"Pipeline likes certain people."
That's how surfing legend and two-time Pipe Master Gerry Lopez explains the epic performance of Brett Barley at this year's Volcom Pipeline Pro. A relative unknown from North Carolina, nobody expected the 20-year-old to lock in a perfect 10 on his opening ride at Hawaii's most infamous wave – his first drop at Backdoor ever. Or to add a 9.67 later in the heat to hold the highest total of the comp. Or to make it four more rounds before going down in the semis to former Pipeline finalist Mark Mathews and North Shore local Danny Fuller. For three days announcers swooned every time he advanced; and after each heat they wondered, "How does he do it?"
Well, Barley's success is as much about heavy wave experience as it is as about a church-going Southern boy's good karma. As the first pro export from Cape Hatteras proper – the holiest ground in East Coast surfing – Brett grew up paddling out in hurricane whipped seas and howling north swells that pitch, spit and punish like few sandbars on the planet, developing an innate sense of ocean knowledge and a borderline insane bravery. Furthermore, while may be his maiden comp at Pipe, it's hardly his first North Shore season. He's spent four years seeking big waves and feeling major beat downs, generally only poaching rides on the most maxed out and unforgiving days. And never getting enough.
As fellow Outer Banks charger Jesse Hines recounts:
"We went to Hawaii when he was 16 for his first time. He wanted to surf Pipe huge, so bad. It never got that good, but we took him out. And he just got addicted. The next year he caught this one and it didn't barrel at all and he went to pull in and it nailed him on the head. He blacked out underwater, his back was all tweaked, but it could've been really bad. The next year, he was out at Off the Wall and took this closeout, just pulled in and stood there smiling. [Hawaiian pro] Rainos Hayes was so worried. He was like, "Brah, you need to tell him to calm down. He's gonna get hurt." So he's not always the smartest the kid in the world about catching the right wave. [laughs] But he's pretty confident. I mean, anyone who goes out at Pipe, blacks out a couple times and still wants to go out there, they're designed a bit differently."
As Brett proved once more in the final moments of the second semi by pulling into a sketchy Backdoor right—what looked like a hopeless closeout—then nearly slipped out before the lip clipped his head. A mere ‘doggy door' from a possible shot at the title. "A matter of inches," gushed Gerry on the instant reply. "Would've been a 10."
Pipeline local Jaime O'Brien would ended up winning the event—his fifth victory at the historic spot. But Brett's performance stands as the Cinderella story of the comp, with a cheering crowd on the beach and at home, a growing online audience of fans —and a new respect for next winter.
As he said after the very first heat, "This already feels like a win."
Matt Walker is Senior Editor for Surfing Magazine and an Outer Banks resident. He's also co-founder of Surf-First, a surfing activist group in the process of collecting and displaying US surfers' demographic and economic data, state by state -- even break by break -- in order to protect all American surf spots.