Oahu’s North Shore is surfing’s ultimate arena. The waves that roll across the northern Pacific Ocean and detonate on the island’s reefs are some of the most powerful in the world. During the Northern Hemisphere winter, the North Shore becomes a place that seperates the boys from the men and the girls from the women. And on the so called ‘seven mile miracle’ the stretches from Waimea to Sunset, no specific surf spot is a better proving ground than Pipeline.
Pipeline is an ominous, exceptionally difficult left-hand wave that jacks up and explodes onto the porous rock reef often resulting in a deep barrel. Opposite Pipeline, an equally treacherous right hander called Backdoor cracks down the reef and throws an aqua blue barrel over lucky surfers’ heads before piunding them into the shore.
Both these waves are world-class, critical and the domain of expert surfers from around the world. All my life, I’d watched from the safe zone behind a magazine or my computer screen. I knew the collective surf lore about the place and the warnings posted on every beach on the North Shore. Dangerous shorebreak and conditions: experts only. So how did I – a middle aged mom-grom – end up in the lineup on an overcast morning this March?
I arrived on the North Shore as the sun set the night before to find a small but fun-looking swell in the water. As soon as I woke up, I downed my Bulletproof coffee and picked up my friend Pua to check the surf. We looked at Velzyland and Sunset. Both seemed too far. Pua was training for upcoming contest at Pipeline and suggested we look at Backdoor.
As we were checking Pipeline and Backdoor, a dark grey cloud lingered above head. Soon we were pelted with cold rain drops as a less-than-tropical squall surrounded us. Out in the water, groms grabbed quick lefts and rights in 3-5 foot peaks that did not look particularly gnarly or big. Pua persisted and piqued my curiosity, “let’s just go out and see how it is.”
I couldn’t back out. Here we go, I’m surfing Pipeline for my first session on the North Shore.
Back at the car, I’m happy I have a wetsuit as the rain continues to fall. I nervously zip it up, snap my largest fins into place and tether my thickest leash to my shortboard. I’m shivering and I’m not sure if it’s because of fear or the temperature.
On the beach, I can easily identify where to paddle out and how to pass through the heaving waves at the shore’s edge. I spent my youth negotiating safe entry and exit in the shore break at high tide at my home break, Windansea, so I just wait for a pause in the waves and paddle out.
The waves roll in and jack up two or three times higher than they looked on the beach. Teenage boys and twenty something men pick off peaks on all sides of me. The waves are quite disorganized, firing off in all directions like a drunk on a tangent. Pua grabs a short left and kicks off into safety. She calls me into the next one and I stroke hard for the little mutant wave. I feel my board take off so I stand up, make the drop and do a small turn.
Despite all the adrenaline I’m pretty sure I just rode a wave at Pipeline! I am stoked! But the celebration in my mind must be short lived and suppressed. I need to paddle back out to safety in a hurry before another monster hangs over my head. I paddle quickly to the outside. Pua and I catch a few more waves and have a chat with some of the boys in the water. I go left at Pipeline and right at Backdoor and make it out safely a few more times. I feel pretty good.
I paddle for a right that is jacking up higher and higher. I dangle at the top of the wave looking straight down at the reef while I wait for my board to catch the wave. That doesn’t happen and I very nearly get pitched over the falls and into the snake pit. For a split second, I chuckle and thank the powers that be I didn’t take a dive.
A few minutes later, a set looms on the horizon. Everyone around me starts to scratch for the outside. I was sitting relatively far out from the other surfers and think I’ll easily make it over the set. The first wave passes and my fate is revealed. A giant wall of water is sucking off the reef before me. I paddle hard and say to myself, “oh Audrey, this isn’t good” and duck dive before I have a chance to think about bailing my board. The wave detonates on my head, rips my board out of my grips and drills me down. I grab my ankle and climb my leash to the top. On the surface, I gulp for air and dive down just as another wave breaks on my face. Twice more I breath and get drilled. I swallow a little water and eventually turn and let a wave push me to the shore.
Remember when Rick Kane said, “when the wave breaks here, don’t be there?” The famous line from the movie North Shore couldn’t be any closer to the truth.
I went to the beach, caught my breath and laughed. All the survival techniques I’ve learned over the years were not in the forefront of my mind when I came face to face with the beast. I panicked and drank some saltwater but I survived. It felt good to get that beat down out of the way at the start of my trip but it definitely made me extra vigilant for rogue sets.
In the end, I was glad I went out even if Pipeline (at its smallest) remains out of my league. The mountains of respect I already had for those who charge this wave magnified exponentially after my beatdown. The waves on the North Shore are incredible, something every surfer should see from the water or the shore at the least. Mahalo Hawaii for humbling and rewarding everyone who attempts to dance on her waves.