Jock Sutherland described a Pipeline tube as “just like the Pope’s living room,” and Tom Curren described Gerry Lopez as “Like an archer pulling back and letting the arrow fly.”
Something about surfing Pipeline makes a surfer eloquent and pithy. Out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, most of the surfing world were in awe of the ease Lopez got over the ledge and into the barrel of such an infamously deadly-dangerous reef.
But Lopez shrugged it off with nachos like: “It’s a cakewalk if you know how.”
Interviewed decades later by Lauren Rolland for FreeSurf Magazine, Lopez explained that Pipeline wasn’t as easy as he made it look.
I don’t think there’s any surfer, myself certainly included, that does not feel absolute and complete terror the first few years that they try to actively campaign The Pipeline.
It wasn’t easy and there wasn’t anything calm about it to begin with. But after a while, if you are able to develop a relationship with a surf spot, you begin to understand some of the things about a place, even a place like The Pipeline, that you really like and enjoy and look forward to on an ongoing basis. It’s through that enjoyment that you soon develop maybe a little sense of calmness. Maybe it came across as being more calm than it actually really was.
The Shortboard Revolution from 1967 to 1970 was as turbulent and powerful as a Pipeline wave. As Matt Warshaw wrote in The Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Shortboard revolution details are complicated in places, with key figures still in disagreement as to who contributed what…” In a very few short years, Bob McTavish, Nat Young, George Greenough, Dick Brewer, Reno Abellira, Herbie Fletcher, Mike Hynson and many others all had a significant hand in reducing surfboards from 9’6″ x 22″ x 26 pounds to 6’6″ x 20″ x 10 pounds.
Reno Abellira was and is one of the most talented surfer/shapers in the evolution of everything. He was as obsessed at everyone else in exploring the tube at Pipeline – and anywhere that threw out round and challenging.
The minigun was the key to the innermost limits of Pipeline, and planers raised a din and dust across the Hawaiian Islands.
On his website blog, Reno Abellira described his reaction to the Shortboard Revolution, and how the first Pipeline board evolved:
… my neighbor in Waikiki and I stripped the glass off this old waterlogged balsa board he had lying around in his yard. We then literally hacked into the board with an odd assortment of saws, kitchen knives and files and got down to a usable portion of about 8’5″ in length and about 21 inches of width from an original 9’6″ that had not suffered wood rot and the hungry tunneling of a bumble bee. Together we cut out the crude yet to be cleaned outline of a tear drop pintail. After too much balsa dust ingestion (dust masks?, we don’t need no steenkin’ dust masks!) and sheer exhaustion, my friend Wayson gave up completely and I became sole trustee of the blank’s future.
Realizing I lacked real shaping technique and to not risk damage, the blank was put under wraps for almost three years until in 1967, I flew it to Maui in my sleeping bag for Dick Brewer to refine into a mini-gun, an 8’0″x 20″ tear-drop pintail that was a good six inches shorter than the first mini-gun Dick was just about to finish shaping for Gerry Lopez, another tear drop pintail. This was the first tube friendly board at Pipeline which Gerry soon proved to the world.
Gerry Lopez continued the story in the FreeSurf interview with Lauren Rolland:
Making the boards shorter, even though they were ugly and flat and thick and had those super hard rails, they were a big step up from the longboard that we were trying to ride The Pipeline and Sunset on.
It took the level of surfing to a new height that hadn’t been possible because of the equipment before that. The thing about those boards is that they paddled much faster. Your top end speed was greater than with a multi-fin surfboard.
Of course they didn’t turn as quick, and being so flat you really had to be conscious of your trim because it was real easy to pearl. But if you just grooved on the speed and catching the wave early, then you could set up your ride.
Six years after the shortboard revolution shook up the world, Gerry Lopez was by far the best surfer in the water at The Pipeline and arguably the most influential surfer in the world. “By 1972, progressive surfing was all but defined by images of the sinewy (5’8″, 135 pounds) dark- haired Lopez atop a sleek pintail surfboard decorated with a narrow lightning bolt logo, racing deep inside the Pipeline,” Matt Warshaw wrote in The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “Lopez was the most-filmed surfer of his generation, and a protracted Lopez-at-Pipeline sequence was part of nearly every surf movie made between 1971 and 1978, including Morning of the Earth (1972), Five Summer Stories (1972), Going Surfin’ (1974), Super Session (1975), Tales from the Tube (1975), and In Search of Tubular Swells (1977).”
And in all of these movies, and his innumerable photos in the surf magazines, and even in the mainstream, Gerry Lopez was riding beautiful surfboards emblazoned with lightning bolts. As Gerry’s fame rose, so did the fame of his label, and the reputation of his shop, and the shapers making boards there.
Lopez’ rise coincided with the rise of professional surfing. The first Pipeline Masters during the winter of 1971 was an informal affair, fathered by Fred Hemmings. There was a card table on the beach, Fred with a bullhorn and a few more spectators than judges and contestants combined.
Famously and historically, Lopez missed out on the first Pipe Masters after a miscommunication with Corky Carroll – who saw the surf conditions that day and told Lopez it was off.
Lopez won the Pipe Masters in 1972 and 1973, although he had his doubts about competition: “Surfing’s a dance,” Lopez said, “and when you’re trying to squash your opponents it kind of takes away from that whole experience.”
The Lightning Bolt Shop on Kapiolani had been open since 1970, and they added a Maui store in 1972. According to Warshaw in The Encyclopedia of Surfing: “Bolt quickly became a kind of showroom/co-op for many of the best Hawaiian shapers, including Tom Parrish, Reno Abellira, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Tom Nellis, Bill Barnfield and Tom Eberly, all of whom worked out of their own houses (Bolt had no factory of its own) and brought their finished boards to the Bolt retail store, each one trimmed with the distinctive lightning bolt logo on the deck.”
Tom Nellis was one of the first shapers to join the Bolt stable – and was proud to be there. Born in Panama to a military family that moved around, Nellis moved himself to Hawaii around 1971. Mentored by Tom Eberly, Nellis was 18 or 19 when he was welcomed to the Lightning Bolt boutique around 1974. “It was an honor to work for Lightning Bolt,” Nellis said. “It was a very democratic place. They would accept your boards as long as they were accepted by the public. If your boards didn’t sell, it didn’t matter who you were. They appreciated consistency, and at that time in the surfboard business it was easy to be consistent.”
For Lightning Bolt the brand, Gerry Lopez was the godhead/figurehead at The Pipeline, while Jack Shipley handled the marketing side. Beginning early in the company’s history, Shipley’s marketing strategy was to hand out beautiful surfboards like hard candy to the hottest surfers, leading the outside world to believe that no one was riding anything else in the Hawaiian Islands.
That marketing strategy was uber effective through the first half of the 1970s, as Hawaiian surfers dominated in Hawaiian surf – but what was that weird rumbling coming from below the equator?
Juicy Roots is brought to us by contributing writer Ben Marcus