“This place, mate, it’s like killing your first lion, it’s the ultimate test of manhood, there’s nowhere else like it…” Three-time world surfing champion Tom Carroll looks out to sea, spots a massive wave breaking on the second reef at Banzai Pipeline and smiles.
“Do I still get scared here?” he repeats my question. “Mate, this place is where I’ve been the most scared in my life. I’ve lost count of the number of times I thought I was dead here.”
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North Shore Hawaii
This place, where we sit and watch 15 feet high waves break onto a shallow razor-sharp reef is, of course, Banzai Pipeline.
This is surfing’s Colosseum.
Set on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, massive swells that generate in the North-Pacific Ocean between October and March break on coral shelves just three feet under the sea to produce the deadliest surf on earth.
This is where surfers paddle out boys and come back men.
That is, if they come back.
The reef at Pipeline is coated with the blood of those who dared venture in.
Banzai Pipeline has claimed over 10 lives in the past 10 years, not even photographers, it would seem, are safe.
Mid last decade, photographer Jon Mozo was killed when he hit the reef head-first.
“They’re risking their lives, they don’t understand the power of it,” world-renowned surf photographer Bosko says.
“Feel it mate, feel that, the ground shakes, mate, the windows in your house rattle.
They reckon if they harnessed the power from one of these waves out here it could light up all of Hawaii for a day.”
Jack Johnson, the music world’s surfing messiah, knows how close the grim reaper lurks out here.
He’s crouching beside me as four of the world’s top 44 surfers take to the water. It’s hot as hell, but his body sends off an involuntary shiver.
“We used to surf here every day so we thought we were invincible,” he says.
“We should’ve had more respect. I got a wave and I went straight onto dry reef and hit my head.
There was this big bang, I lost consciousness and the next wave broke on my head. I thought I was gone, dead, they put 150 stitches in me.”
“These,” he says, gripping his teeth. “They’re capped, Pipeline cost me my front teeth.”
But perhaps the most macabre thing about Pipeline is not that people actually surf it, but that for two weeks each year Pipeline becomes the surfing world’s biggest fashion statement.
Never mind that two weeks earlier a bodyboarder had his brains rammed out through his ears, for two weeks in December Banzai Pipeline is THE place to be seen.
Banzai Pipeline Final
So far already I’ve seen Owen Wilson, Samuel L Jackson was here yesterday, as was Mini Driver and Ben Stiller.
Hundreds of photographers line the beach, some focus on the action in the water, others prefer what goes on out of the water.
In 2003 Andy Irons and Kelly Slater fought out the greatest world title race surfing has ever seen.
With nothing separating the pair after eight months of contests, it all came down to the Pipeline final. Irons beat the best surfer of all time with a wave that will go down in the annals of history.
Kelly Slater went on to become the champion of champions, winning the championship 11 times.
In 2017, Hawaiian surfer John John Florence won his second world title after Gabriel Medina was eliminated from the final despite eliminating 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.
“It doesn’t get more intense than surfing here,” Slater says. The competition is tough. One year Slater lost the world title to Australian Mick Fanning on the last day of Pipeline.
The action here is intense, but what makes it so unparalleled is how close you get to it all. “They’re so close you can feel how quick their hearts are beating,” Bosko says.
“There’s no better surfing contest on earth,” Carroll tells me.
“They’re exposing themselves to death. How many sporting contests do you have where that happens not just once, but every year?”
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