VIA – ABC AUSTRALIA
‘Mr Pipeline’ Gerry Lopez is no one-trick pony
Updated February 06, 2012 11:02:17
The year was 1973. The place, California at the surfing world titles.
A young man with a Beatle haircut and droopy moustache makes his way up the beach having come last in his contest heat.
He turns to his girlfriend to ask what went wrong. She tells him: “You didn’t win because you didn’t do anything.”
He shrugs his shoulders and says: “That’s my style… I let the wave do everything.”
The young man’s name was Gerry Lopez, and although his response may not have made much sense then, 40 years on it says everything you need to know about one of the most graceful and courageous surfers the world will ever see.
For much of the 1970s Lopez rode the Banzai Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii like nobody else before or since.
For much of that time it was virtually impossible to open a surfing magazine and not see a photo of Lopez slotted inside a wave that most surfers at the time considered to be the most dangerous in the world.
It’s fair to say he didn’t just surf the break – sometimes it seemed he had some mystical connection, and perhaps it was precisely his ability to let the wave do the work that made him so successful there.
The question is, though, how could he be so relaxed in the face of such a testing wave?
Talking with him just a few days ago he had this to say: “I see myself as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. That’s how I feel about my time at Pipeline. Many people have been killed at that place… I thought I was going to die but I didn’t.”
Right now Lopez is in Australia to launch his autobiography Surf Is Where You Find It.
It’s a fascinating book, not least because it makes it clear that for all his Pipeline-associated fame Lopez is no one-trick pony.
Born in Hawaii in 1948 with a combination of Japanese, German and Spanish blood in his veins, Lopez is someone who has always been prepared to try something new and leave the past behind.
I see myself as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. That’s how I feel about my time at Pipeline.Gerry Lopez
That’s why the ‘King of Pipeline’ almost gave up surfing in the 1980s to perfect windsurfing. Later he would embrace snow boarding, tow-in surfing and stand-up paddle board riding, as well as star in a handful of feature films.
These days he lives in Oregon with his wife and son so he can indulge his love for riding snow-covered hillsides.
But he still surfs and, as he readily admits, he cannot give it up.
“Surfing is like an onion. You get in there for fun, exercise and to be with your mates. As time goes, you see there’s something deeper, a real sense of spirituality, a calming endeavour.”
There’s a slight pause at this point in the conversation and Lopez chuckles slightly before adding: “You know, I sometimes think the first 20 years [of surfing] were just a test to see if I was really suited to it. Then you realise you are learning lessons in the water that are applicable to the beach, rather than just the water.”
The lessons he learned in the water are the basis of the book he has written, and many of the stories he tells are not so much about him, but the people who’ve taught him valuable life lessons.
One of many who very clearly left an impression on Lopez was Buffalo Keaulana.
Known as the ‘Mayor of Makaha’ on Oahu’s west coast, Keaulana incorporates the very essence of Hawaii.
In his book, Lopez tells how, during a major surf contest, he paddled into a massive set at Makaha. As he made the drop he realised the wave would close out, putting him in serious danger.
Lopez was halfway down the wave, preparing himself for a terrible beating or death, when he suddenly heard the noise of an outboard motor.
Looking to his left he saw something he still finds hard to believe. There on the same wave, in an 18-foot Boston Whaler open boat, was Keaulana standing, tiller in hand, sunglasses on, cigarette in his mouth, driving down the same wave completely unperturbed by the situation.
In the bottom of the boat were two Time-Life photographers, terrified beyond belief.
As the boat went past, Keaulana simply threw Lopez a salute.
Suddenly things seemed different.
“I had to laugh. Laughing relieved the tension in me, and that image of Buffalo probably saved my life. Because when that wave broke on me, the pounding I got was horrendous. I got ripped. I got tumbled for what seemed a lifetime before finally coming to the surface.”
That lesson delivered by Keaulana, and other great surfers like Buzzy Trent, has informed much of Lopez’s life.
In his autobiography, he explains how Trent once admonished him when he saw Lopez drinking beer before heading back out into big surf.
The most fearless of all big wave riders looked hard at him, then delivered this warning: “When it comes to the ocean, she’s always boss, she takes no prisoners.” Lopez didn’t argue.
Perhaps this partly explains why Lopez was able to survive at Pipeline for so long.
Talking to him, I find myself coming back the same question – how did you make it look so easy? How did you do it?
His answer: “I enjoyed it. It wasn’t as difficult as it appeared.”
He pauses again. “Really, it wasn’t. I had really good surfboards. I didn’t have too many bad wipeouts.”
But that of course doesn’t explain his mastery of the wave.
Surfing is like an onion. You get in there for fun, exercise and to be with your mates. As time goes, you see there’s something deeper, a real sense of spirituality, a calming endeavour.Gerry Lopez
So, like a young kid not quite satisfied with the last wave that’s been caught, I push off into deep water and ask him again – really though, how did you do it?
This time his voice grows very quiet and he begins speaking like he’s telling me a secret.
“There is a special relationship with the place. There was something spiritual… that made me feel very comfortable there. On occasions now, I stand on the beach and the same feelings rise up.”
Now I begin to understand, but it also raises another question. What does he think about the situation at his former home away from home, Pipeline, where hundreds of surfers crowd the break only too willing to snake each other for waves, and even to physically assault each other?
His response shows all the perspective his 63 years can deliver.
“Everything changes as you go on, you look at things differently as you go. I had a wonderful time on the north shore. I was at Pipeline and I have memories of it almost by myself. Pipeline is a tight playing field, the take-off zone no bigger than a small house… these days it can get pretty congested, but the wave never changes. The people change, and the same wave I adored is still there, and if you don’t mind going shoulder to shoulder with other surfers, it’s still a joy.”
‘You gotta keep moving, baby’
t’s easy to imagine the crowds were they key factor in Lopez moving on, but he insists there was something else at play. The desire to experience something new.
That desire led him to Bali in the early ’70s, then on to Java where he pioneered a surfing break called Grajagan or G-Land on the island’s south-eastern coast.
That same desire led him to snowboarding, which led him to Oregon, on the US mainland. It’s perfectly sandwiched between the mountains and the ocean.
All the time, though, Lopez comes back to surfing. Why?
“I guess it leaves me with a peaceful centre.”
And so finally I have to ask – what’s the difference between surfing and snowboarding?…
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