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Things have changed since that first Pipeline contest.  Photo: Matt Dunbar

Things have changed since that first Pipeline contest. Photo: Matt Dunbar

Date: December 16th, 1971
Location: Banzai Pipeline, North Shore, Oahu
Moment: The horn sounds at the first Pipe Masters Contest

“There’s nothing like it for showcasing the sport at its absolute staggering best.”Nick Carroll

The very first Pipe Masters event wasn’t exactly an affair to be remembered. At the time, professional surfing didn’t have anything close to the fanfare we see today – from Huntington to Teahupoo, the sport is quickly coming into its own as more than just something on the non-surfing public’s periphery.

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It was 1971 when Fred Hemmings, the 1968 world champion, set a card table in the sand in front of the Banzai Pipeline.  Continental Airlines put up a purse of $1000, a fortune for a surfing contest at the time. Hemmings was bent on showcasing surfing as something more than a derelict’s pastime, and convinced ABC to broadcast the event on the Wide World of Sports.

Only six surfers were invited to the inaugural event, which consisted of a single heat, Hemmings’ card table, ten metal folding chairs, and less than fifty spectators. Originally dubbed the Hawaiian Masters, a gentle (by Hawaiian standards) six-foot swell greeted competitors. Hawaiian professional Jeff Hakman dominated the event and took the $500 first place check. Notably absent was a young Gerry Lopez, a man who rode the Pipeline with more grace and poise than anyone else. The reason for the no-show? According to rumor, Corky Carroll, who finished third in the event, told Lopez the event was postponed.

The Pipeline Masters took a while to gain steam after that first contest. Prize money didn’t hit the $10,000 mark until nine years later, and it remained as a single-heat event until 1975.

Of course, Pipeline can’t be mentioned without paying due respect to Gerry Lopez. Although he missed the first real event, he went on to win the next two years and was a finalist on four other occasions, cementing himself in the history books as one of the all-time best to ride the wave. “I had a long affair with the Pipeline,” Lopez said. “Twenty-five Pipe Masters events. I got to surf against guys that hadn’t even been born when I surfed in my first one.”

It wasn’t just Gerry’s stylish talent at Pipeline that left its mark. He cast a long shadow that affected the event for years to come. In 1976, Rory Russell, his protégé, won back-to-back titles. Russell’s first win was the year the Pipe Masters ran as more than one heat, and counted on the roster of events on the International Professional Surfers tour.

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The next few years brought rise to some of the greatest surfers ever. A win at Pipe is one of the most highly sought after accolades in surfing, due largely in part to the people that won there. After Larry Blair won the event in 1978 and ’79, three of surfing’s biggest names took the top spot on the podium. Mark Richards, Simon Anderson, and Michael Ho – all regular footers – assumed their rightful positions in the record books.

Some of the greatest surfers in the world have proven their talent there, winning multiple times. Tom Carroll won in 1987, 1990, and 1991. Derek Ho won in 1986 and 1993, and Kelly Slater won an unprecedented seven times, dominating over multiple generations of hyper-talented up-and-coming surfers. Although others beat Slater, his real competition was the late, great Andy Irons, who won the event four times – in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2006.

Since that first event in 1971, the Pipe Masters has evolved into an almost mythical event. Come December, when six surfers scrapped it out for $1000 purse, the event has exploded. The first giant milestone regarding prize money came in 1991, when a $100,000 was up for grabs. Hemmings’ simple card table has grown into a massive, complicated show with millions of spectators. Now, more than forty years later, competitors vie for nearly a half a million dollars and perhaps something worth more than money: the bragging rights to surfing’s ultimate contest.

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