Why you should care
Because it takes a special courage to take on these waves.
The waves roil and boil over, before dashing mere feet from the shore. Selfie seekers brave the coming tide, trying to time their snapshot before the water reaches them. One woman in black overalls isn’t so lucky, and the surf pulls at her feet, her arms windmilling before she comes crashing down. A father and son play chicken with the waves, but one time they get too close, and the toddler is tossed five times in the spray, before being rescued by his blushing dad.
Even life on land is fraught with risk at the Banzai Pipeline, considered by some to be the most dangerous wave in the world. Found on the fabled North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, the “Pipe” is famous for its huge waves that shatter against shallow water — just above the gaping and toothy grin of cavernous reef. The conditions create the blooming, hollow waves that provide surfers the perfect tube ride.
If surfers catch the wrong swell, they can just as easily be tossed into the depths and against the Pacific Ocean’s spiny back.
But those conditions are also a recipe for disaster: If surfers catch the wrong swell, they can just as easily be tossed into the depths and against the Pacific Ocean’s spiny back. Famed surfing photographer Jon Mozo was killed here. So too was Malik Joyeux, a professional big-wave surfer from Tahiti. There may be a few rougher spots, but none attract as many surfers each year, which is why it has a reputation for the highest injury toll — and body count — in the world.
On a recent Sunday in December, hundreds gathered in the sand at Banzai, watching and waiting. It was the second day of the Billabong Pipe Masters — the final leg of the Triple Crown of Surfing. The fans came here to witness professional surfers skillfully, artfully flirt with death. “All of them are brilliant to watch. Just the level they are at is insane,” said Tom Rodgers, a surfer from Cornwall, U.K., who wouldn’t risk it himself. “I thought about it. But the reef where it is at, the steepness, is insane.”
His assessment was spot-on that day: Events were canceled around 8 a.m. The forecast 8-to-12-foot waves, already massive, were bigger than expected, and slamming the shore in dangerous spots. Decades ago, a 12-year-old Kelly Slater, the most accomplished surfer of all time, got “barreled” here, and didn’t surf it again for another “two or three years,” as he once told Surfer Magazine. In that same piece, even John John Florence, who repeated last year as the world champion of surfing and finished second at the Billabong, recounted his experiences painfully: “I got pulled down the face of the wave at Pipeline and got super worked.”
Still, whether one takes a chance on the waves or not, the Banzai Pipeline remains a rite of passage. “It’s been on my bucket list,” says Michael Breckell, a surfer from New Zealand who finally made it to the event. “It’s quite unique in how close the wave breaks to the shore. You’re a part of it. The size, and the history.”
Tyler Bashlor brought his son, Blake, from California for his 18th birthday. “It’s real family-like for the people who grew up here,” the 38-year-old former Maui surfer says. But does he plan to hit the Pipeline himself at some point? Maybe a small wave, he says, but then grins: “Going out there on some of the bigger waves? Maybe when I was younger.”
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