Tackling+Pipeline+Hawaii+Kevin+Huang+Photography

Tackling Pipeline

The journey of a photographer in capturing one of the greatest waves.

There is a moment, before taking any big decision, when the enormity of whatever it is that you are about to do hits you. It is in this moment that the fear sets in.

I was standing at the rear of my car, trunk wide open, suitcase laid bare, fiddling with one of the screws on my camera’s water housing when the fear hit me.

I had arrived on the North Shore of Hawaii three weeks ago, in search of a legendary wave—Pipeline. It is a wave so perfect that it occupies the dreams of surfers everywhere on the planet. Pipeline sits, hidden in plain sight, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is nestled a mere 50 feet off the North Shore, one of the most populated regions of the Hawaiian Islands. Its exotic, crystal clear turquoise water and unbelievably massive barrels are like a siren call to surfers all around the world.

It isn’t the most perfect wave in the world, it isn’t even the best wave on the North Shore for that matter. It’s not the longest, or the easiest, or the safest, or the most consistent wave—but the lack of these qualities all adds to the allure. Part of the draw of Pipeline is its difficulty; its danger. Waves the size of a three-story building break in about 10 feet of water over solid rock. Not to mention the insane crowd. But if you can pull into a proper Pipe barrel here and get spit out, it can easily be the greatest, most exhilarating wave you or any future persons bearing your name will ever catch in their entire lives.

It was in search of a wave like this that I traveled half the world over.

But the goal wasn’t to catch one of these waves for myself, but rather, as a surf photographer, to capture a shot of the world’s greatest surfers catching one of the greatest waves of their lives. And after three weeks of sitting on it, waiting for a swell to come, training, watching and learning the setup of the wave and swimming out there on smaller days, it was now or never.

My heart was pounding as I wrenched the last screws into place on my water housing. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining majestically, lighting up the evening in an array of different hues. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. The wind was light offshore and the weather was warm. Everyone else was posted up with beer and popcorn on the beach, just enjoying the show. I was in the 1% of people who were sweating profusely, cursing that the conditions were perfect to go shooting.

Everyone else was posted up with beer and popcorn on the beach, just enjoying the show. I was in the 1% of people who were sweating profusely, cursing that the conditions were perfect to go shooting.

I was nervous because this wasn’t the first time I had attempted to swim out at Pipe. Over the last three weeks, like clockwork, Pipe reached Xl to XXl four times.  A enormous swell would come, drop, and then within 5 days another would come.  I spent the first two weeks building up to it, and finally, after working up a lot of courage, I had attempted to paddle out on one of those XL days.  Unfortunately I failed to make it out into the lineup, and I took a massive beating in the process.  I missed the entry point due to the ridiculous current and I got swept over to Pupukea where I ended up taking a barrage of 10 foot sets on the head.  It was just too big and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to attempt a second go that day.  The next few days after that, conditions deteriorated and my window disappeared.   

It was now the end of week three. Like clockwork, the swell had died at the end of week two, and a new run of swell had started to fill in midweek. The full brunt of this latest, final run of swell was now due to start pumping that afternoon as I stood there fiddling with my water housing. I had a flight to catch in a couple of days. This was my last chance.

With a deep breath, I snapped the latches on my camera’s water housing together, and made my way over to the beach. As I got closer to the sea I felt a light breeze, the wind was blowing just slightly off-shore. Perfect. With a smile and a nod to my friend, I entered the water. I plunged my head into the refreshing, almost chilly water, and a burst of adrenaline washed over me as I started paddling out to sea towards the channel. A set came through and I dove underneath the wave to escape its wrath, and it washed harmlessly over me..

With a last burst of effort, I pushed through to the outside—the channel was now within sight. The current was indeed lighter this time, and a couple minutes more of paddling against it, I was in the lineup. I dove under one last time, and snapped the camera into photo mode as I came up. The rear LCD screen sprang to life and lit up just as a set started looming on the horizon.

Dozens of surfers paddled, jockeying each other in and out of position, desperate to catch just a single wave amongst the madness.

It was as if the whole sea sprang to life. The pack of over 50 surfers started paddling in unison out to sea. Surf photographers bobbed up and down as the wave surged through them, some diving to pass safely under the wave before it while others scrambled sideways to get away from the lip.

The wave was massive, not only vertically, but lengthwise as well. The wave was as wide as a football field, maybe even wider. As it neared, the wave began to wrap and fold, taking the shape of the reef below. In the channel, as the wave passed, I was lifted about 10 feet above sea level as I surged in unison with the ocean itself—I actually felt the sensation of weightlessness in my stomach. As the wave passed, the wind gusted, almost blinding me, and after a second of silence, water blown off of the tail of the wave began to fall like rain all around me. The air was filled with the sound of rushing water.

Just as I cleared my vision I turned and saw the second set approaching, bigger than the first, and I started swimming further to the outside. Just as it was about to start breaking, I stopped swimming, turned, lifted the camera to my face, took aim, and started snapping, as a dot with the outline of a man started free-falling down the face of the wave. He flew down the face, his surfboard frictionless against the smooth water, grabbed his rail hard, pulled hard at the bottom, tucked his body in tight, and was engulfed inside a beautiful turquoise barrel as I belted a “YYYYEEEEEWWWWWW” at the top of my lungs.

Sure enough, slowly but surely, the waves began to grow in size as the swell started to fill in. Waves of different colors; some glowing blue and green, others orange and yellow; began to break along the whole stretch from Pipeline to Off the Wall and beyond. Dozens of surfers paddled, jockeying each other in and out of position, desperate to catch just a single wave amongst the madness. In addition to the dozens of surfers, there was a score of photographers swimming amongst them. Random arms and legs baring flippers stuck out of the water as each wave passed. As if playing chicken, the most daring held on until the last possible second in the hopes of getting the ultimate shot before diving under the wave to safety. It was a natural, aquatic coliseum, and everyone in the water that day was part of the show.

Just as the sun touched the edge of the horizon the shadow of a wave, substantially larger than the rest that had come through that day, loomed large in the distance. Even though the wave was so large, and so distant, there was so much water moving that all but a few surfers had an unobstructed view of it. But, soon, within seconds, every surfer began to paddle out to sea. Similar to the uproar of panic and movement that washes over a group of seals as the instinct of flight washes over them at the sighting of a great white shark, so too did the desire to swim to the outside of the oncoming wave wash over the mass of humanity in the water at Pipeline that evening. I heard someone scream, “this is what we’ve all been waiting for!”

Similar to the uproar of panic and movement that washes over a group of seals as the instinct of flight washes over them at the sighting of a great white shark, so too did the desire to swim to the outside of the oncoming wave wash over the mass of humanity in the water at Pipeline that evening.

The wave had caught me by surprise, hell it had caught all of the photographers by surprise and everyone paddled frantically to get out of the impact zone. The wave grew to a ridiculous size, and just as it was about to break, I saw a lone figure turn and start to paddle for it. I was still at the edge of the impact zone, but it was the wave of the day, I couldn’t afford to miss the shot. I pulled my camera out of the water, aimed, and started firing just as the lone figure was about to make the drop. He fell down the face, made the bottom turn, pulled in, and then just stood straight up as a 10-foot wave engulfed him. I dove under just as the lip washed over me. It was massive. It was insane.

With that, my low battery meter started flashing, and as the sun had set, I decided to head back to shore.

The rest of the next two days were a blur. I didn’t have time to go over the shots since I had to pack, but a few days later, on the plane ride to Sydney, I let out a whistle as I started to edit and review the files.

Tackling+Pipeline+Hawaii+Kevin+Huang+Photography

To this day, I have not returned to the Hawaiian Islands. I am more than satisfied with the shots I managed to get during my time there, and it is truly a blessing I even managed to get anything at all. The waves I swam out that day were the largest I felt comfortable swimming in up to that point in time. Since then, I’ve put myself in heavier situations, in larger waves, and gotten even more insane shots, but none of that would have been possible had I not managed to put in the time at Pipeline. The fear is still there, but my experiences at Pipe have done a lot to help me allay those fears. The memories of those waves I witnessed are still seared into the frontal lobe of my brain. Ever since then, my concept of what constitutes a large wave has basically shifted. No matter where I am in the world—and I’ve been on islands in the middle of nowhere—whenever I start speaking of my experiences at Pipe, every head in the room turns to listen.

Still, even after three weeks, I barely managed to scratch the surface of Pipeline. Water shots of waves easily double the size of what I captured that final day at Pipeline continue to grace the covers of Surf mags the world over. There is still a lot of room left for me to improve. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I want to get a photo of Pipe at a larger size.

Things have started to settle in for me as a surf photographer. It’s not all about size, but rather perfection. Now that I’ve confirmed that I can swim out in massive waves, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to in the future. However … a true surfer can only ignore the allure of a perfect wave for so long.

There may come a day, when I might have to spend a whole season there, waiting for weeks upon weeks for just one hour of perfection. I might have to pick up my whole life and move to Hawaii, because truly, that’s what it takes. That time is not now, as I still have many undiscovered waves to see, remote islands to explore … but when the time comes, I wonder if I will answer the call. I guess it’s something to look forward to one day. Such is the life of a surf photographer.

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