Not many people can say they’ve single-handedly changed the course of a sport. Fewer still have done so with all the casualness of a cat licking its haunches. Gerry Lopez not only made Pipeline the world’s most important wave, he made the tube the ultimate prize in surfing.
Lopez was born in Honolulu, the son of a newsman for the city’s Bulletin and Advertiser. When Lopez got serious about surfing in high school, his hero was Paul Strauch — his style and grace would be Lopez’s reference point. At Ala Moana in the mid-’60s, Lopez witnessed his first tuberides, and the wave became his training ground. Along with Reno Abellira, he was a protege of the much-in-demand Dick Brewer. He pursued a degree in architecture from the University of Hawaii from 1967-’69, then dropped out and became the epitome of the new age surfer.
The shortboard revolution/hippie generation needed an archetype, and it was Lopez. He discovered yoga, meditation and psychedelia around the time he began shaping under the tutelage of Surfline Honolulu’s Chris Green. Jock Sutherland, who had been the king at Pipeline, left to serve in the military, and Lopez eased onto the throne. The barrel at Pipe had been surveyed, but not fully explored. During the epic winter of 1969-’70, Lopez set the standard for riding the tube at the world’s most dangerous break. Suddenly, nothing else mattered in surfing. The barrel was now hallowed ground, and the barrel at Pipe was Shangri La.
In 1971, Lopez established Lightning Bolt surfboards with Jack Shipley. The trademark, fueled by the Lopez aura, came to represent Hawaiian surfing. Virtually every top pro rode the boards on the North Shore during the ’70s. When the company devolved into a power struggle, Lopez sold his portion and made a clean exit to a 20-acre ranch he bought on Maui.
While the Lopez mystique was decidedly anti-contest, he did take part in the Pipe Masters. After missing the first Pipe event because of misinformation, he won the next two and made the finals four other times. From 1993-’97, the event was known as the Chiemsee Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters. Lopez also competed in a portion of the inaugural season of the IPS tour in 1976. Despite his focus on other pursuits and a lack of results, his mere presence afforded the tour much-needed credibility.
By the mid-’70s, the North Shore’s crowds drove Lopez to seek asylum. After relocating to Maui in 1973 — where he currently resides with wife Toni — he began exploring Indonesia in search of empty perfection. He was one of the first at Uluwatu and G-Land, where he spent months gearing up for winter at Pipe.
After starring in a handful of surf films through the early ’70s, Hollywood director John Milius gave Lopez a shot at acting in 1978, with a cameo in Big Wednesday. He then co-starred as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sidekick, Subotai, in Conan the Barbarian. Next he portrayed a Hui heavy in North Shore and an indigenous Bornean in Milius’ 1990 release, Return of the King.
But acting and surfing didn’t take up all of Lopez’s time. On Maui, the mecca of windsurfing, he picked up the sport as an alternative on flat, windy days. He began shaping sailboards in 1979 and opened a shop with sailmaker David Ezzy. His penchant for design also brought him to paddleboarding, both as a shaper and paddler. Motocross, a passion since high school, was another flat-day adventure. By the ’90s, snowboarding was his newest conquest, taking him to the world’s best peaks. He also joined Maui’s Strapped crew for some of the biggest tow-in sessions at Jaws.
Lopez’s many endeavors have been mastered with peerless grace and infinite respect, undertaking each new challenge with the same approach as his classically effortless Pipe crouch. This has earned an unprecedented level of respect within the surfing world. No matter how heavy the situation, Lopez continues to make the near impossible look deceivingly easy. — Jason Borte, October 2000