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Pipe Dreams: Gerry Lopez Recalls the Early Days at Pipeline

Posted on Thu, 2015/10/15 - 11:45am by Jeff Mull

On a warm North Shore afternoon, more than a dozen participants in the Gerry Lopez surf and yoga retreat gathered at the world-renowned Volcom house, which stands directly over the infamous lineup at Pipeline. For the past few days, the lucky surf and yoga enthusiasts have been able to surf, SUP, and learn yoga from Lopez, arguably the most well respected surfer alive today. Today, amid a building swell, Gerry took a seat on the porch at Pipe, his eyes trained on the swell, and recanted a series of tales from a life spent living at the world’s most ferocious wave.

You see, the Volcom house wasn’t always the Volcom house. Before the surf-industry giant took possession, it was Gerry’s house. Decades before the surf world planted their brand’s flag on the Seven Mile Miracle, Gerry Lopez purchased a small plot of land that stood vigil over Pipeline and built a three-story home. At this time, while Pipe was indeed on the radar of North Shore surfers, much of the focus was still on Sunset Beach. Where others saw a sketchy-and bone-crunching wave, Gerry saw opportunity.

“Before I bought this land, this area was all coconut trees. We would all hang out in the shade under the trees, surf Pipeline, and then eat a few coconuts,” recalls Gerry. “And then when we built this house, we had so many guys from all over basically camping out in the front yard, that it earned the nickname ‘Lopez State Park.’”

In case you’re not yet wise to Gerry Lopez, in the 1970s, with his trademark poise, he helped to usher in the prowess of Pipeline to the surf world’s limelight. While others had surfed Pipe prior to Gerry (Phil Edwards largely gets the credit for surfing it in 1963) Gerry was the face of the wave. With the rise of the shortboard, Lopez—along with others like Rory Russell—proved that a wave as steep and treacherous at Pipe was more than just a novelty. With the right equipment and know-how, it could actually be surfed well.  

Once the surf world saw what was possible, in large part thanks to Gerry, the collective focus shifted from Sunset to Pipeline. Soon, droves of surfers looking to have their picture taken in the tube at Pipe swarmed the now famous lineup. “From then on, the floodgates were open,” recalls Gerry.

Today, the Pipe Masters is largely considered to be the greatest surf contest in the world. And in true fashion, Lopez has a hilarious story about the inaugural event. “When they held the first Pipe event back in 1970, there were only six of us invited. And on the day they were supposed to run it, I pulled up in the morning—I was living in Honolulu at the time—got out of my car and walked up to look at the conditions. It was pretty bad,” recalls Lopez. “On the way back, I saw Corky Carroll sitting in his car reading a newspaper and asked him if he thought they were gonna run the event. He said he didn’t think so, and I agreed. So I drove back to town and later that night, on the evening news, I saw that Jeff Hakman had won the contest. They wound up running! I think Corky honestly didn’t think they were gonna run the contest, but he still gets a lot of flack for it today.”

After decades of learning to master Pipeline, Lopez knows every nook, cranny and grain of sand in the area. However, despite all of the development, crowds, and team houses, he remains comforted by the stability of the wave itself. “I’ve seen so much change out here. But the one thing that stays the same is the wave. That’s always reassuring to me. No matter how much things seem to change, the wave stays the same.”