BUTCH VAN ARTSDALEN: Pipeline, 1962
By Gerry Lopez
Perhaps it was different among the elite of the surfing world at that time, even though that world was still a very small one, by any standard. None of the jargon I used among my surf buddies included the words "tube" or "ride." None of us even held such a thing in our minds. So it was with great wonder and amazement when we saw Butch Van Artsdalen's epic tube at the Pipeline in 1962. We sat in awe through The Endless Summer by Bruce Brown, mesmerized with images and thoughts of traveling the world for waves.
One image, however, made the deepest impression, perhaps because it was, in a real sense, closer to home than all the rest. We were teenagers locked into high school and all that comes with it—worldly by our own reckoning. But Butch's wild ride at the Most Dangerous Wave In The World was beyond our comprehension. It simply did not compute with any of our previous experiences. Not one of us dreamed that riding inside the breaking wave was a possibility. That is hard to believe today, but 50 years ago, it seemed like some kind of magic. When Butch disappeared only to reappear moments later, his extraordinary deed was cemented forever into our psyches. He was, of course, crowned for his feat, becoming the once and forever Mr. Pipeline.
We knew Butch…
Well, we didn't actually "know" him, but he would often show up with the other big-name surfers at the movie screenings. Larger than life, he cut an impressive figure even among his peers. The surf movies only had one showing, usually at the Roosevelt High School auditorium. We would always try to arrive early, hoping we might recognize some of our heroes. At the time, wave-riding was purely recreational. Not one of us imagined becoming a surfer as skilled or as brave as Butch. We were still under the influence of our parents, who grew increasingly concerned about this "surfing thing," especially when they noticed the heavy drinking in the parking lots before the screenings, and the fact that some of the older surfers definitely lived in their cars.
We talked about Butch's famous ride quite a bit, but the overriding factor was definitely the "getting killed" part that went with the Pipeline's reputation. As time went on, we began to be aware of other surfers like Conrad Canha and Sammy Lee at Ala Moana, also riding the "tube" in the Bowl, and paid more attention to how it was done.
To be creative means beginning with nothing, which is never an easy task. We had to see Butch's tuberiding before we could translate it into a possibility for our own surfing. I am certain Butch's tube ride did the same thing for me as it did for many other surfers. We saw it as an inspiration. For us it was creation, an invention in every sense of the word.
TOM CURREN: Jeffreys Bay, 1992
By Derek Hynd
The trouble with perfect alignment of surfer, wave, and cinematographer was highlighted in May of 1992 when Tom Curren's hallowed "first ride at J-Bay" simply was not documented. Fifty years in the future, the now infamous film of the rider/wave will intrigue the same way, but it'll still be the second wave that will be studied in awe.
Tom's arrival at J-Bay that year was arguably the most anticipated moment in surf history. Could there be a greater vicarious surfing rush than the world's best surfer at the world's best pointbreak? Big call of course…there had been Gerry or the other Tom during their respective primes paddling out at solid Pipe, Simon Anderson likewise during his incredible test paddle-out at big Bells aboard the early Thruster. Tom and Occy's paddle-outs behind the pier at the OP Pro had, in themselves, set some sort of compounding phenomenon. Maybe even Duke in December 1914 riding to shore as a large chunk of Sydney lined Freshwater Beach in anticipation of the greatest athlete on Earth walking on water.
The timing, linkage, style, and drive of Curren at J-Bay would be second to none. American surf fans alone willed it so. The last peg was gaping; they just needed Tom to show up.
Tom had missed the legendary 1984 swell at J-Bay, which was noted for the arrival of Mark Occhilupo and the swan song of Simon Anderson. Curren remained in Durban to get set for the upcoming larger events. It was regarded as a decent tactical ploy until the waves actually arrived. Thus, he lost his shot to elevate his surfing to never-before-seen levels. For Tom, years would pass before Jeffreys Bay came back onto the horizon. Rip Curl's The Search campaign was developed primarily to give Tom any shot he wanted at any location, hoping that consumers would dig the vicarious rush.
He'd come away from Haleiwa six months before having hit a mark there that would likely never be surpassed. It was the best possible way to bow out of competition. The Search now afforded him indulgence in waves of freesurfing fancy.
Tom was on song as The Search started. Its first stab, a Canary Islands trip with Jeff Hornbaker as cinematographer, highlighted a few hiccups—personality clashes, the star's tendency to miss flights, and his less-than-average quiver.
Veteran shaper Mark Rabbidge was inserted as a new variable to remedy the problem. The design Rabbidge ultimately created for Curren to ride in South Africa was based on his observations of Curren's surfing during an epic 1990 season. The basic dimensions were 6’6″× 18 1/2″× 2 1/4″.
Tom was due to hit J-Bay for the May full moon. Just about every surfer who knew what was in the wind believed it would be the greatest display by a natural footer there, surpassing Terry Fitzgerald and Shaun Tomson whose high-watermark had never been categorically challenged. Rabbidge was sure that an evolved design under Tom's feet would produce the right reactive first touch. Knowing the likely reality of Tom arriving late and without much in the way of boards, the 6’6″ Rabbidge was the agreed board for the occasion, colored in tribute to Tom's yellow-railed Cole from Haleiwa.
As expected, Tom was late. He missed two days of the best J-Bay seen in a long time. Boneyards all the way down the line, the type of surf that doesn't happen much anymore, went begging as flight after flight was missed, including one when Maurice Cole exited a French airport as Tom entered. The odds were insanely long, but apparently the sudden chat about great surf in France led to another plug pulled. If ever there was an easy stream of flights, here they were—no time difference involved, a night flight, a quick connection from Johannesburg, and an arrival at prime time for the renowned afternoon light.
At 2 p.m. on May 28, 1992, there was no sign of Tom. The swell was dropping. The flight from Johannesburg had landed at noon. The only word coming down from France was that this time he'd boarded the first of his flights. Twenty minutes later, he walked onto the front lawn of Cheron Kraak's hallowed home above the Supers takeoff. He was with cinematographer Sonny Miller and second camera Tommy De Soto. The board was handed to him. Less than 10 minutes passed before the paddle-out. Miller gave De Soto the key role of capturing the length of the ride down the point. I butted in and asked the ultra modest and soft-spoken De Soto to be on the beach before Tom in order to document the rock hop and paddle out through the gully. The way the swell was ebbing, there were maybe five or six sets left before it died completely.
Cut to the beach and De Soto. No time for formalities. He got set up in time, did the 16mm load and lock, had Tom perfectly framed, flicked the switch, and…a disconcerting sound of tape being chewed as Tom made his way out. Miller's main man hadn't ever loaded this type of camera before. By now, with Tom outside and waiting for the wave during a lull and the cameraman too far away from anyone to call for help, he was in the type of hole that a person in his line of work might consider dire. The set came. Not a big one, but Tom took off. De Soto was still trying to figure out the loading. Some bozo dropped in on Tom, so Tom flicked straight off.
If ever there was a welcome bad act, this was it, for precious time was bought. A bigger set swung in immediately and Tom's innate understanding of the lineup put him in perfect position. De Soto shut the camera and said his prayers as the ride began. No strange sounds. No chewing. Smooth running. It would be far and away the most professional of shots that De Soto would manage on the trip. Indeed, so good that the slight movement as he takes a breath halfway though the ride stands out like dog's balls on a canary.
The ride itself was as expected: perfect. As good as anyone had ever ridden Supertubes. A piece of cake for a genius who had probably mind surfed the wave 100 times. Rabbidge's untested board had the miracle touch just like certain Merricks and Coles did, with the type of accelerated release that was Curren's hallmark on top-tier equipment. The board, indeed a one-off as shaper and surfer did not again link up, put Tom in the zone off the first bottom drive. It stands as one of the best boards ever built for J-Bay with the proof being the way the wave was ridden—style, substance, and variation. One can also appreciate the master working out the board as he powered down the line. It is perhaps the only ride worth studying for surfers of any level.
CORY LOPEZ: Skeleton Bay, 2008
By Lewis Samuels
The real surprise of Cory Lopez' endless Skeleton Bay drainer? It came at a time when it seemed there weren't any surprises left. The search for the world's most perfect wave had been replaced by the search for the perfect backdrop. We'd all but given up hope of unearthing new, true perfection on some distant shore—instead, surf travel had rounded the corner to chasing swells to name-breaks and finding scenic novelty spots. Mutant slabs on one extreme, Great Lakes wind-bowls on the other. It had become a photographer's quest, not a surfer's.
And then came Skeleton Bay, as if out of a dream—that clichéd wave you'd draw on a blue canvas three-ring binder as a child: the mythic sand bottom point with one-minute barrels. The video clip shot through the interwebs like a bullet, aimed true at our hearts—the type of wave any surfer could picture himself riding (nevermind the fact it had been surfed for years, and that most average surfers wouldn't be able to make the drop before the lip annihilated them).
As for the ride itself, and its inclusion on this list, it boils down to about 10 percent Cory Lopez and 90 percent the wave itself. Which is saying quite a lot, especially when considering the other greatest rides from the last half-decade—almost all of which involve monstrous size and/or feats of skill. No offense to Cory, who has more than proved himself in barrels of consequence. But hell, the first 15 seconds are thrilling, as the wave barrels before Cory even catches it. From then on, the wave shares the unique quality of Desert Point—the barrels get bigger, hollower, and longer as the ride goes on.
Lopez remembers those sessions as being different from every other surfing experience he'd had in his life. "It's basically video-game surfing," Lopez claims. "At most spots, a four-second barrel is long. There you're getting four eight-second barrels on one wave."
Part of the romance stemmed from the fact that Skeleton Bay made everyone scratch their heads, open Google Earth, and ponder what else was left out there. "For me, it challenged my perspective on what's possible for a wave," Cory agrees. "It changed the whole game for me, just to think there were waves like that out there. It was an amazing feeling."
Watch the video again—the feeling is still there. Those perfect peelers keep the dreams of our youth alive, in an era when surfing has become scented with irony, commercialism, and gladiatorial athletes. Cory's wave offers us hope that the perfect wave might still be out there, unmolested.
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