Chasing Waves & Changing Tides on Oahu's Legendary North Shore
A slice of life at the legendary Vans Pipe Masters where a glimpse at surfing's future shows community building remains in focus
Graham Hiemstra, Maddie Hayes
Fuji GA 645, Pentax k1000, Olympus Stylus
Each winter the world’s best surfers turn the North Shore of Oahu into a spectacle. Or rather, Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the sea does—the surfers just show up to make the most of it. Double overhead waves crash on razor sharp reef laying just a few feet below the surface, creating beautiful and fierce barrels closely guarded by locals and coveted by everyone else. Pipeline is at the center of it all, the deadliest wave on Earth. Timed perfectly with this natural phenomenon is the Vans Pipe Masters, a legendary surf contest held each December for 50 years and counting.
For the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters, I was lucky enough to be invited to join a handful of leading surf media on the remote Hawaiian island for eight days of wave chasing and community building.
On the morning of 8 December, a beautiful opening ceremony hosted by organizations Nā Kama Kai and The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and led by Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu kicked off the official two-week contest window. Excitement was high; unfortunately the waves were anything but.
Up and down the North Shore, Surfline forecasts read “flat” or “poor” at best. And remained this way for the entirety of my time on Oahu. Oddly, it was within this lack of worthwhile swell that I found opportunity—to meet the people pushing surf culture forward, in a more inclusive and diverse direction.
Waiting for Waves
Minor swell lingered at the many waves adjacent to Pipeline at Ehukai Beach Park, but I knew better than to paddle out—even at three feet, a notoriously powerful rip tide and unforgiving reef remain. So, like hundreds of other tourists, I snapped a few photos and watched the endless parade of party waves. Highlights included seeing action sports legend and contest emcee Selema Masekela and Rockaway’s own Paul Godette each score a few peelers.
A better use of my time came on day two when Vans hosted a community beach cleanup with environmental nonprofits Nā Kama Kai and Sustainable Coastlines at Waianae on the island's west side. With over a dozen Vans surf team riders in attendance including Dane Reynolds, Mikey February, Tosh Tudor, Karina Rozunko, Puamakamae DeSoto, Holly Wawn, and others, together with journalists, retailers, and local volunteers, we cleared over 50 pounds of debris from the sand and built new planter boxes. Seeing the whole Vans team paddle out in Nā Kama Kai’s beautifully restored 30-foot, double-hull Hawaiian sailing canoe was a bonus treat.
A Bonzai Pipeline Skate Jam the following day provided plenty of oohs and awws for the surf deprived North Shore crowd.
Word was I wasn’t the only New Yorker on the island. Texts were sent, mutual friends identified, and a generous invite was extended to join an impromptu queer surf meet-up hosted by Benny’s Club, the Rockaway Beach-based queer surf collective, and Laru Beya, a community-focused nonprofit empowering BIPOC surfers in Far Rockaway.
The open atmosphere encouraged quick communion among the dozen or so attendees, which included local surfers who drove from Honolulu, friends from New York and Los Angeles who came for Pipe Masters, two-time WSL World Champion Tyler Wright, and Gabriella Angotti-Jones, a photographer and author of a new book on Black women and non-binary surfers titled “I Just Wanna Surf”. I latched onto this crew for the remainder of my stay. (Shout-out to Momo & Catherine for kindly letting me crash your surf sessions, evening events, and breakfasts throughout.)
As it turns out, Field Mag wasn’t the only indie publisher on the island, either, thanks to a special effort to support influential, independent media at this year’s event. Daybreak was in town reporting for the landlocked and lake-bound surf enthusiasts of the upper Midwest. Seamaven Magazine, Sea Together, and Withitgirl each took to the North Shore representing three distinct perspectives on the future of women/womxn’s surf media.
The founders, photographers, and videographers from each were omnipresent, working in the water and on land, together and independently, harder than anyone else. The volume and caliber of content produced by these outlets was and remains impressive. Browse the above links for a more comprehensive review of the actual surf event and its related personalities and leading athletes.
The influence and prevalence of powerful women at this year’s Pipe Masters wasn’t a coincidence, but rather a sign of shifting dynamics among a sport historically dominated by men. As insane as it sounds, the world famous Pipe Masters contest only just introduced a women’s division in late 2021, and the 2022 contest would mark the first time women would paddle out for live heats, same as the men have done for 50 years. Though the 2002 Hollywood movie Blue Crush would tell the inspired story of women surfers competing at Pipeline, it would take reality 20 years to catch up.
Pay parity at this year’s Vans Pipe Masters has also helped introduce some equity to the contest ($420,000 was on the line, btw), as has the effort to ensure half of the 60 invited surfers are Hawaii-based. And just down the road at Wiamea Bay The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational has followed suit for the 2023 contest, inviting a handful of women surfers for the first time.
Of course, entrenched misogyny, systemic barriers, and discrimination remain in the world of professional surfing and surf culture in general, though the talent and grit of a new generation of women like North Shore locals Moana Jones Wong, Carissa More, and Puamakamae DeSoto—alongside Black surfers like South African surfer Mikey February—are helping change the look of the lineup.
(For a quick primer on the history of women surfers at Pipeline check out this visual guide by Seamaven and the “Women of Pipeline” short film by Vans surfing.)
The 2022 Vans Pipe Masters Is On, At Last
After eight days of waiting, the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters got underway on Friday 16 December—just hours after I reluctantly returned to the mainland. Catching a glimpse of Pipeline’s sheer size and force when it turned on late one evening before departing was impressive, but no doubt being there in person to see such a forceful wave really pumping would have been incredible. Fortunately, local photographer and Field Mag photo contest finalist Maddie Hayes was on hand to document, while Vans’ impressive live streaming efforts provided the next best thing for the rest of us elsewhere around the world.
In the end, New York's own Balaram Stack and Australian Molly Picklum earned the titles of 2022 Masters of Pipeline for the men’s and women’s categories, respectively. Check out the Vans Pipe Masters website for a full results breakdown and impressive contest recap vids.
Here & There In Paradise
What a beautiful place to wander. Mahalo Hawaii.
Graham Hiemstra, Maddie Hayes
Fuji GA 645, Pentax k1000, Olympus Stylus