after Edwards quit surfing Pipeline, though. By one account:
In the late 70s Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans arrived and went crazy at the Pipeline, surfing with an aggressiveness some regulars resented. And with the trepidation barrier broken, the Pipeline was being surfed in droves. Because there isn’t room for two surfers on any one pipe, competition for the waves was intense and often unfriendly. Intimidation, both psychological and physical, became a part of surfing the Pipeline.
As a New York Times article put it:
In 1975, a brash group of surfers from South Africa and Australia swept the North Shore contests and monopolized news media coverage. The Australians even boasted of their superiority to their Hawaiian counterparts.
Some Hawaiians, feeling disrespected at home in a sport their ancestors invented, threatened and thrashed the outsiders when they returned the next winter.
Local surfers banded together to enforce a code of respect. In 1976 there were the Da Hui, or the Black Shorts (for their uniform surf trunks). And then there is the Wolfpak, also known as “the boys.”
Wolfpak is said to use fear and their fists to command respect on Oahu’s North Shore. They determine which waves go to whom and punish outsiders who cross the line with locals. Zev Borow explains.
During winter months, when the waves are biggest, Pipeline is likely the most crowded break in the world, and the most dangerous. In ideal conditions, the waves roll off a shallow coral reef to form perfect barrels. And because these barrels break close to shore, they somehow seem less intimidating, enticing many surfers who aren’t prepared for reality.
As a result, on a good day, as many as 80 surfers will paddle into a lineup that can be safely surfed by maybe 20. The combination of huge waves, shallow reef and an aggressive and jammed lineup creates a surfing environment that can be treacherous.
Kala Alexander, leader of Wolfpak, says that’s where they step in.
We make sure there’s order, that people aren’t taking off on top of each other. On a wave like Pipe, something stupid isn’t just not having surfing etiquette. It’s attempted murder. Getting dropped in on at Pipe is like pointing a gun at your head. And you know, if you point a gun at one of us, well, there are gonna be consequences.
I wouldn’t say much. Maybe I’d paddle up to you, tell you to go in, or take off your leash [a cord used to keep the board from being washed away from the surfer]. But later I’d find you, or a few of the other guys would, and you’d be taught a lesson.
Localism – surfers making sure their home break’s waves go to them, as Borow puts it – exists on some level on all beaches. Good surf spots are rare and a good surf break will become a coveted commodity. Regular surfers who live near the surf break will take over, proclaiming “locals only.” Verbal and occasional physical threats are used to deter outsiders from surfing at certain spots. Some of the tactics used:
- posting warning signs for outsiders or blocking access to the beach
- insults and shouting, bullying tactics to intimidate surfers they don’t recognize
- aggressive behavior toward non-locals, including disrupting surfing maneuvers
- vandalism, such as damaging surfboards and vehicles
- in extreme cases, physical attack, including a few that have resulted in death
Some veteran surfers downplay the aggression and violence that sometimes get picked up by media outlets. Doug Ancey, who’s been surfing for about twelve years now, objects to the term “surf gangs” to describe groups of locals, saying there is no comparison between these “cliques” and criminal gangs. He says that at issue is the notion of respect.
The thing that we are really looking for on the water is respect. There is etiquette to surfing that few people outside of the surfing crowd understand. The aggression on the water comes out when someone exhibits a lack of respect to the other surfers around them…As far as the etiquette between surfers goes, I’ll try not to drown you in surfing terminology, but it’s about waiting your turn in the lineup and respecting other surfers’ waves. In all actuality, we are all out there for the same experience and the same passion.
He goes on to talk about how surfers get stereotyped negatively.
Usually the more you say about surfing to someone who doesn’t surf, the worse off you are. Surfing is something that is very personal and deep, and it’s hard for an outsider to fully grasp that concept. That is why surfers can talk about surfing for hours, especially with other surfers.
And once you become immersed in surfing culture, he says, you’re in for good.