Beautiful but ferocious Hawaiian surf break located on the North Shore of Oahu, regarded since the early 1960s as the sport's premier tube; site of the venerable Pipeline Masters competition. "First it intimidates you," Kelly Slater said. "Then you find the balls to give it a try. Then you figure it out, and grow from the pride that comes with that. Then you get hungry for it."
Pipeline is best on a west or northwest swell, and like with the rest of the North Shore breaks most often from October to March. While "Pipeline" specifically refers to the left-breaking wave, it can also be used to include Backdoor, the right-breaking wave attached to the Pipeline peak that opens up when the swell comes in from the north or northwest; surfers will often take off side by side, one riding Pipeline, the other riding the Backdoor right. Off-the-Wall, a break similar to Backdoor, is located just down the beach to the west.
Pipeline itself is made up of a series of reefs. First Reef, a flat lava plateau broken up by a few narrow crevasses and located less than 75 yards offshore, is the main break; an incoming wave, shaped into a peak by outside reefs, will abruptly hit First Reef and pitch out into the hallmark Pipeline tube, which usually spins and grinds for about seven seconds, tapering down the whole time, before expiring over a sandy area to the east. Most Pipeline waves spit at least once. Sand deposits can affect the shape of the wave at First Reef; the break is temperamental as a rule, and often comes into top form just a half-dozen days a season.
Second Reef Pipeline is located 75 yards out from the regular Pipeline lineup, and comes online when the surf hits 10 or 12 foot. Waves here often do little more than fringe along the crest, which allows the surfer to make an early entry and set the ride up as the swell moves toward First Reef. Third Reef Pipeline, a shifty and foaming big-wave break located another 300 yards offshore, is rarely surfed.
Pipeline has justly earned a reputation as the world's most dangerous surf spot; waves here break with piledriving force over a shallow reef (usually between six and 10 feet deep), and can be difficult to read; the omnipresent photo gallery attracts surfers, and helps create an aggressive mood in the lineup, which in turn leads to bad wave selection, insane risk taking, injuries, and even death. It is estimated that a surfer dies at Pipeline every other year. On a single day in December 1998, there were 30 injuries at Pipeline, including a near fatality.
There are competing claims as to who was the first surfer to ride Pipeline, but the honor usually goes to Phil Edwards of California, who paddled out on a four-foot day at what was then called Banzai Beach in mid-December 1961, then returned the following morning with filmmaker Bruce Brown, when the waves were six to eight foot. Edwards rode a beautiful eight-foot cylinder that showed up on Brown's 1962 surf film Surfing Hollow Days. It was boardmaker Mike Diffenderfer, also of California, who suggested to Brown that he call the break Pipeline, after noticing that the waves looked like the giant concrete pipes being used in a nearby construction project.
By the end of 1962, California surfers Butch Van Artsdalen and John Peck had set the early standard for Pipeline surfing, Van Artsdalen's tuberiding earning him the title of "Mr. Pipeline." In 1963 the break gained recognition even among nonsurfers, as the Chantays' "Pipeline" instrumental went to #4 on the national charts; the following year Pipeline was featured in Columbia Pictures' Ride the Wild Surf. Pipeline was also featured in Bruce Brown's crossover hit The Endless Summer.
Following the shortboard revolution, in the late '60s, tuberiding became the focus of high-performance surfing, and Pipeline thus became the sport's ultimate break. Tom Stone and Jock Sutherland of Hawaii were riding completely behind the curl by 1969; Gerry Lopez, another Hawaiian, not only went deeper the following year, but did so with a pared-down style that became a benchmark for surfing grace and elegance. "You're always right on the edge at Pipeline," Lopez later remarked, admitting that he was never quite as serene as he appeared. "You're always hanging by your fingertips; you never really have it under control. But I guess that's the appeal of the place." (Rory Russell, second-in-command to Lopez at Pipeline in the early and mid-'70s, and given to earthier phrasing, once described the takeoff at Pipeline as "a goddamn heart-stopper.")
Regularfooters, long at a disadvantage to goofyfooters at Pipeline as they ride with their backs to the wave, made a strong push during the Shaun Tomson-led "backside attack" season of 1975–76. The Pipeline Masters contest was by then in its fifth year, and well on its way to becoming the sport's premier showcase; Tomson won the 1975 event easily. By the mid-'90s, regularfooters, led by Kelly Slater of Florida, had all but erased the goofyfooters' advantage at Pipeline.
Pipeline continued the crossover into the mainstream: Sports Illustrated published a 1982 cover story on the break, "Thunder from the Sea," while the Masters was featured each year on ABC's Wide World of Sports. Pipeline also had a starring role in Dana Brown's top-grossing documentary Step Into Liquid (2003).
Aside from those already mentioned, a short list of top Pipeline surfers over the decades, in roughly chronological order, would include Jackie Eberly, Sam Hawk, Jeff Crawford, Jackie Dunn, Michael Ho, Larry Blair, Dane Kealoha, Tom Carroll, Ronnie Burns, Mark Cunningham, Tom Curren, Mike Stewart, Derek Ho, Johnny-Boy Gomes, Sunny Garcia, Liam McNamara, Rob Machado, Andy Irons, Bruce Irons, Tamayo Perry, Kalani Chapman, Jamie O'Brien and John John Florence.
Surfing's most photographed and filmed wave by far, Pipeline has been featured in hundreds of surf movies, videos, DVDs, and webcasts. Its been at or near the top of every "best wave" list ever put together, including a #1 rank on Surfer magazine's 2011 cover article on the world's "100 Best Waves." Pipeline also was at the top of TransWorld Surf magazine's 2008 list of "10 Deadliest Waves."
The Pipeline, a coffee table book on the history of the break, was published by Surfline in 2008.
Aside from the Masters, Pipeline-held competitions include the HIC Pipeline Pro, the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic, the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout, and the Mike Stewart International Pipeline Pro.