If you've spent any time there at all, it may be difficult to imagine, but Pipeline wasn't always the spotlight-illuminated headliner on surfing's main stage: the North Shore of Oahu. Until the late '60s, that distinction belonged to the big, warbly peaks of Sunset Beach, just a short drive northeast up the Kam Highway. That was partly because of tradition, partly because Sunset is itself a phenomenal wave and partly because, back then, few surfers had actually figured out how to surf Pipe and survive.
It's equally hard to imagine the beachfront at Pipe during a roaring swell as a sleepy stretch of rural coastline without the throngs of tourists, long lens cameras and food trucks selling acai bowls by the metric ton. But until the surf industry descended upon the place in a feverish horde, that's exactly how it was: families living quiet lives on the beach, Honolulu residents gone country for the weekends at their quiet beachside rentals.
These days, at least in the prime, swell-heavy winter months, most of the houses along the Seven Mile Miracle (many of which are owned or rented for months at a time by surf brands) are crawling with pro surfers and their hangers-on, sponsored groms trying to learn the North Shore ropes, and surf industry heavies and wannabe heavies wandering (barefoot, of course) through the halls of surfing Valhalla, just hoping to rub elbows with their surf heroes. To maybe get lucky enough to share a beer with one of them on the splintered wooden deck of a surf team house.
Of all the houses where one could be invited into to share that beer, to watch the action at Pipe with those who know it best, there's one that stands above the rest. It sits just east of the stairs leading down to Pipe. Its yard, just peeking over the sand bluffs that front the break, are the most desired courtside seats at the watery surf arena. Today, it's owned by Volcom and is known simply as the Volcom House. But long before Volcom's team took the place over, and the house started serving as a kind of dormitory for their rising stars, it was the Gerry Lopez House, having been built by the Pipe God himself. The legacy left in the house by Lopez, longtime co-owner Herbie Fletcher and the Pipe royalty who surveyed their kingdom from the deck at Gerry's house live on. There will never be a more important gathering place at Pipeline.
Before the house was built, the lot it stands on was dotted with coconut trees and a couple small cottages taking up a tiny part of the grassy lawn above the bluff. Hammocks were strung between the trees and swayed in a breeze. After a surf, Lopez would sit on the bluff and stare out at the wave he'd built his career on. When the lot came up for sale in 1979, he couldn't resist.
We talked with Gerry, Herbie and a few surfers who've spent time there over the years earning their place in the yard, using the house as a proving ground to hone their craft, learn from their heroes, develop their reputation and have a good time. It just might be the most important home in surf history.
GERRY LOPEZ: One of the best things about that house was the grove of coconut trees that used to exist at the front of the lot when we first started spending a lot of time there—this would have been '69 or '70. Pipeline wasn't a super popular spot then. I mean, guys surfed there, but Sunset was the place. At the time, Billy Hamilton was renting the back house—Laird was probably 4 or 5 years old then. Billy was living there and building surfboards in the front yard. I'd drive up and park outside the lot
ask if he wanted to go surfing.
HERBIE FLETCHER: In the days before the house went up, most of the lot was just a big grass lawn with a picnic table on it. And so we'd take boxing gloves and we'd box out in the front yard in between surf sessions. Lopez, me, Fat Paul [Peterson], Wiley Artman and a bunch of guys most people have never heard of, some of them are dead.
LOPEZ: In 1975, a friend of mine named Paul Peterson ended up buying that property in an arrangement that was common on the North Shore at the time. He paid $500 per month, and then after 5 years he was supposed to pay the balance on the property, which was $30,000. Well, he could afford $500 per month, but after five years, he couldn't pay off the rest. I'd just sold my interest in Lightning Bolt and had a little bit of money, so I paid the balance and bought the property with my partner John Porter. That would have been 1979 or 1980. And that's when we built the Pipeline house.
JEFF DIVINE: (Former SURFER Photo Editor): The vibe of hanging out in those little beach houses back then was totally different than hanging in the nice, Gucci houses there today. Back when I lived a couple houses down from Pipe, I remember hearing gunshots one day and I went over to see what was going on in the yard and Spyder Wills [filmmaker] was shooting a gun. He's ex-military and he used to go out there and shoot his pistol off in the ocean right at Pipe. Gerry and Rory Russell and all those guys would just be hanging out on a bench that was at the very front of the big lawn right on the ocean before the house was built.
LOPEZ: Porter and I built the house together. We were totally hands-on. Built the biggest house we could on that lot, as high as we could. The goal was to see the wave at Pipeline from every room.
DIVINE: It made perfect sense that Gerry would have had that house. He was the king and he got his throne.
FLETCHER: I first started going to the North Shore in '65 and moved in with Gary Chapman in '67. We had a little house down the beach from the Pipeline. We'd just look into the barrel at Pipe all the time. That's when we started making mini guns with Dick Brewer and Mike Hynson. When I bought into the Pipe house after having kids and everything—I invested in the place back in '81—that was a dream come true because we were right in front of the Pipeline, and could just go out and go surfing whenever it started to work.
DIVINE: If you lived right there at Pipe, you'd see all these variations of swell and direction that have nothing to do with the famous Pipeline look people are used to. Maybe the swell would be extreme north, and it's actually coming down from Ehukai like a pointbreak. Or the opposite, like on an approaching hurricane. It can peel from Ke Iki reef all the way towards Pipeline. Those guys that hung out at the early Pipe house had names for all those conditions.
LOPEZ: I loved surfing the North Shore, but by the time we got the house it had already become busy there. I was living on Maui at the time, and it was better there. So it was just a place for me to go when the surf was good, or to visit in the summertime. It came to be called "Lopez State Park." There'd just be guys trying to live there 'cause it was right at the beach. I'd wake up in the morning and knew it must be good, because I'd already see guys walking around in my yard. I mean, I knew some of them—not all of them—but it just was kind of a scene, you know? Most of the time everybody there were my friends and it was great, but as the Pipeline got more popular it became more like, "Who are these people?"
DIVINE: I didn't really hang out at the house that much. I mean, I didn't like big scenes. I always thought that it was weird that you'd spend all this money on a house and you let in the unwashed masses. It seemed kind of ridiculous, you know? You can't even unlock your private space. It became a big hangout, I guess.
LOPEZ: I don't remember what year it was, but they had the NFL Pro Bowl in Hawaii and a bunch of the pro football players somehow heard about my place and showed up, kind of broke down a gate and were just hanging out there.
FLETCHER: I never actually lived in the house year-round. I would just take long weekends or go for three weeks or a month at a time. Eventually I'd allow my friends in and they'd kind of protect the place, watch over it. Make sure only the right people could get in. Everybody had respect. I didn't actually ask them to watch anything. They just did out of this camaraderie.
LIAM MCNAMARA: ('90s Pipe Icon): When I was 15 years old, I started coming to the Pipe house. That was back when it was as core as it ever was. Just to walk through the gate you had to be invited. You had to come in with someone who was a heavy person. Basically, first time there I was just in awe. You got Marvin Foster, Dane Kealoha, Mike and Derek Ho, Ronnie Burns. The boys. The heavies. Second time I walked in there, I just went and grabbed a rake, started raking the yard. That was the way I showed my appreciation and my respect. If you weren't invited you knew to not go in there because when you walk through the gate you're gonna walk up on Johnny Boy Gomes or Kealoha or Foster. You're not gonna want to look any of these guys in the face. They might growl at you.
GAVIN BESCHEN: (North Shore Standout and Volcom Team Rider): I don't even remember my first time there, I just remember you had to earn being at that house. Nobody could just show up. I wouldn't even have tried. I was in awe of the people hanging out there.
LOPEZ: Eventually all the surf companies bought places on the beach on the North Shore. By the mid-'90s, I had already moved to Oregon anyway, and we were pretty much over the place so we sold it. I'd tried to sell it years before to the Quiksilver guys, but they didn't want it. They should have bought it.
FLETCHER: I think it was '97 when Gerry and I sold it. It was just sort of a thing that had gone by, you know? We were just sort of done. I was spending a lot of time in Mexico doing other things. It was time to move on.
MARK HEALEY: (Big-Wave Surfer and Pipe Standout): I first started surfing Pipe when I was about 12 years old. I wanted to figure out how to surf there so I'd park my bike next to Gerry's place. I'd come in from a session and there'd be all my heroes and the big gnarly guys and the whole deal hanging out in the yard there. I was in the bullpen for the first time, man, kind of having to keep a low profile. But at the same time, make a statement and start working on earning a spot out there. It was definitely a very important place in my youth.
MCNAMARA: It boils down to the fact that that path, that house, it was kinda the entry to Pipeline. If you wanted to surf Pipeline and you wanted to be respected at Pipeline, you had to walk down that little path there. We would sit there at the house and see every single surfer on every single day that would go out to Pipeline. We knew who they were and we knew when it was people who didn't belong there. You had to get the respect of your peers and you had to learn your history. You had to really know who was who, because if you took off on a wave and opened up your mouth, you were going to walk back into that house later and get slapped.
ALEX GRAY: (California-Based Pro and Former Volcom Team Rider): I was 15 when I first stayed at the original Volcom House [a smaller place next door to Gerry's House] and you had to earn your way into that Gerry House. There would be, like, 15 guys staying in the original Volcom house, but there were only, like, six people staying in the Gerry House. It was always something that I wanted to achieve riding for that brand. I wanted to earn the respect, be able to live in the Gerry House.
HEALEY: Things were different back when I was a kid there. It wasn't as easy as it is today. You really had to earn your spot. I was born and raised on the North Shore and it was kind of a big deal for me just to be able to rinse off at a beachfront house. Sponsored kids come over now and they've got a cook and they're staying in a beachfront house and have their own room. For me it was, "Okay. Don't fuck up. You got to earn it."
MCNAMARA: Once the Lopez house ended and it became the Volcom House, there was a whole new era of regulation of the Pipeline. All the big heavies, the Kealohas and Fosters and all these guys either retired or died or moved away. This new young generation, the Wolfpak, the Pipeline Posse came in, turned everything upside down. It went through a 10-year era of being fear-regulated. It could've been done better. There were guys that might've been there for decades that the new generation of regulators might not have recognized. Whereas those guys were well-recognized by the Lopez era of people.
DIVINE: I think they had to clamp down on some of the more aggressive stuff going on at the house when Volcom took over. That's when you got local guys Kaiborg Garcia and Tai Van Dyke as house managers. They need to be locals to have the control and respect.
HEALEY: It's a lot different now than when I was 17 and living in the house behind Gerry's house, the place where Jamie O'Brien lives now. It was definitely fast and loose and very wild there back then. But you go down there now, and guys are checking the waves with their baby strapped to their chest and there are
kids running around and it's a safe environment. It's not as wild as it once was.
GRAY: It's really thanks to the Volcom House and all the guys that run the house now, and the locals who I got to stay with and hang out with that I have a form of a big-wave career. Being around that environment, having the opportunity to literally have a bed that looks in the barrel of Pipeline. It changed my life, my surf career, and allowed me to do things that I never really dreamed of as a kid. Sometimes, if you got a really good wave and Bruce was out of town—he slept on the top floor of the Volcom place—they might let you sleep on the floor of Bruce's room for a night. It's kind of a tier. You could earn your way into that house if you charged hard enough. I ended up getting an invite into the Eddie Aikau event one of those years, which I solely credit to getting to stay in that house.
BESCHEN: Staying at that house or just hanging out there pushed my surfing for sure. You'd surf Pipe with all the boys watching and you'd want to do what you could to get their respect. Go on waves you didn't want and everything.
HEALEY: It improved my surf ability just being there. To come in from a session and kind of hang and not be a dummy, you just start working away and getting your place in the lineup. A lot of people didn't do that because they were too intimidated or scared or whatever. Charging with your head down is, I guess, a passive way of just being like, "Hey, I'm here. I want to do something out there."
GRAY: First time I got to the smaller Volcom House next to Gerry's place, all the heavies were there from the big house. There were 100 people in the yard, having a barbecue, and I'm this little, blonde, California kid with a boardbag, just in from the airport. I found a bathroom, took a piss and the toilet just started overflowing everywhere. I walk up to the first important-looking guy I saw in the yard, and I'm like, "Hey, do you know where there's a plunger? The toilet's overflowing." The guy looks at me says, "Drop and give me 50." The whole party stopped and counted me off doing 50 push-ups. Then the guy hands me a spatula and tells me to handle the chicken on the barbecue. So now I'm cooking chicken and all the while I'm looking around telling people, "Hey, I really need a plunger. The toilet's overflowing." Finally, Reef McIntosh came over with a plunger, I handed the spatula off to someone else, I go in and the family room is under, like, 2 inches of toilet water. That was my first 10 minutes at the Volcom House. At 15 years old.
DIVINE: You know what's weird? The drains never really worked right on that lot, stuff 's always overflowing. And there's no garage. It's like a six million dollar house with no garage. And bad drains. Weird.