Life Among the Swells
By William Finnegan
The professional surfing circuit ends each year at the Pipeline Masters. Here the would-be, the has-been, and the already-are hero boys of the sport come to be swallowed up--and possibly anointed--by the hungry waves of Oahu's North Shore.
I found a peak, a no-name wave just west of Off-the-Wall. A lifeguard told me an unusual sandbar had formed there after a recent storm and would probably be gone after the next storm. When a set caught it right, the bar produced a steep takeoff with long tapering lefts and short, quick rights. Over the course of a week I surfed the place three times, each time alone or nearly alone. The waves weren't very big, but they were mostly clean and deeply pleasing. What I couldn't decide was whether the light edge of ecstasy I felt while riding this evanescent spot was radiating from the experience itself or from my awareness that it was happening on the holy North Shore.
If the surfing world has a shared mythology, then the North Shore of Oahu is its Olympus. For those who surf, it doesn't matter where one lives--I live in New York City--the place takes up an alarming amount of one's fantasy life. High-resolution images of waves at the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach, Waimea Bay, Backdoor, and Off-the-Wall fill the collective surfing unconscious with mesmerizing caverns, pitching silver lips, and impossibly deep, dreamlike rides.
What happens there is straightforward: Winter storms in the North Pacific generate large swells that strike the coast of Hawaii, their force undiminished by a continental shelf. A fortuitous concentration of reefs and channels on the North Shore turns those swells into ridable waves, and great surfers come from all over the world to ride them. A critical mass of photographers and cameramen gathers to immortalize--and commodify--it all for the entertainment of the rest of us. The imagery produced has, at least for surfers, a power, a fascination, a glamour of complex transcendence.
From November to February the North Shore teems with visiting surfers. They come from Brazil and Europe and Florida and Japan and, most numerously, southern California. This seasonal migration began in the 1950s, when a handful of California surfers first ventured over from Makaha, a West Shore spot then considered the last word in big waves. Nowadays the seasonal influx numbers in the thousands.
For the most part, it's a hard-core crowd--young, male, low-budget, dead serious about surfing. An elaborate dominance hierarchy, both in and out of the water, is constantly under construction. Hot locals and famous pros occupy the heights, but bold, talented newcomers are forever on the rise. Different surfers excel in different conditions, and each spot has its own pecking order, adjusted daily. Given the intensity of the competition, the absence of formal rules, the great cultural diversity of the players, and the sheer quantities of adrenaline being pumped, it all goes off pretty peaceably.
A few young women, some of whom surf, make the pilgrimage these days. Local nightlife, however, is nonexistent. Even in December, the peak month for visitors, the scene is decidedly tame. Short-timers stay in cramped rental cottages, eight and ten to a house. Parties tend to be muted, pot-themed affairs, ending early. A night out is pizza at D'Amicos, a no-frills joint near Sunset Point.
Surfers come for the waves. They also come to get their ticket punched: North Shore experience is indispensable on any ambitious surfer's resume. And if they're planning to make a career in surfing (an option reserved for only the hottest of the hot), they come to perform in this, the main arena--and to be photographed doing so as often as possible.
The highest concentration of cameras usually occurs in December, at the Pipeline Masters (or the Chiemsee Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters, as it's currently known). Held since 1971, the Pipe Masters is probably the world's best-known surf contest and is the final event of the year on the nine-country professional World Championship Tour. Insofar as most surfers take an interest in any contest, they take an interest in the Pipe Masters. When the waves are good, it can be a spectacular show.
But that's a big "insofar." I was at the 1996 Pipe Masters as part of the media mob. Though the contest was on hold for more than a week while its promoters prayed for Pipeline to break, the North Shore surf community didn't seem to be holding its collective breath. Out at Sunset one balmy, brilliant morning, I asked a local surfer about the Pipe Masters and its various affiliated events. "Next year they're going to put up a Ferris wheel," he said, jerking a thumb back toward the beach.
His tart dismissal of the pro scene captured nicely, I thought, the attitude of most surfers toward the organized, commercialized version of the sport: rumpled apathy, contempt, a whiff of envy. Contests are a scam, a distraction from more important things: the ocean, the weather, and of course that weightiest of matters, one's own surfing.
I largely shared this attitude. Indeed, just being in Hawaii heightened my ingrained suspicion of everything that seeks to package and sell surfing. I lived in Honolulu as a kid--I went to junior high school there--and it now makes me physically ill to revisit certain South Shore spots, obscure breaks where a few friends and I used to surf, and find 100 boards in the water. The sport's salesmen have done their job too well. And the World Championship Tour is, naturally, their favorite marketing tool.
This was my first trip to the North Shore since 1978, and it too was dramatically more crowded than I remembered it. There were traffic jams and parking hassles. Surfers on bicycles, boards under arms, patrolled the coast constantly, keeping a close watch on the dozens of spots. Whenever a break got halfway ridable, people were on it, battling for waves. If the surf was actually good, it was crowded from dawn till dark.
Still, I was wildly happy to be there. Out at Sunset that morning, long, sparkling sets moved in from the north, their broad faces buffed by a light south wind. I could see Army C-130s flying lazy, low-altitude circles offshore and a big green sea turtle swimming near my takeoff spot. I lucked into a solid wave alone and rode it from a big-shouldered, sapphire-blue outside wall through a jacking inside bowl. On the paddle back out I was grinning like an idiot.
As I sniffed around the North Shore, I kept catching small glimpses of myself as a young dog haunting these same neighborhoods, in scenes long forgotten: riding a beloved board at a fast, shallow break known as Gas Chambers; staying in a creepy, celibate Baha'i household up at Waialee; surfing Pipeline for the first time on my 19th birthday; getting drubbed within an inch of my life by a ten-wave set at Sunset.
While the surf on the North Shore may be Olympian, the place itself is another matter. Beyond the cropped edges of the exquisite photos, it's a damp, semirural, rather ordinary-looking stretch of tropical coast, 12 miles long, between the old sugar towns of Haleiwa and Kahuku. Military installations and pineapple fields occupy the rolling terraces behind the coastal bluffs, and horse farms take up the verdant flats where the bluffs swing inland. There's a small harbor at Haleiwa. Otherwise, the only significant notch in the coast is the U-shaped, cliff-lined, river-mouth bay at Waimea. Beach houses, both modest and posh, fill the narrow, intermittent strip between the ocean and the only through road.
The year-round residents are native-born islanders, ex-Californians, and a scantling of transplants from farther away. Some surf, though most don't. Ethnically, it's Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, haoles (whites), Koreans, and every conceivable combination thereof. Some people commute to Honolulu, 30 miles away on the South Shore, or to one of the island's military bases, but local jobs are scarce, particularly since the sugar mill at Haleiwa closed last year. There's only one hotel, a Hilton near Kahuku, which seems to be struggling.
Tourism reaches the North Shore mainly in the form of charter buses, which stop in Haleiwa, where curio shops and "art galleries" lie in wait for them, or on the roadside at Sunset Beach, where they exhale packs of camera swingers in front of the famous wave every few minutes, inhale them back, and proceed.
Surfers on the North Shore, like surfers most everywhere, are often broke, or nearly so. And the winter pilgrims have tended to bring with them a motley flock of hangers-on, not all of whom leave when the winter swells end. A transient layer of nouveau poverty thus lies uneasily alongside the community's older rural Hawaiian poverty, the two worlds sharing, among other things, an underground economy specializing in crack, heroin, speed, stolen property, and above all, marijuana.
This is the non-glam North Shore, and you can scarcely be here a day without noticing it. Its denizens trip along the roadside, trade food stamps at tiny cinder-block groceries, settle domestic disputes in grubby laundromats at night. Just east of Sunset Point, near a surf spot known as Velzyland, the road passes a long row of low beige houses that could be in backwater Alabama: rotting carports, muddy trucks on blocks, chained pit bulls, large men drinking beer on a weekday morning, barefoot children in dirty shorts.
So while a Ferris wheel on the beach at Sunset obviously won't happen--that was just a metaphor--there is this other perspective on the pro surfing circus that passes through Hawaii each winter: that of the kids who live here, many of them poor.
I think it's safe to say that they're unlikely to share my bourgeois purist's distaste for crass commercialism. In fact, the local boys who've made it as pro surfers are heroes to such kids, who would no doubt be happy to join the circus and see the world themselves. And this poor-boy's perspective was really more interesting, I later decided, than my own.
But I only saw that after spending a week, waiting for the Pipe Masters to start, with one of the homeboy heroes, a young pro named Conan Hayes.
He's not one of the professional surfing tour's poster boys yet. He had a great year, though, rising from number 35 on the 44-man tour to number ten going into this, the year's final event. In an August meet in Lacanau, France, he defeated, in successive heats, Kelly Slater, Sunny Garcia, and Shane Beschen, who were then ranked number one, two, and three in the world, respectively. Perhaps, I think, that's why everywhere we go on the North Shore--to the beach, out surfing, into Haleiwa for breakfast--people greet him with peace signs, double-clutch handshakes, cryptic jokes. They're drawn to him, sensing he may be the Next Big Thing. "Nah," says Conan. "It's because I cut my hair."
Just yesterday he had a burgundy-tinted Afro. Now, suddenly, he has a burgundy tennis ball. He's obviously into abrupt revamps--in surfing magazine photos past, he had blond braids and then blond cornrows. "Experiments," he says, when I ask him about other self-adornments--a pierced nose, a pierced tongue. (His half-dozen tattoos must fall under another category.)
Conan is strangely self-possessed for a kid of 22, with a quiet, watchful manner that crosscuts suavely with his flamboyance. Although he's a haole, he's got a streetwise, multicultural air. With his long arms and powerful torso, he looks like a boxer, some junior welterweight brawler from the Bronx. At five-foot-seven and 145 pounds, he's one of the smaller men on the pro tour.
Conan really doesn't seem to see the North Shore through the prism of his own success--a sports-mad campus on which he is a popular jock. His humility can be quite disarming. One day we're crawling down a narrow road near Pipeline in my rental car, easing past a battered sedan going the other way. Conan waves to the other driver, a shirtless old Filipino, who waves back. "You know him?" I ask, a little surprised.
"Nah," Conan says. "But you gotta wave to people in Hawaii. It's like super-mandatory. I was just covering for you."
Conan learned his rural Hawaiian manners on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, where he grew up and, when he is not out on tour, still lives. His parents were country hippies, his father a marijuana farmer. For a haole kid, Hawaiian public schools can be tough places. "Yeah, they had a Kill Haole Day at my school," Conan recalls. "But all my boys were the gnarliest Hawaiian guys, and by junior high I was known for surfing, so I was cool. I never fazed."
The Big Island doesn't have a reputation for good surf, but Conan's parents gave him a used board when he was ten, and his talent was noticed immediately, even at his mediocre home break. A local surf shop and a Honolulu board company began to sponsor him when he was only 11, flying him to Oahu for amateur contests, which he soon began to win.
John Carper, a board shaper on the Big Island at the time (he's now on the North Shore and shapes boards for Conan), remembers a whole crop of hot local kids, from which only Conan and his best friend, Shane Dorian, also now a top pro and Carper team rider, emerged. "There were so many drugs around," Carper says. "And all these other kids were turning into little jelly piles--no motivation. Shane and Conan were different. They were dead-set against drugs. They were like ghetto kids. They had that kind of determination."
When Conan was 14, his father got busted for growing pot. His sentence: ten years in federal prison. Conan had been largely raising himself already--"He was sleeping on people's floors, hanging with adults," according to Carper--and developing his trademark equanimity. "He was never angry or hyperactive, like a lot of kids coming out of the drug culture," Carper said. "He could always entertain himself."
After his father went to jail, Conan began raising himself for real. "My mom had no money, and she had my little sister," he says. Conan, barely five feet tall at the time, moved to the North Shore, where he scraped by on whatever his local sponsors gave him, lived off friends, became a strict vegetarian, and won every state amateur title in sight. One year he and Shane Dorian lived together in a walk-in closet. Somehow Conan managed to graduate from high school.
The adult he most credits with helping him through this hand-to-mouth adolescence is Ben Aipa, a legendary Hawaiian surfer and board maker who became his coach. "Conan was really very independent," Aipa recalls. "But I took him everywhere with me, trying to keep him busy. I was coaching Brad Gerlach"--a world-tour pro--"and I used to take Conan along. Conan already saw where he wanted to go."
Against his sponsor's advice, Conan turned professional and soon found himself with an unorthodox new sponsor: Chris Lassen, a painter from Maui who had parlayed his work--garish, tropical-fantasy fare--into a multinational schlock-art business with revenues last year of more than $20 million. Lassen, who surfs, wanted a surf team with his name on it. Conan ended up sharing a palatial North Shore beach house, just down the road from his old walk-in closet, with other Lassen beneficiaries. Lassen bankrolled his travels to contests on the World Qualifying Series, where top finishers graduate to the World Championship Tour.
Conan was in awe of Lassen's custom-car collection--Cobras, Lamborghinis--and remembers, with a rich chuckle, cruising Waikiki with Lassen's team manager in the boss's Porsche 911. This idyll ended when Lassen's corporation reorganized and disbanded the team.
By the end of 1994, Conan had qualified for the World Championship Tour. He had a board sponsor, a wetsuit sponsor, a sandals sponsor, a sunglasses sponsor--and the fees they paid him to promote their products far outpaced the prize money he won in 1995, which came to less than $30,000. Tour life was not luxurious for surfers at his level, who doubled up on hotel rooms and rental cars. Still, his income allowed him to make down payments on a house in Kona for his mother and, just down the mountain and across from the beach, a modest condo for himself.
His 1996 results were sharply better, making Conan an increasingly hot commodity. But rather than cash in on his promotional value with a clothing sponsor--the main source of most pros' income--Conan started, with several partners, his own clothing line, called Seventeen Apparel. "It's so much better than having a sponsor breathing down your neck," he says.
Conan's commitment to the company is intense. He has SEVENTEEN tattooed in large letters across his back, and "17" inside a star on one calf. He recently turned down an endorsement offer from another clothing outfit that would have paid him $450,000 over three years. "I believe in my company," he says. "And I won't always be on tour."
This odd combination of forward-looking prudence--rare, to say the least, on the pro tour--and go-for-broke recklessness (making one's body a lifelong billboard for a fledgling enterprise in a high-risk business like the rag trade) struck me as essential Conan. While his job at Seventeen is, as one of his partners put it, "to surf"--to appear in ads, to win contests with the firm's logo on his board--he is passionate about its designs as well.
"Our clothes are, like, all basketball," he told me, indicating the sweatpants, jersey, and sneakers he was wearing, which were, I guess, pretty basketball. He pointed to a Seventeen ad in a surf magazine, which featured a photo of him doing a spectacular snapback. "We're going for a super-clean look," he said, studying the ad. The avant-garde athlete as entrepreneur, I thought--part performer, part promoter. They had named their company Seventeen, one of his partners told me, because "that's the age when a surfer comes into his own, when the little grommet grows up, when he stops following and starts wanting his own image. Kids that age love Conan."
Although Conan rejected the idea, when I mentioned it, that selling surf-related products ultimately exacerbates, by glamorizing the sport, the problem of crowds in the water, he is not insensitive to the ambiguities of what people in his world, like people in the film business, call simply "the industry." He is very protective of the anonymity of surf spots on the Big Island, for instance, actively opposing any coverage of them in the magazines. When the publicity machine meets his ordinary surfer's preference for solitude, commercialism loses.
Indeed, he surprised me by saying that he had been training for the Pipe Masters not at Pipeline, the obvious place, but back on the Big Island: lifting weights, mountain biking, surfing. Why? "I hate the North Shore," Conan said. "Too many people, too much hype."
Conan and I paddled out at Pipeline one morning during the Pipe Masters waiting period. The surf was about two feet and exceedingly gentle. The swell was too small and too north for Pipeline--a spectacular, ultra-hollow left--to be breaking. And yet there were 20 guys in the water at the famous patch of reef that morning. When Pipeline is breaking, the crowd there is the most dangerous on the North Shore. Today it was just the most annoying.
My eye kept drifting down the beach to my no-name peak, on the other side of Off-the-Wall. It looked empty, as usual, and it seemed to be working. But Conan pointed out a photographer on the beach and said, "Taylor's guy's here, so I should stay here." He meant Taylor Steele, a well-known surf-video producer.
"But these waves are too small," I whined. "The pictures won't be any good."
"You'd be surprised," Conan said, with a little grimace. I guessed what he meant: The surf mags are full of shots of guys doing aerials against a blue sky with nothing in sight but a spray of saltwater to indicate that there was even a wave outside the frame. And the other guys in the water with us were, I noticed, indeed launching some incredible maneuvers--"slutting out," as the pros say, meaning that the cameras present were turning them into "photo sluts."
While Conan went to work for the cameras (later, when I asked Taylor Steele about his professional relationship with Conan, he said, "I need Conan, Conan needs me"), I paddled outside and went for a swim in the clear water among the fissures and rocks of the Pipeline reef. The jagged bottom, with its holes and caves and overhanging ledges, was terrifying when one pictured ten-foot waves exploding into the thin cushion of water above it. There were so many places for a falling body to slam against or get stuffed under.
A little later, Conan, having grown bored with milking knee-high waves, joined me. He also studied the bottom. "All this sand in the gullies and inside," he said. "That all has to wash away before Pipeline will go off. We need a big west swell."
I found an area of reef that looked like it might form the head of the peak--the first place where a wave starts to break--on a good-size day. I asked if it was the takeoff zone. Conan turned and studied the shore. "Yeah, it is," he said. "But I like a boil over there better. It's a little more deep." He pointed some yards west, and I realized I had seen him take off over there, from a spot frighteningly far behind the peak, in a surf video. In that piece of footage, Conan had been rewarded for his daring with a huge backdoor barrel. It was rides like that one that had earned him his reputation for surfing Pipeline with abandon.
For the Masters, Conan was hoping that Pipeline would assume its full form. Even among the top 44, having to surf big Pipe would sharply narrow the field of serious contenders. And Conan, who loves big waves, would be in that winnowed group. (The women's WCT, which normally holds contests alongside the men's tour, doesn't have an event at Pipeline. The wave, when it's happening, is considered just too hairy.)
I noticed that Conan had started shivering. I couldn't see why. The air and water were wonderfully warm. "I don't have any body fat," he explained.
We were joined by a couple of young Brazilian women on bodyboards. Like half the surfers on the North Shore, they seemed to know Conan well. Both were darkly tanned and were completely naked. Drifting and chatting with them, Conan seemed to forget about being cold. They hung on his words and laughed at his jokes. In the ocean, even without waves to ride, Conan, his shoulders rippling, lolled like an alpha-male dolphin.
With waves to ride, he was something else again. A few days later, the swell was bigger--though still not big enough for the contest's purposes--and he and I were surfing Off-the-Wall. It was fairly crowded, but the waves were worth competing for, so a pecking order was in place. Conan shot to the top of it without seeming to consider any other possibility. He paddled for position faster than anybody else, seemed to read the swells sooner, caught every wave that interested him, and then tore it apart. There were several other excellent surfers out, but Conan's turns, snapbacks, lip bashes, gouges, floaters, and re-entries were all a solid notch sharper and more startling.
While his intensity was presumably only a fraction of what it would be in serious waves or in a contest, it was formidable. The look on his face when he dug for a wave bore a distinct resemblance to fury.
And his virtuosity, his superiority to an ordinary surfer like me, was not, I realized, simply a matter of degree. There were also basic category shifts. When I consider a wave, I ask first if I can catch it and second if I can make it (that is, stay ahead of its breaking section). Conan, it seemed, wasn't asking the same questions. Catchability, for instance, is less of an issue when you can paddle as fast as he and other pros can. You can catch almost any wave you want. Conan had been trying to explain certain tactics in three-man heats to me, and they hadn't really made much sense, but now I saw that they did make sense if the normal limits of wave-catchability were simply repealed. Clever dodges of all sorts suddenly became possible.
I noticed Conan giving me blank looks more than once when I asked him, of an approaching swell, something like, "Do you think this right looks makable?" To me this was a normal question--he knew the break well, after all, and I didn't; a lot of waves were closing out hard on the inside bar. Eventually, from some mumbled replies about "open face," I gathered that he didn't really care if a wave was makable. He wasn't looking to ride waves the longest possible distance and pull out of them cleanly before they broke--the traditional definition of a successful ride--as I was. He was just looking for some "open face" to shred, maybe a lip to bash, maybe a barrel to pull into. A wave that closed out was not, in his book, necessarily to be avoided.
His gravity-defying floaters and monster re-entries were in fact designed for making the most of close-outs. Indeed, such maneuvers were essential to success in contests, when you often couldn't wait around for "makable" waves.
I rode in feeling old.
One reason most surfers don't care about contests is that they're usually held in mediocre surf, which even the best surfers cannot make interesting. Another is that surfing is simply not, at bottom, a competitive activity--there is no objective standard available to rate performance. Contests, furthermore, "promote the sport" at a time when the biggest problem in surfing is crowds in the water and the last thing most of us want is for more people to get turned on to our chosen obsession.
Then there are the locals at the spots where contests are held, who are often unhappy about having their home breaks rented out and closed off. Protests by what pro tour officials are pleased to call "recreational surfers" have been growing all along the WCT trail--in Australia, South Africa, Rëunion, California--over contest permits and public access.
On the North Shore, enforcement of a contest's exclusion zone has traditionally fallen to a crew of local heavies who used to be known as the Black Shorts and are now called Hui O He'e Nalu ("Group of Wave Sliders") or simply the Hui. Ostensibly a Hawaiian cultural self-help group, the Hui is widely feared among both visiting and resident surfers. The Hui's franchise on contest security has been eroded by local lifeguards, only some of them Hui members, who've formed something called Water Patrol Inc., complete with Jet Skis. But this lucrative little business only underscores the tension between the contest scene and the rest of the surfing world.
Rob Machado gives this dynamic an extra twist. A brilliant surfer, Machado finished 1995 ranked second in the world after losing to Kelly Slater in what many people think was the greatest Pipe Masters heat ever. (Mediocre waves were not a problem that year.) Afterward, Machado said that the most exciting thing about the contest wasn't the prize money or the glory, but simply the opportunity to ride immaculate Pipeline for 25 minutes with only one other surfer. It was a peculiar form of purism, but it resonated, I think, with the masses.
Slater for his part could probably afford to rent any break he liked. Easily the biggest name in surfing, he is said to get a million dollars a year from his sponsor, Quiksilver, and to have been offered two million to sign with Nike. Coming into this contest, he had won the Pipe Masters three of the previous four years and had already sewn up his fourth world title in five years. While anything could happen in any given heat, Slater stood firmly as the primary obstacle between hopefuls like Conan and the Pipe Masters crown.
Conan was crashing in an empty room at the Sunset Point house of another young pro named Jun Jo. "We're all professional time-consumers," Conan said. He meant pro surfers, who spend half their lives waiting around for contests to start. Conan amused himself during the Pipe Masters waiting period by playing basketball, golf, and Hang Time, the video game of choice at Jun's place. Weight lifting and other serious training were on hold--Conan didn't want to be sore if the contest suddenly started. He listened, as always, to a lot of rap--especially Tupac Shakur--and played a lot of guitar.
One day we sat on the deck of a beach house that Rob Machado had rented for the contest. The surf had come up, finally, but so had an onshore wind. Pipeline was a foaming mess--still no lefts in sight. A fitful traffic of young pros, coaches, shapers, and photographers drifted across Machado's deck. High-performance surfboards filled the small yard. (A couple of these would later get broken in moments of pique by their owners after unsuccessful Pipe Masters heats.) In the space of an hour, the entire cast of some of Taylor Steele's surf videos wandered past--including the soft-spoken, Afro-haired Machado, a rangy Hawaiian phenom named Kalani Robb, and Conan's friend Shane Dorian, whose clean-cut charm has also landed him a leading role in a forthcoming Hollywood feature film, In God's Hands. Steele's videos, with their punk soundtracks, have become cult objects.
"It's weird," Conan says. "These kids in Japan and Europe and wherever know every wave, every note of every song, on Taylor's videos."
Conan and his friends are, in other words, the coolest of the cool in a large patch of youthworld. Certainly, I thought, watching them come and go, the pros--with their deep tans, their amazing physiques--carried themselves like young gods.
The way they speak about surfing is a peculiar combination of sports talk and art talk. On the one hand, there are wave conditions and training regimens and heat tactics, and on the other there are hopeless efforts to describe the indescribable: what moves them in surfing, what they love. Many young pros, I found, including Conan and Dorian, grew up idolizing an unorthodox Australian goofyfoot named Mark Occhilupo, who flourished in the mid-1980s, disappeared from the surfing scene for seven years, and recently resurfaced on the pro tour, again surfing wondrously. Occy, as he is known, was ahead of his time, his acolytes say, but when pressed to elaborate they flail, sounding a bit like art majors.
"He had no weird influences," Dorian finally told me.
But what did that mean, I asked--no weird influences?
"He came from nowhere," Dorian said. "He didn't look like he had studied anybody else's style. The way he looks at a wave is just genius."
Conan agreed. Genius.
Conan and his buddies also talk a lot of regular surf talk--with some differences. I once asked Conan about peak experiences, and he mentioned surfing in East Java last year at a remote break called Grajagan. A WCT contest was being held there, but what he seemed to treasure was simply the great waves they found. He got what was probably the longest tube ride of his life, he said, and he saw the most amazing tube ride ever. I knew the ride he meant, because I had seen it on video: Kelly Slater, insanely deep for insanely long.
"I was on the shoulder, paddling out," Conan said. "And I could see Kelly back in there, just so far back in this big, sucking-out, overhead barrel. He was actually skidding around on the foam ball. I really thought he'd never come out. And then I looked back, and--" Conan thrust his arms upward in imitation of Slater's brief, ecstatic gesture as he escaped the great tube. Conan, shaking his head, gave a vivid groan, eloquent in the pre-verbal language spoken by all surfers about surfing. It was notable to me that he, busy making his living from the sport, still obviously shared the basic stoke of it.
The Pipe Masters finally got under way on the ninth day of the 12-day waiting period. You sometimes hear the Pipe Masters described by nonsurfers as the Super Bowl of surfing. The opening-day crowd for this Super Bowl numbered about 150. A few surfers--mainly friends of the contestants. A few Japanese girls, hoping to get Kelly Slater's autograph. Some confused-looking tourists. And a few clumps of idle North Shore scenesters--shaved heads and wraparound shades, ponytails and big pirate earrings, nobody stinting on tattoos.
Otherwise, it was all cameras. They lined the water's edge, practically outnumbering the spectators. The Pipe Masters is, as pro tour officials say, a "media-driven event." It lives by its TV coverage, its syndication sales. The Jet Skis of Water Patrol Inc. cruised the lineup, keeping the throngs of "recreational surfers" out of the contest site.
Unfortunately, for the start of the 1996 Pipe Masters, there was no Pipeline. There were good-size, clean waves at the place called Pipeline, but they were walled-up rights, not ultra-hollow lefts. The swell still wasn't west enough, people said. There was still too much sand on the reef. The trialists, who competed in the morning, surfed well, but many Pipe specialists got nowhere. Even Mark Occhilupo didn't make it through.
In the afternoon, as the main event commenced, though, a superb left began to fire just down the beach, at Off-the-Wall. Shawn Briley, a rotund local tube-riding wizard who had failed to survive the trials that morning, paddled out at Off-the-Wall, where he snagged barrel after barrel. I watched his performance from the judges' platform overlooking Pipeline. Nothing much was happening in the heats out front, so all eyes (and binoculars) were on Briley, with the usual chorus of screams and groans rising each time he made one of his miraculous, casual escapes. "Ten! Ten!" a judge would shout. The judges were all old surfers, clearly still not oblivious to ordinary stoke.
Only one surfer was being eliminated in the three-man, first-round heats. Still, Pipe aces were dying like flies in the chunky rights. Rob Machado and Kalani Robb, two of the contest favorites, were unceremoniously bounced. Conan's first heat wasn't scheduled until the next day.
As there was still plenty of light left when the day's competition ended, I hurried down to Sunset. The waves were bigger and much better there than they had been at Pipeline, and I ended up surfing until dark. There was a daunting array of pros in the water--I counted three former world champions--which made it difficult to get waves to oneself. So I tried to see the session as a chance to study, at close range, the moves of the masters. I even succeeded, in part.
And that's when I realized that the North Shore, the pro scene, had seduced me. My aggressive skepticism about the upper reaches of surfing--that hazy area where hot surfers turned into commercial icons and magnificent waves became some huckster's profit margin--had been undone by ten days at the circus. I was actually interested in something other than the ocean and my own surfing.
I was fascinated especially by Mark Occhilupo. He seemed unaffected by his loss at Pipeline earlier in the day. He was surfing exuberantly, anyway, with great concentration. I can't say I understood everything he was doing--his moves were so quick, so fearless, that I found them strange and hard to follow. Maybe, I thought, "no weird influences" was the best description.
Conan's opening-round heat was held in head-high, inconsistent rights. His opponents were a fellow Hawaiian named John Shimooka and a Brazilian goofyfoot, Flavio Padaratz. Both were tour veterans whom Conan had passed in the rankings over the course of the year.
All three started with a couple of low-scoring rides. Then Conan caught a bigger, longer wave and reeled off a series of wild lip bashes that scored an 8.25 and put him in the lead. He caught a second, fairly good wave, a 6.4. He needed one more decent score to be sure of advancing (heats are decided on each surfer's three best waves). Shimooka got a nice barrel for a 9, putting him in the lead and Conan in second.
Then things got interesting.
Conan and Shimooka started shadowing Padaratz. To avoid elimination, Padaratz needed a good wave. But Conan and Shimooka, working together, could prevent him, I realized, from catching one. They could do this, under the rules of the three-man heat, simply by taking off on either side of him. The way it worked was diabolical: Once Padaratz caught a wave and committed himself to riding it in one direction or the other, the Hawaiian in front of him would pull back, as if to give him the wave, but the Hawaiian in back of him would drop in. Since, in surfing, the rider in front is always wrong, Padaratz would be cited for interference--a penalty that would kill his chances of advancing.
I thought this seemed like dirty pool, and some of the Brazilians on the beach seemed to agree. But, I was informed by a contest official, it was a not-uncommon tactic. In fact, only the opening round of the Pipe Masters used three-man heats. After that, it would be man-on-man, and that, I was told, was when the serious hassling would start.
Padaratz paddled furiously up and down the beach, looking for a wave. Conan and Shimooka paddled gaily along with him. Very few waves came through. Nobody took off.
But then, with perhaps five minutes left in the heat, Conan and Shimooka seemed to relax--seemed, actually, to be absorbed in conversation--and Padaratz slipped away, getting just far enough to catch, alone, a small wave that suddenly stood up nicely. He rode it fiercely across the Backdoor sandbar and scored a 7.15, enough to move him into second place.
Now Conan needed a wave, any wave, immediately. And Padaratz was shadowing him. They charged back and forth. Padaratz's plan was brutally simple. Any wave Conan caught, he would catch, too, and surf right at him, earning Conan an interference.
There were several hundred people on the beach today, and they were starting to yell--in Conan's favor, I thought. Conan was a faster paddler, but not so much faster that he could completely elude Padaratz in the confined space of the contest site. Whether he could outrace him by a margin large enough to catch a wave by himself began to seem, in any case, like a moot question, because no waves at all were coming through now. Shimooka seemed to be watching the whole drama passively.
It was the worst, most graphic hassling the contest had seen so far. And I found it really unsettling to watch--mainly because, if any "recreational surfer" were to do for 15 seconds to another surfer what Padaratz was doing to Conan for minutes on end, a fight would break out. As crowd behavior, it was beyond outrageous. As contest behavior, however, it was apparently normal. So much, I thought, for contests as a respite from crowds.
And that was how the heat ended. No waves came, and Conan was out of the contest in the first round.
Pipeline never did break that week, but the Pipe Masters limped on. The beach crowd grew toward the end of the contest, though surfers on the whole seemed to stay away--other spots, after all, were getting better waves. Padaratz made it through his second heat but then lost to Shimooka man-on-man in the third round. Shimooka ended up tied for fifth. Shane Dorian, who was surfing brilliantly, made it to the third round, where he ran into Kelly Slater, who was quite unstoppable. Slater went on to win the contest for the fourth time. Of the 14 WCT contests held in 1996, he won seven.
Watching Slater, I kept thinking about things that Conan and Shane had said about him earlier in the week. "Other guys surf incredible," Conan said. "But all that stuff came from Kelly."
He didn't mean specific maneuvers necessarily, he said, but a sensibility that put them together in startling, beautiful new ways, an original understanding of where certain things might be done on a wave, and the rare, even unprecedented athletic ability to realize his ideas. He made the perhaps inevitable comparison to Michael Jordan.
Shane said, "I don't know how Kelly does it. He can't look to anybody else for inspiration. He can't look to us. We have to look to him." This, coming from one of the best surfers on earth, was heavy praise.
But it seemed to me clearly warranted, as Slater burned through the Pipe Masters, surfing on a distinctly higher plane than anyone else. His turns were bigger, cleaner, more gasp-inducing, his floaters more prolonged and dazzling, his tube rides longer and more agile, his down-the-line speed measurably greater.
And within this overwhelming repertoire was a presence of mind, too, a wit that saw subtle opportunities for unexpected moves, moves that drew screams of surprise and even laughter from the crowd. I had seen Slater in many photographs and a few videos, and while he was obviously a great surfer, I had usually found his style rather odd and even ugly. Now I saw how his surfing adapted to conditions, how breathtakingly spontaneous it was. What had seemed odd to me was simply original. What had seemed ugly was simply new. And a contest situation brightly showcased his raw superiority.
One incident in the final serves as an example of that superiority. It was Slater against Sunny Garcia, a powerful Hawaiian who has the second-best record in pro surfing over the last five years. Garcia surfed well, but Slater surfed supernaturally, scoring a 10, a 9.5, and an 8.25 in waves that weren't particularly good.
As the heat wound down and Garcia lost all hope of catching Slater, a beautiful wave came through, with Slater in position. Garcia stunned the crowd by taking off in front of Slater, thus incurring an interference penalty and effectively conceding the heat. It was a kamikaze move, a measure of Garcia's frustration, but both surfers, recognizing that the contest was over, chose to surf the wave hard, for the hell of it.
They charged down the line, Slater on Garcia's tail. The wave threw out, both ducked, both disappeared. The crowd was screaming itself hoarse. Two surfers getting barreled together is extremely rare. Both of them making it out is far rarer. As the wave roared along, faint traces of the surfers inside could be seen through the curtain. Then somebody fell, and a board went over the falls. And then Slater emerged from the tube, standing tall. Garcia, surfing in front, hadn't made it. But Slater, riding behind, had.
It made no sense. But there it was.
After his first-round loss in the Pipe Masters, Conan went back to Jun Jo's house, took a nap, and shaved his head. When I saw him later and asked him why, he shrugged. Because he felt like it. His scalp was white as bone. He stuck it out the window as we drove down the road. It needed sun, he said. People we passed who recognized him howled.
Conan wanted to go home to the Big Island, but he was obliged to stick around for the pro tour's year-end banquet in Honolulu. Slater would be crowned world champ again. Conan would receive the Most Improved award. If he missed the banquet, he could be fined.
So he passed his days surfing, golfing, Christmas shopping, going to the movies--Jerry Maguire twice, a midnight premiere of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America--watching a few Pipe Masters heats, and visiting with his dad in Honolulu.
His father had just been released from federal prison, after seven and a half years. The terms of his release confined him for now to Honolulu. I spoke to him on the phone, and he told me that one of the nicer moments of his incarceration occurred in 1995 while watching television. A Hawaiian surf contest unexpectedly came on. It was the men's finals of the Town and Country Pro. And there was Conan, ripping it apart and winning the contest.
"That was a really pleasant surprise," he said. But his prison years had been made bearable, he said, mainly by the fact that he is a dedicated Buddhist. And in his calm and careful way of speaking I thought I heard the wellsprings of Conan's signature sangfroid.
Toward the end of the week, Conan finally talked to me about his lousy Pipe Masters showing. "The bad part is that because Kalani [Robb] and Rob [Machado] were already out, all I had to do was get through a couple of heats, and I'd have finished the year at number seven." As it was, he would fall to number 13.
We were sitting on the beach at Pipeline, squeezed into a small patch of palm-tree shade in deference to Conan's pale melon. "What can I do?" Conan asked mildly. "I can't make the waves come." He bent forward, shut his eyes, put his fingers on his shaved head, and tried to beam telepathic orders at the ocean. We both laughed. Then he added, "All you can control is yourself."
A middle-aged photographer came padding across the beach toward us. He nodded to Conan, who nodded back. The photographer gestured toward Off-the-Wall. "The light's getting better," he said. "If you could just go out and get a couple..."
Conan sighed. "Sure," he said. And he grabbed a board and went surfing.
William Finnegan is the author of several books, including A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (University of California Press) and Cold New World, forthcoming from Random House.
Photographs by Erik Aeder