Backstage at the Billabong Pipe Masters 

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  • Story and photos by Steve Andrews
  • Backstage at the Billabong Pipe Masters

I had been to Oahu's North Shore before, but this time was different. The other times I was purely a tourist — one of those who made the pilgrimage to spots seen in magazines and old surf movies ever since I was young. This time, however, was career-focused. Turtle Bay Resort hosted a writer's workshop organized by Jodi Wilmott, the communications director for the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. The five-day course promised access to the surf contest action in ways that would otherwise be impossible to even veteran writers.

Our first main field trip was to the Vans pro-team house in front of the Banzai Pipeline where we had the opportunity to meet and interview the athletes. As we pulled up, workers moving in every direction surrounded us. In only a few days, the Billabong Pipe Masters would begin its holding period and the Vans house was ground zero for the action. In the backyard facing the ocean, a giant three-storey scaffold that would house judges, media, and VIPs sprung from the ground.

One of the instructors in the writer's workshop was Ted Endo, a columnist who has ruffled more than a few feathers through his brash commentary. As he introduced himself to former world champion longboarder Joel Tudor, Tudor responded with a curt "I know who you are." His voice intensified as he called Endo out for calling his contest, the Duct Tape Invitational, a "relic," among other criticisms. The dialogue between the two increased in intensity to the point where I thought we might soon be watching a fight. That would likely not have boded well for Endo. In addition to being one of the best surfers in the world,Tudor was also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Luckily, the argument soon dissipated and we were back on schedule.

The next few days had a pleasant mix of intensive learning on the craft of surf journalism, and free time enjoying everything the North Shore had to offer. The routine was pretty simple: Find a good spot to surf that wasn't too big or crowded, stay out until exhaustion, come to the beach to start a fire, cook some food, and watch the sunset. If I had a second wind, I would probably end up at Turtle Bay Resort, which openly welcomed non-guests to enjoy its restaurants and bars. The hotel housed Surfer, The Bar: a Jack-of-all-Trades type establishment that served as the surf scene's main gathering place. Within a few days, I had seen the Pipe Masters' press conference, Melodic Enchantress Paula Fuga, A "Talk Story" session from big wave phenom Greg Long, and a gold-themed disco dance party that featured Neighbour, a DJ I knew well from Vancouver.

Despite the distractions at nighttime, I still kept my focus on why I was here: surfing.

As a young girl, Wilmott had spent several years living with the Aikau family who served as caretakers for the local cemetery. One of the Aikaus, Eddie, attained legend status through his many roles. As a lifeguard, he saved countless lives from the treacherous surf. As a surfer, he conquered those same waves on his own with gear that would leave surfers of today dumbfounded. But perhaps his most important role was aboard Hokulea, a traditional Polynesian sailing canoe that uses no modern instruments for navigation. The crew relies solely on the ancient methods of observing the stars. Eddie died in 1978 during a heroic mission to swim to shore after Hokulea capsized. Today, the Hokulea is navigating the globe on a four-year voyage sharing the message of Malama Honua: We must care for and respect the Earth.

Before, Hokulea left it anchored in Waimea Bay for the annual opening ceremony of the Eddie Aikau Invitational — one of the world's most prestigious surf contests. As the ceremony got underway, I took a few photos but mostly took in the power and reverence of the surf community all gathering in memoriam. A quick look around the circle and I felt humbled by the presence of living legends: Kelly Slater, John John, Tom Carroll, and too many more to list. The ceremony ended with a paddle out in the bay where contestants joined hands in a circle next to Hokulea and pay their respects to Eddie Aikau.

The workshop finished and by the sheer act of requesting it, I had a press lanyard for the Billabong Pipe Masters. As a lifelong sports fan, I do not make the following statement lightly, but the Pipe Masters is probably the most exciting sporting event on the planet. The event has it all: drama, athleticism, and pure awe at Mother Nature's power and beauty. The wave itself is iconic, breaking only a few hundred feet from shoreline. The Pipeline is so powerful that you feel the wave crashing on the reef through your feet in the sand. The crowd watched as the world's best surfers battled head to head in a tournament format over five days. In the end, it was Kelly Slater who took the title in an everyone-on-their-tiptoes final against John John Florence — a generational matchup that has featured some of the most exciting heats in pro surfing. 

As the event came to a close, the celebrations began and did not stop until the morning. The team houses hosted parties with live music and people packed shoulder to shoulder. I got to enjoy the end of the most exciting event with the people who made it happen both in and out of the water.

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