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Surf Legend Gerry Lopez: Riding 100-Foot Waves Is Possible, If Not Already Done



At 73, Gerry Lopez is considered one of the elite elder surfers now. As a younger man, he pioneered the Banzai Pipeline off of Hawaii’s North Shore with his shorter boards. Famous songs have been written about that surf area, known for its symmetrical barrel waves, including, appropriately enough, “Pipeline,” released by The Chantays in 1962, and later by The Ventures. Lopez also knew and worked with the legendary surf guitarist, the late Dick Dale. Further into his career, Lopez embraced once-controversial tow surfing, a method by which people are towed into big swells via a jet ski because the waves travel too fast to paddle into. Today, because of the increasing popularity of surfing, Lopez says the future of the sport may well be in man-made wave pools, which he surfs himself, and in rivers and the wakes behind boats. But the elite and most courageous men and women still ride giants off the coast of Nazare, Portugal. For the record, Lopez says surfing a 100-foot natural wave is possible, if it has not already been done.

Earlier this month, Lopez’ 2008 big-selling book, “Surf Is Where You Find It,” was re-released by Patagonia, which is to be accompanied by the documentary, “The Yin And Yang Of Gerry Lopez,” later this summer. We caught up with the surf legend, who lives in Bend, Oregon, to discuss all of that, and more. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.

Jim Clash: You’ve ridden hundreds, if not thousands, of waves. Give me an example of a hairy ride.

Gerry Lopez: In 1980, during the Pipeline Masters contest, I saw a big set of swells coming in late in the day. I paddled out to catch one, but it broke outside of me, caught me and took me down to the bottom. It wouldn’t let me up, and I was running out of air. At one point, I looked down and saw my body in the whitewater tumbling over and over. I’ve practiced yoga since 1968, done a lot of reading and research on the subject, so I knew exactly what was happening. I was having an out-of-body experience. I also knew that I had to dive back into my body, and get to the surface, which I did. So here I am talking about it. That was a pretty close call. I was probably near the end of my rope.



Clash: How long do you think you were being thrown around under the water?

Lopez: When I surfaced finally, I had been dragged maybe 150-plus yards toward shore from where the wave had broken on me. I don’t think I was under more than 30 or 40 seconds, which doesn’t sound very long. Since I was a child, I’ve been able to hold my breath for two minutes, sometimes longer, in the swimming pool. But when you’re being tumbled by a wave like that, you tend to run out of air more quickly [laughs].

Clash: How do you handle fear?

Lopez: In surfing, you need to be in such the moment that there really is no place for fear. Paddling into a wave, you’re so focussed. If you aren’t, chances are that you’ll end up in a wipeout. The fear really is beforehand, and you deal with it then as best you can. When we were starting to tow surf Jaws off of Maui, I was the person who took all the guys out to show them where it was. We had always considered the place too dangerous until we could be towed in with jet skis. I was locked up with fear, all of this anxiety, thinking, “I can’t go surfing feeling like this.” I had never been so uptight before. It’s maybe a 25-minute ride on the jet ski to get out there, and I’m thinking, “What do I need to do?” I had spent a lifetime in big waves, but never this big. Finally, I thought about the movie, “Little Big Man,” with Dustin Hoffman, where he said, “Well, this is a good day to die.” I remember thinking that if this was a good day to die, then it’s a good day to die [laughs]. Somehow that broke the ice, and the fear went away. I went out and had a great time!

NAZARE, PORTUGAL - DECEMBER 13: A big wave surfer Kealii Mamala from Hawaii rides a wave during the TUDOR Nazare Tow Surfing Challenge at Praia do Norte on December 13, 2021 in Nazare, Portugal. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)


Clash: I’ve seen amazing photos of guys surfing behemoths off of Nazare, Portugal. Sebastian Steudtner surfed one there that was 86-feet tall in 2020, a supposed world record.

Lopez: Nazare certainly has the look of the biggest wave faces in the world. Every year, you see new pictures of guys in the waves, and it looks like they are shrinking because the waves are so enormous. I often wonder, “Has this been photoshopped?” But they’re getting so much better at it, developing the equipment and skills, so that they just keep going. A wave comes along, and sometimes it’s a big one. If the guy is right there in line, he’s going to go for it. If he doesn’t, everybody will tease him, and he’s probably going to regret it.

Clash: Is it possible to surf a 100-foot wave?

Lopez: Certainly. You just have to have big balls [laughs]. It probably already has been done. It’s just that nobody has acknowledged it yet.

Cover of Gerry Lopez' recent book re-release.

PATAGONIA

Clash: You’ve done some acting: “Conan The Barbarian,” “Big Wednesday,” “North Shore”?

Lopez: I have a friend who is a director [laughs]. It’s very difficult to be a good, believable actor. You’re in front of the camera, in front of all these production people, and here you are having to fake it. I’m not real good at that. But the movies I was in were all kind of cool, believable stories, and I was, “Yeah, I can pretend to be like that.” You also have a lot of leeway in how to develop characters. I had good direction, too. I worked with John Milius and Randall Kleiser, both excellent. They shoot it and if they don’t like it, or I don’t like it, we try again.

Clash: As a kid, what made you get into surfing?

Lopez: There’s something about it that’s very compelling. For me, it’s that sensation of gliding. On my very first wave, I remember that feeling. All I wanted to do after that was to feel it again. I’ve spent a whole lifetime doing that.


Jim Clash
I write about extreme adventure and classic rock.

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