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#2 // THE EARLY PIPE MAESTROS

Blog, Juicy Roots
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Bev Morgan posing with a beautiful 12-foot Pat Curren gun on Banzai Beach. Photo taken circa 1955 by John Elwell.

Surfing Hollow Days is Bruce Brown’s 1962 surf movie which  begins with a moving image of a big, clean, sunny, hollow, left-breaking wave. The waves peels, closes out a bit and then opens up into a big tube that ejaculates a lot of spit. A sexy image, and then Bruce’s narration explains: “Hollow waves like this – the best kind to ride. Doesn’t matter much what the size is. A hollow wave is the best.”

The wave that opens the movie is the Banzai Pipeline, a previously unridden spot that was unveiled in a two-minute segment in Surfing Hollow Days, featuring Phil Edwards. Prior to the winter of 1961.1962, size did matter when it came to hollow waves, as surfers had spent many years examining the fast, steep, hollow, dangerous waves like what broke off Banzai Beach. But they were kapu – 12’ balsa guns just didn’t fit into the wave face.

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Out of the 1950s and into the early 1960s, Banzai Beach was the domain of dreamers. The waves were beautiful and perfect – even a blind man could see that – but giant, spit-billowing barrels weren’t the kinds of waves that hot-doggers and big-wave surfers rode.

At the turn of the decade, Banzai Beach was the Unridden Realm.

According to The Encyclopedia of Surfing, “there are competing claims as to who was the first to ride Pipeline,” but in the surfing world, recorded images are the equivalent of planting a flag. In December of 1961, Phil Edwards and Bruce Brown were on the North Shore working on a surf movie that would become Surfing Hollow Days.  Edwards paddled out on a small, four-foot day at Pipeline, got a few, got a feel for the place, didn’t get impaled or attacked by a shark or drowned.

The next day Edwards paddled out on a bigger day as Bruce Brown filmed. Edwards got some bigger waves, and Bruce Brown packaged them into a two-minute segment in Surfing Hollow Days.

Phil Edwards claimed it and Mike Diffenderfer named it. There was a construction project going on Kam Highway at that time, and when Diffenderfer saw the section of pipeline they were laying into the road, he got hit with a light bulb – the Banzai Pipeline: “The name kind of sealed it,” Brown was quoted in The History of Surfing. “That morning, it was a place nobody surfed. By that afternoon, it was a full-on spot.”

Edwards was known as a hot-dogging performance surfer.

and he wasn’t afraid to admit that taking off backside in pitching barrels over shallow coral reefs really wasn’t his line of country. After christening Pipeline, Edwards wandered off to waves he liked better, but there was lots of talent waiting in the wings to fully examine the guts of those waves at the Banzai Pipeline.

Two days before Edwards conquered the Pipeline, La Jolla surfer Butch van Artsdalen left Hawaii and returned to California.

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Butch with Hemmings and Brewer

Known as “Black Butch” to friends and strangers, Butch was equal parts athlete and street-fighting man, gentleman and drunk. He was part of the rowdy, talented Windansea crew who grew up surfing the Hawaii-like reefs of La Jolla.

A talented surfer going both ways, big or small, hot-dogging or charging, Butch was also known to take off on big waves going switch-stance – and make it look natural.

According to Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing, Butch saw the photos and movies of the Banzai Pipeline, and returned to Hawaii in October of 1962 determined to get that wave wired. Riding a fire-engine red Hobie gun, Van Artsdalen operated from a beached boat just to the west of Banzai Beach. He was on that wave every chance he got, and within a few months he knew the Pipeline’s every secret: “Van Artsdalen had a genuinely intuitive feel for the break,” Warshaw wrote. “He knew which waves to ride and which to let go – the line between a perfect Pipeline tube and a malformed closeout is nearly invisible = and he had a jeweler’s eye for picking out the narrow vertical seam that would get him from crest to trough in one piece. The drop was the hard part. Tuberiding itself, for Van Artsdalen, was comparatively easy – turn, crouch, extend the arms, and floor it.”

In late December, van Artsdalen was out on a bigger day, and dropped into a wave that would forever immortalize him as a Pipeline Maestro.

Butch Van Artsdalen from Capitan Surfocker on Vimeo.

Black Butch set a path for all Pipeline surfers to come when he faded in on that big red Hobie, set a line, disappeared behind the curtain, came flying out with the spit, sat down on his board and then rubbed his hands together like a man who’d just had a great meal or great sex or both: “I want more.”

Butch van Artsdalen became known as “Mr. Pipeline” and was the dominant goofy footer at the break, while a tall, lanky regular foot named John Peck set a line for generations of backside surfers to come. Peck was a Navy kid from California who learned to surf at Coronado at age 15. The family moved all over, but by the time he was 19, Peck’s family were living in Waikiki – just in time to put Peck in the path of the Pipeline.

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According to legend, Peck got Pipeline sorted on the first day of 1963 – paddling out with a bad hangover. Backside surfing is all about technique – where to take off, where to put your feet, where to turn, how to balance with your butt, tails and rails. Technique. Peck figured out how to drop his back knee while dropping in to make the drop and the turn. Once he was in trim, he would sometimes place both feet on the inside of the stringer, grab the outside rail with his right hand and extend his left arm – pointing out of the tube.

Backside surfers have been perfecting that approach ever since – from Owl Chapman to Shaun Tomson to Kelly Slater to John John Florence.

Peck was tall and graceful and made that technique look very very good – even in slow motion. For the summer of 1963, Peck’s backside surfing was featured in the surf movies Angry Sea, Gun Ho!, and Walk on the Wet Side. 

In 1963, Pipeline by The Chantays went to #4 on the USA pop charts and into the cultural mainstream. The spot that didn’t have a proper name only four years before was now world famous. Peck was the clean-cut, all-American backside boy to Black Butch’s kolohe frontside attack. And they were the first two rulers of the Banzai Pipeline.

Juicy Roots is brought to us by contributing writer Ben Marcus