I write this on the eve of the 2017 Mike Stewart Pipeline Invitational. Nearly 100 competitors are making their last-minute preparations to go into Gladiator mode and do battle at one of the world's most intimidating, formidable surf spots. The Pipeline event, since the very first bodyboarding event was ever held at Pipe in 1980-The Coca Cola/Sure Craft North Shore Bodyboard Classic, which was won by JP Patterson, Pipe has made and broken bodyboarding careers. This year will be no exception.
I have intimate personal experience with competing at Pipe, having done so 17 years in a row between 1982 and 2000, placing as high as 4th and pushing my own personal limits in pursuit of bodyboarding glory. In my years spending winters on the North Shore, I had a love/hate relationship with the break, and for good reason.
I was never aggressive, or especially daring to the point of taking unnecessary risks, but Pipeline required both if you wanted to have a snowball's chance in Hell of getting a wave out there. I knew to see and be seen, I had to paddle out when Pipe was on...it was part of the job of being a pro bodyboarder. I would paddle out at Pipe at 8am every day (I would wait until the sun hit the waves so as to improve my chances of having a photographer get a front lit shot of me when I caught a wave). I would sit out there in the massive pack of sometimes up to 100 people just hoping to pick off a scrap when someone paddled and pulled back, or maybe ate shit on the drop allowing me to shoulder hop into whatever wave I could snag. I knew the guys to avoid, and I knew my place in the lineup. I would usually sit wide of the main peak hoping a west set would swing a bit wide, offering up a tapering pit peeling into the friendly sand-covered bottom at Gum's.
My fellow pro bodyboarders began to refer to this as "Jay's Peak" and I and the Brazilian girls and younger kids would hold court on this section at Pipe. My main goal other than catching a wave was to stay out of the way of the Pipe regulars and give them kudos after their waves as they paddled back past me.
While my contemporaries like Stewart, Kainoa, Bullet, Lanson, Skipp, Ross McBride, and others were sitting inside the main peak risking getting wiped off the face of the planet by steamrolling sets, and scoring heaving caves for their efforts, I watched enviously from the safety of "Jay's Peak". Now and then, I would snag a gem and feel like a hero, but more often than not, I'd spend 3-4 hours out there and catch a wave an hour, and come in completely frustrated.
So, why did I keep going out there day after day for months on end? During my day, and to some extent, still today, Pipe is a proving ground. Yes, other spots may have usurped Pipe's reputation as the most dangerous spot on Earth, but something about the vibe, history, and legend of the North Shore is unmatched anywhere else in the wave riding world. The North Shore will always be a gathering place for the world's best wave riders, and Pipeline is it's main stage.
The APB Tour event at Pipe, the Mike Stewart Invitational is the Big Show. Riders gather from all over the planet in hopes of achieving bodyboarding glory in their brief 20 minutes out there while the eyes of the bodyboarding world are glued to their computer screens to see the clash between carnage and the victory play out in those hallowed hollows. It's the Cinderella story. Small town bodyboarding hero shows up at Pipe, charges hard, and catches the adulation and attention of the entire bodyboarding world.
The event has changed sponsors and names over it's many years, but one thing hasn't changed- the one who wins has basked in bodyboarding glory for years to follow. Mike Stewart, who won 9 times...well...his reputation speaks for itself. Mike Eppelstun's career took off after his win. Andre Botha was the youngest to ever win the event, which he did twice. GT, Kingy, Hubb, Ben Player, Amaury, PLC...all winners, all legends. They all solidified their reputations as masters of the sport and garnered respect from wave riders of all types.
So, while some things change, others stay the same. Pipeline will always be the place to prove yourself to the bodyboarding world. So, if you're an up-and-coming bodyboarder, save your money, train hard and make your way to the North Shore with a healthy dose of humility and respect for those that have come before you, and remember to respect the locals, and maybe, just maybe you'll achieve that elusive bodyboarding glory.