Nouvelle Vague | Tackling Pipeline
[The Full-length Version]
There is a moment, before any big decision, when the enormity of whatever it is that you are about to do hits you. It is in this moment of weakness, when the thing that crushes dreams rears its ugly head. It is in this moment that the fear sets in.
I was standing at the rear of my car, trunk wide open, suitcase laid bare, fiddling with one of the screws on my camera's water housing when the fear hit me.
I had arrived on the north shore of Hawaii three weeks ago, in search of a legendary wave, the most famous one on the planet - Pipeline. It is a wave so perfect that it occupies the day dreams of surfers everywhere on the planet. Pipeline sits, hidden in plain sight - in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is nestled a mere 50 feet off of the North Shore of the most populated of the Hawaiian Islands. Its exotic, crystal clear turquoise water and unbelievably massive barrels are like a siren call to surfers the world over.
It isn't the most perfect wave in the world, it isn't even the best wave on the North Shore for that matter - not by a long shot. It's not the longest, or the easiest, or the safest, or the most consistent wave - but the lack of these qualities all add to the allure. Part of the draw of Pipeline is its difficulty; its danger . It is one of the most difficult waves to surf on the North Shore- nay, the planet. Waves the size of a three story building break in about 10 feet of water over solid rock. Not to mention the insane crowd. But if you can pull into a proper Pipe barrel here - a proper, gargantuan, ferocious, mid-winter, twenty foot monster - and get spit out - it can easily be the greatest, most exhilarating wave you or any future persons bearing your name will ever catch in their entire lives.
It was in search of a wave like this that I traveled half the world over.
But the goal wasn't to catch one of these waves for myself, but rather, as a surf photographer, to capture a shot of the world's greatest surfers catching one of the greatest waves of their lives'. And after three weeks of sitting on it, waiting for a swell to come, training, watching and learning the setup of the wave and swimming out there on smaller days, it was now or never.
My heart was pounding as I wrenched the last screws into place on my water housing. I was in the minority. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining majestically, lighting up the evening in an array of different hues. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky. The wind was light offshore, the weather was warm. Everyone else was posted up with beer and popcorn on the beach just enjoying the show. I was in the 1% of people who was sweating profusely, cursing that the conditions were perfect to go shooting.
I was nervous because this wasn't the first time I had attempted to swim out at Pipe.
Let me back up for a second. Every time there's a massive swell at pipe, there's about 50 dudes posted up with tripods on the beach snapping away with 20 shots a second capturing every moment of the action. Every fat, overweight, wannabe surf photographer and their dog is out there with their 5 thousand dollar space telescope of a lens trying to capture the action up close. But nothing can ever compare to a water shot. The true test of a surf photographers' ability is the water shot. Deep down the fat guys know this. The only angle that can truly capture what it feels like to surf, is the water angle. It's the angle that you get as you're paddling back into the lineup after the wave of your life. It's the first view you get after sitting on the beach for twenty minutes deciding whether it's good enough to surf and the set comes in and all of your hopes and dreams are confirmed as the first wave starts peeling with not a drop of water out of place. It's the only angle that pops into your head and sears a mental picture into your brain when you think back and relive the memories of the greatest days of your surfing life. For a surf photographer, the water angle is the purest form of surf photography. Getting a picture of a proper wave at Pipe is one of the greatest achievements in a surf photographer’s life.
In any case, the reason that there are only 10 guys shooting from the water when there are 100 on the beach when Pipe is on is because it's almost as dangerous as actually surfing the wave. In some cases it is arguably more dangerous. I had personally found this out for myself in the three previous weeks.
When I first touched down in Oahu (literally the first day I had ever touched down in Hawaii in my entire life) in the beginning of January, I landed, took a shuttle straight to the car rental agency, and booked it straight to the north shore. I had been confined to the indoors the two months prior (I had spent the winter in New York City. It was snowing when I left) and I was FROTHING. It was only about head high, but that that evening I was in the water. About an hour and a half of surfing powerful, long period groundswell, coupled with my previous two months of relative inactivity, left me bruised and exhausted - but ecstatic.
That evening I barely managed to goad my battered body to put off sleep long enough to hunt down a fish burrito. That next morning I woke up and drove straight to Pipeline. I knew that the swell was supposed to pick up that next day but when I finally walked past the car park and got my first glimpse of Pipe through the bushes my jaw hit the floor. It was easily 20 foot plus. It was XL to XXL. The largest waves I had ever seen in my entire life were slamming against the shore one after the other after the other and save for a small group of excited tourists in front of the wave, people were going about their business as if it was an everyday occurrence. The crazy thing was that I would soon come to learn that it basically was.
The three weeks that I was there, it reached XL to XXL four times. Like clockwork, every week it once again got massive. If you plotted the wave size that January on a graph it would be a perfectly repeating bell curve. By the end of my three weeks I began to accept this insanity for what it was but as I stood there, dumbfounded that first day, all I could do was stare. Literally, the only pictures I have from
that day are a few that I took on my phone because I was too shocked to go back to my car and grab my camera. I just remember standing there with my jaw swinging limply that first day, watching people get massive drainers one after the other after the other like I was witnessing some sort of wave machine conveyor belt.
Before that day I had assumed getting water shots at Pipe would be as simple as just swimming out there- there is a channel after all. But as I stood there, watching wave after wave the size of a building unload a mere 50 feet offshore, I knew that it wasn't going to be so easy. It was going to take a while.
I pretty much spent that first week surfing. For the most part, the swell was too big for me to swim in my current, weakened state, and I didn't trust myself to be out there in unfamiliar waters with anything other than a massive flotation device strapped to my ankle (a.k.a a surfboard). Besides, I was frothing to surf after being cooped up indoors for two months and there were plenty of "smaller" (3-6 ft Hawaiian) waves in the area to attend to. I thought it would take me a while to get back into peak physical condition, but surprisingly, by day 5 my body was basically back to normal. Even though I hadn't surfed at all in the two previous months, I had still tried to exercise as much as I could, and the only really sore muscles in my body were the ones unique to surfing.
By the end of the week, the swell dropped and I actually managed to swim out for a small session at Pipeline. The photos I got that day were the best I had ever taken up to that point in my surf photog career and are still some of the best photos I have taken to date. That was a huge victory for me and a major confidence booster. I could have left the island at that point and I would have been happy. But alas, I still had two weeks left, and for better or for worse the fire within me continued to burn.
The window was short lived though and within a couple of days it got too big again. A few days later though, as the swell started to drop, another window opened up. It was definitely bigger this second time that I paddled out, and to my surprise I made it out into the channel again. Unfortunately though, weather conditions weren't as good as the first time - the wind was onshore and the swell direction wasn't ideal - and while I did get some interesting photos I didn't really get any keepers.
Things slowed down for a bit after that. My dad ended up coming to visit as well, and I was lucky enough to spend a few awesome days just hanging out and enjoying life with my dad. Steaks were grilled, naps were had, and many a day was spent drinking coffee and talking about life. The next round of swell that we got I ended up surfing since it wasn't big enough to make me swap my board for my camera - and I ended up catching some of the best waves of my trip during that time. Life was good.
And then, right on schedule, at the end of the second week, the next big swell came. The charts looked good, the direction was correct, and when the swell materialized it ended up not only matching the size of the first big swell that I saw on the north shore, but it was more consistent and the wind was better. I rolled up to a packed lot at Ehukai that morning and it only took a quick glance at the wave to realize
that it was ON. There were about twenty Hubble space telescope wielding goons just around the first lifeguard tower already snapping away. I swear I thought I saw John John get spit out of a massive drainer just on the inside section to the right of the pipe channel. Even Third reef was feathering!
I snapped a few shots with my long lens and then ran to my car and got the housing. The time was now.
But, something changed within me as I was preparing the housing and by the time I returned to the beach, the reality that I was going to be swimming out at twenty foot Pipe with nothing but a helmet and a set of fins hit and my enthusiasm started to dwindle.
Rather than make a run for the channel, I decided that the smartest move would be to sit and watch it for a bit. It was so big that the current was ripping like a five star white water rapid and there was actually a North Shore lifeguard ski bobbing out in the channel next to the scant dozen of surf photogs in the water. Further down Ehukai Beach Park, nobody was surfing. It was too big, too gnarly. The only surf able spot in the area was pipe.
But, as anyone who’s seen someone hesitate at a cliff jump can tell you, the longer you wait the less likely you are to jump. If you don't shut the thoughts off in your head and jump within the first five minutes you're probably not gonna do it. With water housing in hand, and leash strapped to my wrist, I picked a comfy spot in the shade in front of the Volcom house and sat down in the sand- and before I knew it, twenty minutes, thirty minutes, forty minutes went by.
The ocean was so violent that morning that a rogue wave crashing on shore wiped out a few bystanders who were standing too close to the sea and almost dragged a poor infant to an early grave. The local lifeguard on the loudspeaker immediately started chastising the bystanders and irresponsible parents over the loudspeaker with " i told you so's" for letting their keikis play too close to shore.
After about an hour of sitting on the beach I saw one of the water photogs get out of the water. He noticed I had a camera and, ignoring the rest of the crowd, he came up to me and exclaimed, “man, it took me multiple tries to make it out there! The first few times I got washed all the way to Pupukea! It's fucked out there! Be careful out there bro!"
And with that he stormed off and into the Volcom house. Later on, i realized that that had been Laserwolf, one of the greatest surf photogs on the planet, and a regular contributor to Surfer magazine. THE Surfer magazine. This guy was a living legend. Needless to say this did nothing to allay my fears.
Finally, after another thirty minutes of deliberation, I gathered myself, put on my fins and walked over to the entry spot. The current was ripping so hard that I walked about a hundred feet south of the channel in order to make my entry. My hope was that after a mad dash, by the time I got swept to the spot where the channel was, I'd be close to making it past the impact zone.
With a deep breath I waded in.
The current was so violent that within seconds I had already gotten swept off my feet and I could feel myself getting dragged up the beach. The only direction I could paddle was out. Even on the inside massive waves were breaking on my head. With my thirty pound camera in one arm, I desperately tried swimming with the other. Every second I could feel myself getting dragged about 10- 15 feet up the beach. By the time I got to the channel I was nowhere near making it to the outside. I kept swimming but before I knew it I was already at Pupukea. The problem with this was that from Pipe to Pupukea the waves were relatively small. But at Pupukea, the waves started breaking again, and almost as soon as I reached Pupukea the first set of waves came in. I took about three 8-10 footers on the head - and it wasn't even a real set. Every wave was 8-10 feet. And if it was breaking 20ft+ at Pipe, sooner or later it would be breaking 20ft+ where I was. It was at this point that I knew that I had missed the entry point. I immediately turned around and started paddling for shore. It was a tense, desperate minute or so but luckily, soon enough, my feet touched sand. When I got out I was almost at Rocky Point. I had been in the water a total of maybe three minutes and I had gotten swept about 3/4 of a mile down the beach. It truly was fucked.
It was at that point that I decided to just cut my losses. Deep down I knew that if I really dug down and pushed myself fully to 120%, that maybe I had a 30% chance of making it out into the lineup after another 3 or 4 attempts. But, I also knew that in my current beleaguered state I didn't have the mental fortitude nor desire to push myself to 120%. And if I didn't push to the full 120, I ran a serious risk of drowning. A few months prior, I had put myself in a similar situation down in Mex and the session ended up with me taking multiple 8-10 foot bombs on the head, getting both of my fins ripped off of my feet instantly, and getting dragged underwater in the impact zone with the realization that I could very well drown there. So, defeated, but safe, I made the walk back to the showers; off to fight another day.
It was because of this latest attempt of swimming out at Pipe that I now hesitated in the car park.
It was now the end of week three. Like clockwork, the swell had died at the end of week two, and a new run of swell had started to fill in mid-week. The full brunt of this latest, final run of swell was now due to start pumping that afternoon as I stood there fiddling with my water housing. I had a flight to catch in a couple of days. This was my last chance.
There was one thing that I did have on my side this time though. The swell was due to fill in that evening - as in - within the next hour or two. The key here, is that it had not yet fully filled in. That meant that if I acted quickly I could make the swim out into the channel with relatively little difficulty and avoid the deadly current of the previous attempt. Once you're in the channel you're basically golden. Waves don’t break on your head in the channel, so you can basically bob there and snap away. You have the perfect angle straight into the barrel from that vantage point. If I made it out into the channel quickly, and just waited, the swell would theoretically grow to massive size within the hour if Surfline was right. On the North Shore, it is fairly common to paddle out when it's head high, and have it hitting triple overhead by the time you paddle back to shore (with your heart in your throat no doubt).
With a deep breath, I snapped the latches on my housing together, and made my way over to the beach. As I got closer to the sea I felt a light breeze, the wind was blowing just slightly off-shore. Perfect. With a smile and a nod to my friend, I entered the water. I plunged my head into the refreshing, almost chilly water, and a burst of adrenaline washed over me as I started paddling out to sea towards the channel. A set came through and I dove underneath the wave to escape its wrath, and it washed harmlessly over me. It was a relatively smaller set. It was manageable.
With a last burst of effort, I pushed through to the outside, the zone where only the largest waves broke – safety. The channel was within sight. The current was indeed lighter this time, and a couple minutes more of paddling against it, I was in the lineup. I dove under one last time, and snapped the camera into photo mode as I came up. The rear LCD screen sprang to life and lit up just as a set started looming on the horizon.
It was as if the whole sea sprang to life. The pack of over 50 surfers started paddling in unison out to sea. Surf photographers bobbed up and down in unison, some diving to pass safely under the wave before it, while others scrambled sideways to get out of the way. And as I was picked up and raised by the wave before, I finally saw the first proper Pipe set reach the pack of frothing surfers.
The wave was massive, not only vertically, but lengthwise as well. The wave was as wide as a football field, maybe even wider. As it neared, the wave began to wrap and fold, taking the shape of the reef below. In long, tense, soundless seconds, the wave began sucking up, and a depression – a bowl started forming as the water grew and grew, seemingly becoming picked up by some unknown, unbelievable force. And then, with a sound comparable to that of a thunderbolt, the wave unloaded. In the channel, as the wave passed, I was lifted about 10 feet above sea level as I surged in unison with the ocean itself – I actually felt the sensation of weightlessness in my stomach. As the wave passed, the wind gusted, almost blinding me, and after a second of silence, water blown off the tail of the wave began to fall like rain all around me and the air was filled with the sound of rushing water.
Just as I cleared my vision I turned and saw the second set approaching, bigger than the first, and I started swimming further to the outside. Just as it was about to start breaking, I stopped swimming, turned, lifted the camera to my face, took aim, and started snapping, as a dot with the outline of a man
started freefalling down the face of the wave. He flew down the face, his surfboard frictionless against the smooth water, grabbed his rail hard, pulled hard at the bottom, tucked his body in tight, and was engulfed inside a beautiful turquoise barrel as I belted a “YYYYEEEEEWWWWWW” at the top of my lungs. The sun was low on the horizon, and beams of light blasted through the back of the wave, seemingly lighting up the wave from within.
Sure enough, slowly but surely, the waves began to grow in size as the swell started to fill in. Waves of different colors; some glowing blue and green, others orange and yellow; began to break along the whole stretch from Pipeline to Off the Wall and beyond. Colors shifted with the movement of the sun. Dozens of surfers paddled, jockeying each other in and out of position, desperate to catch just a single wave amongst the madness. In addition to the dozens of surfers, there was a score of photographers swimming amongst them. Random arms and legs baring flippers stuck out of the water as each wave passed. As if playing chicken, the most daring held on until the last possible second in the hopes of getting the ultimate shot before diving under the wave to safety. It was a natural, aquatic coliseum, and everyone in the water that day was part of the show.
Just as the sun touched the edge of the horizon the shadow of a wave, substantially larger than the rest that had come through that day, loomed large in the distance. Even though the wave was so large, and so distant, there was so much water moving that all but a few surfers had an unobstructed view of it. But, soon, within seconds, without even a sound or the utterance of any command, every surfer began to paddle out to sea. Similar to the uproar of panic and movement that washes over a group of seals as the instinct of flight washes over them at the sighting of a great white shark, so too did the desire to swim to the outside of the oncoming wave wash over the mass of humanity in the water at Pipeline that evening. I heard someone scream, “this is what we’ve all been waiting for!”
The wave had caught me by surprise, hell it had caught all of the photographers by surprise and everyone paddled frantically to get out of the impact zone. The wave grew to a ridiculous size, and just as it was about to break, I saw a lone figure turn and start to paddle for it. I was still at the edge of the impact zone, but it was the wave of the day, I couldn’t afford to miss the shot. I pulled my camera out of the water, aimed, and started firing just as he was about to make the drop. He made the drop, made the bottom turn, pulled in, and then just stood straight up as an 8 foot wave engulfed him. I dove under just as the wave washed over me. It was massive. It was insane.
With that, my low battery meter started flashing, and as the sun had set, I decided to head back to
The rest of the next two days were a blur. I didn’t have time to go over the shots since I had to pack (I had a flight to Australia in two days’ time), but a few days later, on the plane ride to Sydney, I let out a whistle as I started to edit and review the files. There were definitely some winners.
To this day, I have not returned to the Hawaiian Islands. I am more than satisfied with the shots I managed to get during my time there, and it is truly a blessing I even managed to get anything at all. The waves I swam out in that day were the largest I felt comfortable swimming in up to that point in time. Since then, I’ve put myself in heavier situations, in larger waves, and gotten even more insane shots, but none of that would have been possible had I not managed to put in the time at Pipeline. The fear is still there, but my experiences at Pipe have done a lot to help me allay those fears. The memories of those waves I witnessed are still seared into the frontal lobe of my brain. Ever since then, my concept of what constitutes a large wave has basically shifted. The amount of people that even have the balls to paddle out at Pipe is relatively small. No matter where I am in the world – and I’ve been on islands in the middle of nowhere- whenever I start speaking of my experiences at Pipe, every head in the room turns to listen.
Still, even after three weeks, I barely managed to scratch the surface of Pipeline. Water shots of waves easily double the size of what I captured that final day at Pipeline continue to grace the covers of Surf mags the world over. There is still a lot of room left for me to improve. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to get a photo of Pipe at a larger size.
Things have started to settle in for me as a surf photographer. It’s not all about size, but rather perfection. Now that I’ve confirmed that I can swim out in massive waves, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to in the future. However… a true surfer can only ignore the allure of a perfect wave for so long.
There may come a day, when I might have to spend a whole season there, waiting for weeks upon week for just one hour of perfection. I might have to pick up my whole life and move to Hawaii, because truly, that’s what it takes. That time is not now, as I still have many undiscovered waves to see, remote islands to explore…. but when the time comes, I wonder if I will answer the call. I guess it’s something to look forward to one day. Such is the life of a surf photographer.