North Shore's Banzai Pipeline: Why Surfers Are Obsessed With "The World's Deadliest Wave"

The North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii—learn why surfers and tourists alike all flock to this beloved surf spot.

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Complex Original

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Like the trademark waves of its Banzai Pipeline, Oahu’s North Shore has crashed into the mainstream repeatedly, due to its beautiful vistas, flawless swells, and its status as the top surfing destination in the world. If you were to quiz 100 random strangers about surfing hot spots, 90 would mention the North Shore first and foremost, and the other 10 just wouldn’t be able to recall what it’s called. It’s that ingrained in popular culture, due to being used in basically every surfing movie/television show/book/short story imaginable. More deeply, it is that famous because of its own sub-culture’s reverence. No one loves the North Shore quite as much as the surfers who brave it do, as has been the case for over 30 years.

Most high-end surfers are familiar with the particularly treacherous swells on the North Shore; a good number of legendary and renowned surfers either make their homes on Oahu or visit it in anticipation of its massive surf competitions. The lineage of surfers that settle near Ehukai Beach (the native name for the Banzai Pipeline) can be traced back to the great Butch Van Artsdalen, who gained fame as a pioneer of riding 20-foot-waves in the 1960s (he also starred in one of the first surf classics, The Endless Summer).

Since then, many surfers have called the North Shore home: Frederick Patacchia, Makua Rothman, 23-year-old wunderkind John John Florence, Jamie O’Brien, and Owl Chapman were all either born or resided on Oahu, while other legends like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning have reached astronomical heights on the Pipeline (their historic 2013 Triple Crown showdown was profiled in SB Nation the following year). And it’s not just surfers that make their homes near the North Shore: musician/bro Jack Johnson owns a home there, while Oscar-nominated producer Brian Grazer vacations on Oahu. Former surfer-turned-photographer Clark Little has snapped some of the most iconic shots of Banzai waves after growing up in the area. All of these surfing enthusiasts have one thing in common: A thirst for the perfect barrels that populate the beach every year.

So, what exactly causes these much-sought-after waves? The Banzai Pipeline exists above a chain of reefs that features caverns underwater. When a wave rolls through the area, a giant air bubble soars up from the caverns and through the reefs, creating the gorgeous wave crests that have become world-famous. The most popular of these wave systems is the very first one most surfers see: A swell that rolls from left to right, reaching peak heights of at least 12 feet, called simply “The Pipeline.” The further out the waves crash (in what’s called the “Second Reef” and the “Third Reef”), the bigger the barrels reach. 25-foot-waves are not unheard of, which has an obvious appeal to the world’s risk-seeking surfing fanatics. It’s these picture-perfect waves that bring the most prestigious tournaments in the world to the island every winter, when the swells go from merely beautiful to a force of nature seen in few other places around the globe.

Of course, with the exhilarating waves and picturesque visuals comes a danger that has dubbed the Banzai Pipeline the “World’s Deadliest Wave.” Due to the reefs that hide in shallow water and the heights that these waves reach, anyone riding out onto the North Shore waters is at risk, possibly fatal risk, if they don’t hit their marks perfectly. As just one tragic example, Tahitian surfer and cult hero Malik Joyeux passed away in 2005 under the swelling waters of the Pipeline. Injuries are also common among the turbulent swell, adding to the mystique and perceived legacy of the area. It is not a surprise that the world’s best surfers gravitate towards the North Shore; the adrenaline from surviving the “World’s Deadliest Wave” can’t be matched anywhere else on Earth.

And really, that’s why surfers continue to make their way to Oahu every year, without fail. In a culture that always looks to the next wave to chase, none can match the intensity and the chill-inducing legacy of a tasty Pipeline crest. The recent proliferation of houses for rent on Surf Row only makes it easier for surfers to habitate the legendary beach. And, despite clashes with the locals who enforce the unspoken rules of the Pipeline, the flood of tourists looking for their own wave should only grow in coming years, as the island develops even more.


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