“Okay...I guess this is a good day to die!" - Gerry Lopez, when first being towed offshore to ride a mega-wave.
[Originally published on November 14, 2014]
Bear with me, but I find a lot of similarity in the histories of surfing and Christianity.
Both began in simplicity and, over time, became too complicated to carry their own weight. Christianity was a simple movement realized from person to person and nimble in its spiritual expression, especially when compared to the monolithic religions of the era. Surfing was the avocation of people young and old riding wooden boards on unnamed beaches that weren't always the most accessible.
By the fourth century, Christianity had become the "official" religion of the Roman Empire and, while that enabled its rapid spread across the Western world, it became intertwined with empires, kingdoms, and governments to the point that the spiritual and the venal were inseparable.
Surfing, in the days of the wahines, groms, hodaddies, and kooks was a relaxed and uncommon pursuit for a variety of age groups. In the 1950's, World War II and Korean War veterans, in particular, found it a pleasant diversion from the nightmares caused by long-resolved battles*. As it became popular in general culture, and the source of a lot of attention from adolescents with money to spend, it naturally attracted the marketers who created the monster known as the "surf lifestyle". Nowadays a 14-year-old with a natural affinity for reading waves and balancing on a board can become the multi-millionaire spokesman for a power drink company.
Both Christianity and surfing suffered from this growth and both are now entering a post-institutional phase. While there are a lot of people attempting to lure Christendom back to its effective and simple days of just being Christianity, surfing is still making way too much money for those in charge of merchandising and contests for there to be a general recognition of the effect of the loss of simplicity. However, a growing number of young surfers are attempting to reclaim those days when it was the surf and not the sponsorship where watermen found satisfaction.
The man himself.
And, in that quest, they tend to turn for inspiration to the guy known as Mr. Pipeline.
Once in Huntington Beach, I was in the "green room". Just that once. It doesn't happen on the east coast really, so it was rather special. The green room is that tube formed by a rolling wave in which good surfers in good surf can place themselves. While mine was a good wave, I'm not that good of a surfer, so it was probably for only five seconds or so, but on my deathbed I will regard it as one of the best moments of my life. I can't imagine what it's like regularly to abide in the room and, in sublime confidence and ability, reach out and touch that dynamic wall of water.
Gerry Lopez has been in the green room so often he should move an easy chair in there. That really shouldn't be a surprise, given the milieu into which he was raised. Lopez was born in Honolulu in 1948, educated at the prestigious Punahou School [which, through the years, also counted the dance coach Cari Ann Inaba, the politician Barack Obama, the discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, pro golfer Michelle Wie, Chinese president Sun Yet Sen, and Olympian and actor Buster Crabbe among its students] which used to stress development of both body and mind. Lopez extended his education when, at the age of 14, he became the Hawaiian State Surfing Champion.
Nowadays, he would be the toast of every surf beach in the world and a fair number of advertising agencies, too; probably with his photo of the cover of a variety of surfing periodicals. But, in 1962, he was given a simple trophy in a makeshift ceremony and left to his own devices. He would, as he matured, develop a recognizable style that, to those who have never surfed, appeared casual and offhand, but was anything but; and he would challenge greater and greater waves.
Lopez and his friends started to experiment with the enormous waves of Oahu's North Shore around the time that surfboard design was changing from the rather simple solid wood boards to those made of fiberglass with channels, subtle curving known as foil and rocker, and downrailers. The new design made even the most daunting of waves accessible.
It's more complicated than you thought, isn't it?
Lopez dedicated himself to what came to be known in lore and legend as the "Banzai Pipeline", a surf break in the reef system that produced massive waves that were beyond the technological capacity of the original surfboard. From a familiar online source:
Pipeline is notorious for huge waves which break in shallow water just above a sharp and cavernous reef, forming large, hollow, thick curls of water that surfers can tube ride. There are three reefs at Pipeline in progressively deeper water further out to sea that activate according to the increasing size of approaching ocean swells.In other words, if either the surfer or his/her equipment is not up to it, a rider will be severely injured or killed in rather short order. In the 1960's, Gerry Lopez took a new board design into the surf at Sunset Beach Park and rode the tubes over and over again. By his 25th birthday he was recognized as the best tube-rider in the world and earned the nickname "Mr. Pipeline". A few years later, the annual competition on the North Shore was re-named the Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters.
It's probably better to simply stand on the beach and admire them rather than get crushed.
There are many athletes who have become champions in their field and then, as age or injury remove them from competition, retire and find pursuits that are fulfilling or, at the very least, keep them mostly out of jail. Shortly after being recognized as the champion he was, Lopez, while still competing, made a move into the next phase of the sport. Using his intimate knowledge of what worked on a surfboard and what didn't, he began to design and market his own line of surfboards, memorable for their lighting bolt design.
By the time I had enough money to buy a proper surfboard, Lopez boards were the ones to have. Unfortunately, by then Lopez boards were too expensive even for those of us who thought we had enough money. Since Mr. Pipeline knew what it was like to ride a three-story wave, these shaped bits of fiberglass and foam were renowned for their stability and speed. Also, as longboards gave way to shortboards during the 1980's and 90's, enabling surfers to spin, wheel, and climb on the waves as if they were on skateboards, it was the Lopez design that served as the foundation for what was to come.
In other words, this:
With his fame within the sport, and his fortune made from his surfboards, Lopez continued to give to the community, enabling scholarships, study programs, and surf competitions. And, like his contemporary in the martial arts world, Bruce Lee, he discovered lucrative and rewarding work in Hollywood, teaching actors how to look authentic on a surfboard. He would even take roles in films from time to time.
However, as with any successful venture, Lopez would see his sport become more and more commercialized and complicated. Somewhere, it had lost its loopy, easy-going fun and become just another over-serious mega-business. At the nadir of this transformation, Mr. Pipeline, the super-surfer from the North Shore of Hawaii, left the coast, moved to Oregon, and became...a snowboarder. Yeah, I know.
Now in his mid-60's, Lopez has come to be considered the "Yoda" of surfing. This summer, in my eccentric role as a chaplain to the Christian Surfers organization, I noticed that Lopez's autobiography, Surf Is Where You Find It, was the second most popular book read on the beach in between wave sets. [Given the organization, it should come as no surprise that the most popular was The Holy Bible, King James Version.] When asked about it, the young people confessed a fascination for those early "Gidget" days of surfing, where it was less a sport and more a community-building activity with a mutualized support structure. It wasn't so much about trying to out-do one another on a wave [although a natural sense of competition is always present] as it was celebrating the joys of a common activity, one that tended to obviate the constraining social structure of its time.
Remarkably, at a time when young Christians are attempting to do the same with their faith, young surfers are trying to find that meaningful center in their pursuit; the center that has been obscured by much less important concerns. Perhaps both surfers and Christians should take heed of Lopez's wisdom, "Life is an adventure, and when we see it as such it becomes more fun and enjoyable and less of a burden and toil." If faith is life, then that sagacity is doubly true.
[*I'll bet that you never realized surfing was once an effective treatment for what's now called Post-Traumatic Stress Reaction.]