[Ed's note: The ChachFiles is a travel-based photo series in which photographer Ryan "Chachi" Craig let's us ride shotgun on his strike missions around the world, looking for new angles on some of the best waves and most intriguing personalities in surfing.]
There's something about that perfect swell window that the Backdoor Shooutout falls in. It's almost as if the Hawaiian Islands themselves have cursed the WSL to a small degree; how is it that the Pipeline Masters almost anyways has a waiting period plagued by small swells and less-than-ideal winds, but when you fast forward a few weeks you're almost guaranteed to get some magic?
After a short stint on the Seven Mile Miracle in December, I was eager to get back to Hawaii in the late season to swim and shoot some inevitably-good Pipeline swells. I don't pretend for a second that I'm a fish, but I definitely enjoy those adrenaline-filled swims—the ones that start with your heart beating out of your chest as you carefully time your swim out to Pipeline, and end with legs that feel like jelly, leaving you barely able to kick your way back to dry sand as the current rips you toward Ehukai. Those days are incredible to witness from the water, and it's a view I look forward to seeing every year.
As a photographer, it's always exciting to stay front row at Pipe because the action absolutely non-stop. When it's small, super groms are honing their skills or people are trying to foil or maybe hit the skate park. If there's a light wind, then ten guys might be out front trying backflips or perfecting some other futuristic aerial. As soon as the conditions change and you think it might be time to put away your camera, that's when someone will paddle out and do something completely unexpected that you wish you'd shoot. So how do you capture it all? Well, you can't—at least not well. For me, it's all about finding a few go-to angle or styles of shooting that might produce only one great shot each day. While I may miss a lot of waves because I'm positioned to capture one move, that's OK! Most of the photos we all take, whether it be on our phones or hi-end cameras, never actually see the light of day, and sometimes it takes a little more patience to create an image that actually excites us.
Below is a look at some moments that stoked that fire for me—images that represent why I keep coming back to the North Shore year after year.
I was in Southeast Asia when I saw a big Pipe swell and a likely window for the Backdoor Shootout to run, so I booked a flight to the North Shore. When I got there, I figured the best way for me to deal with exhaustion and jet leg was to just jump straight out in the water for an evening swim. I didn't make it to the beach in time to see the first day of competition, but conditions had cleaned up tremendously and the evening swell was incredible. There were plenty of unridden waves absolutely draining on the inside reef.
With only about an hour and a half of daylight left, I immediately swam into my favorite lighting conditions out there: that evening backlit glow, the stuff photographer's dreams are made. A handful of other photographers joked that I couldn't have timed it any better and that this evening was the best lighting of the season to date—a few of the waves that came through were as visually stunning as it gets out there.
Derek Ho is like a fine wine that seems to just keep getting better out at Pipe. He's an icon and someone who is still at the top of his game at an intense and dangerous wave. Whether it was unruly or picturesque, as long as it was big, Derek was always one of the first guys waxing up his board this winter season.
What a difference a swell direction makes. If you've ever been to Pipeline in the winter months for any period of time, then you've definitely seen how much the sand can change in 24 hours. After a series of significant swells, more reef was exposed on the tideline then I recall ever seeing before. After witnessing radical erosion around many nearby beaches, it's scary to think how much the coastline will likely change over the next 10 years.
It's always blown my mind how incredibly close Pipe is to the shoreline. You can literally feel the vibrations as large swells break on First Reef. If you're fortunate to sleep close to break, growing swells are loud enough to wake you up. This is the view from the second story of Gerry's house [formerly owned by Gerry Lopez, now by Volcom], right out of the bedroom. I've shot this angle a few times, but I've never witnessed this type of light first thing in the morning. The lighting pulsed through the cloud cover a few different times, but only on one wave did it illuminate the right and leave the left still in the shadows.
Same day and similar light as the previous shot, but this is Seth Moniz during the final day of the Shootout event. If you were in the first two heats of the morning, you were stoked. It was virtually as good as it gets with those glassy conditions that generally happen for a brief period amide the transition from offshore to onshore. You wouldn't know it by looking at this image, but the waves went to complete shit about an hour later and the North Shore wasn't even surfable by noon.
There are flat spells on the North Shore just like anywhere else. In fact, being so exposed in the middle of the Pacific, the waves often arrive and disappear more quickly in Hawaii then anywhere else on earth. If you keep your eyes peeled on the ocean all day, like many of us do, it is without question that you'll see whales migrating throughout the day. The winter months are a hotbed of activity and often times these massive mammals cruise just outside the surf zones. I had my drone handy this time and tracked these three whales almost a mile.
There are many advantages of staying on the water at Pipeline. In addition to always having a good idea when the waves are starting to turn on, you have the opportunity to mix up your shots if you're feeling motivated. A full moon, bright enough to light the inside of the Volcom house was keeping me awake. I could see there was swell filling in on the reef and decided to do a few high ISO, semi-long exposure pans. Without having a cutting edge Sony or something equivalent (for ISO noise) I was a bit limited, but tried to capture some of what I was seeing. Anytime I shoot at night, I can only wonder as to how many perfect waves have rolled over that stretch of the reef with no one to witness them.
Nowhere on earth is as crowded before the sun comes up as Pipeline. It's a somewhat straightforward place to predict when it will be good and even if the waves have been flat for weeks, the first day of predicted swell, people will paddle out in the pitch black in hopes of snagging a set wave. Although it was not massive, this morning had a few crazy, shallow waves at Backdoor and Charly Quivront scored this runner before the sun hit the water.
Backdoor has to be one of the scariest places on earth to shoot when it's over 3-foot, let alone shoot with a wide-angle lens. It's often shifty and pulls you into the apex of the wave where it's rarely deeper then 3 or 4 feet—that doesn't give you much depth to play around with if you end up in the wrong spot. I've never considered myself a wide-angle specialist, nor a flash specialist, so when combining the two and swimming out to one of the most intimidating spots on the planet, I had some butterflies. Earlier in the day the wind was howling and I had written off an evening shoot. I had a few glasses of wine while editing and suddenly the waves started to turn on and Backdoor looked like the spot. I put on my impact vest and set up my gear. This was my first fisheye swim of the year—shooting flash, no less. The first shot my flash was appropriately timed and the second shot I pulled the trigger too early and this is the next frame. What you see is a slight speed blur with no flash to freeze the subject because the flash recycle speed is not fast enough to fire again at full power. Both shots are of Lucas Godfry.
It's hard to create fresh looks on the North Shore, since it's been heavily photographed by the best surf photographers in the world for over 40 years. What tends to stand out to me are those off moments—sometimes they're intentional, but often times they're just lucky moments that you're well prepared to capture. This angle of Backdoor is often all or nothing. With the wave draining below sea level and whitewater exploding in the foreground, it's more often than not that you only see someone drop in and then they're out of sight. Every so often, though, you'll have a cool look straight into the barrel or an abstract kick-out. Unidentified, Backdoor.
Here's another weird moment of Noa Deane. By most accounts, the waves were terrible, but the wind was favorable for airs and Noa decided to have a quick surf. You're looking at him do an alley-oop into an oncoming whitewater closeout. Did he pull it? No, but it's this type of surfing that keeps shooting from land exciting, and it's also why he's high on the list of many people's favorite surfers.
Big swells are crazy in Hawaii. There's always so much going on. Swells are announced on the news and people drive from all corners of the island to watch surfers tackle giant waves. Beach towels are getting washed away and unfortunately there are often sirens relentlessly ringing as people tend to underestimate how much power there is over there and end up injured. Some people search for waves in other parts of the island while many surfers will patiently wait for Pipeline to clean up and do what she does best. If you choose to paddle out when it's unruly and big, you are guaranteed to get caught inside. Below is a bird's-eye view of such chaos, and above is the power of Keiki shorebreak on a growing swell as seen from Ehukai Beachpark.
Overall, Pipeline was firing for many weeks of January and it was a pleasure to be able to watch it all first hand. Below are a few more highlights.