This past week I attended the three-day 2014 Volcom Pipe Pro—a prestigious surfing contest that takes place at the Banzai Pipeline beach on Oahu’s gorgeous North Shore, in Hawaii.
Top surfers from around the world compete for an opportunity to qualify for the World Championship Tour—an annual series of 11 competitions held around the globe. What makes the competition so intense is the event’s main stage—the Pipeline, a.k.a. "Pipe." It is a sum of large oceanic humps self-imploding on a reef shelf so shallow that about one surfer loses his life here every year.
While it’s about the contest, the Volcom Pipe Pro has turned into a thriving culture: Women in the smallest of bikinis flirt with surfers for a chance to party at night in the Volcom house; after the rounds each day, competitors and spectators crash the Turtle Bay resort, where Blue Crush was filmed; and each morning, hangovers prevent no one from getting to Pipe at 7:00 AM to wait for surfers to paddle out. I was granted complete access to the Volcom’s infamous Pipe house, and I couldn’t have been more excited. This place is an institution on the North Shore. I had heard stories of how they had actual whistleblowers who would stay on guard to watch out for anyone doesn’t follow the pecking order. I toured the grounds and caught up with the top contenders.
As soon as I stepped inside, I immediately discovered Alex Gray assessing the waves. The California native has been residing at the Volcom house throughout Hawaii’s winter surf season. I had casually met him the day before, and he immediately recognized me and greeted me with a high five. He has to be one of the most approachable people ever, so we chatted about the competition and the dangers of wiping out on the reef.
VICE: You have a tough heat coming up. How do you feel about having Kelly Slater in it?
Alex Gray: Oh, I’m so stoked! I mean, Kelly, in my opinion, is the greatest athlete of all time. Surfing just doesn’t have as much recognition or following as traditional sports. But anyway, to surf good Pipe with Kelly is a dream. I can’t wait.
Agreed. Are you nervous?
No, I’m happy that the forecast finally turned around and we get to see some proper Pipeline for this event. It’s what everybody comes here for, and this is great. It’s a good day to have a contest, and were all stoked that it’s running. To be out here with four guys instead of 80; it’s a treat really.
Tell me about taking a beating at Pipe. Do you always hit the reef when you wipeout?
The worst wipeouts at Pipe are the unexpected ones that come out of nowhere and there’s nothing you can do. At that point your giving it up to someone up above, and you hope for the best. There’s waves where I’m like, Oh, that guy died, but he comes up laughing. Then there are random wipeouts where it doesn’t look that bad, but a guy is limping up the beach with a broken leg.
Yikes. How long can you hold your breath?
We did this breath-holding class, and I got to four and a half minutes, but sitting here right now I could probably only hold it for 45 seconds.
How is the scene here at Pipe? I’ve noticed there are quite a few girls.
North Shore is the new 24/7 spring break. It’s funny to talk to the old dogs. They’re like, "20 years ago there was one girl here, and we were all sword fighting!" Now there are girls everywhere. They are all starting their own bikini lines to see who can make the smallest one. Then they walk up and down the beach with them on.
I am not a surfer competing in the event; I might as well be the guy Rollerblading with a golden retriever while wearing a bicycle helmet.
Yeah, but if you could rent a baby and wear a speedo and Rollerblade, you’d get so many chicks over here.
Shortly after the interview, Olamana Eleogram, pictured above, emerged from his quarter-final heat with a broken leg. Hailing from the neighboring island of Maui, the young Hawaiian is no stranger to Pipeline, but he took a beating on the reef. I later found out that he needs surgery to place pins in his leg. All I could think was, Luckily it wasn’t his head.
I continued to roam the house by myself, and I ran into Mitch Coleborn, who is commonly described as a “free surfer” but has recently gained recognition for his competitive edge.
VICE: Didn’t you almost make the world tour recently?
Mitch Coleborn: Yeah. So last year I ended up 33rd, but you have to make the top 32, so I missed out by one spot. That sucks, but I’m getting amped again for this year and doing the QS again.
At least you still have a high seed.
Yeah, for most of these events I'll have a top seed.
These are your digs for the contest?
This is my little zone, yeah. I stick to my side; couple boards there, some downstairs. It’s funny: Zeik [Mitch’s roommate] just a got girlfriend, so I pretty much have the whole room to myself.
What do you do besides surf? Any hobbies?
A little bit of golf here and there. Mainly just at home with the boys, having a few beers. Um, yeah, that’s about it: just cruise. I also run a sunglass company with a couple friends, Kai Neville and Dion Agius.
What’s it called?
Epokhe. So a bit of sunglasses on the side, but they handle all the biz stuff and let me surf.
So what’s next? Any projects you’re working on?
Yeah, Kai has a new movie coming out, so I’ll be doing a bunch of filming for that. Volcom has a new movie coming out, and I got a ton of trips planned and also a bunch of events.
Thanks a lot. I’ll be rooting for you.
Crusing the backyard was Jay Adams, a skateboarding legend best known from the documentary film, Dog Town and Z-Boys.
VICE: So what do you think about the contest so far?
Jay Adams: Greatest show on earth!
Whens the last time you surfed Pipe?
A couple days ago. It was a little bit smaller than this, though.
It’s insane that you are still charging Pipe. It’s a young guy's wave.
I just turned 53 a couple days ago. It is a young guy's wave, but there are smaller days when it’s fun [laughs].
It’s great to see you’re doing well.
Yeah. Three years sober and going to church.
Awesome. Who you rooting for to win this event?
Mason [Ho] and [Kelly] Slater—the old guy and young guy. Yeah!
I met Mason Ho at Turtle Bay later that night. The 25-year-old North Shore native is only five feet eight, but his personality will leave you thinking he’s at least a foot taller. I saw him sucking face with a modelesque Amazonian-looking woman while simultaneously high-fiving everyone who walked by. After the award ceremony, I was able to trade a few words with Mason.
VICE: Congrat's on making the finals. Have you spoken with your dad and uncle yet? [Both are former professional surfers.]
Mason Ho: No, I haven’t yet.
What do you think they are going to say about your result?
They are going to be genuinely happy for me, but I’ll be looking right down into them and know that they will be thinking, You should have won!
What is Coco [Mason’s sister, also a professional surfer] going to say?
Coco will be really proud of me. She only wants good for me, like all the time, even when she’s being a little… sister to me.
So what’s the plan for tonight?
Keep that camera on, and you’ll find out.
Mason and Kelly Slater met in the final. It was Kelly who took home the win, which wasn’t a huge surprise.
Follow Andrew on Instagram @andymysto for more photos from the Volcom Pipe Pro.