In History: The 1995 Pipeline Masters

Stu Nettle

By Stuart Nettle

On the 8th of December the 2009 Pipeline Masters begins, the last competition in a year that has been as dramatic as they come. Much has been written about the world title the showdown between Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson, however I thought it was time to take a look at the third character in this play, the Pipeline itself. There have been many instances since pro-surfing began that the world-title has come down to the wire at Pipe, and we're going to look at a few of the best. Today it's the 1995 Pipeline Masters. If we're looking for a precedent to this years Pipeline Masters then this is it: Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, best friends and keen rivals, fight for the title and write themselves into the record books in the process.

In 1991 the pro-surfing tour split and became two separate circuits - the WQS and the WCT (now known as World Tour). From 1992 onwards the top tier - the WCT - had fewer events and they were held in better locations. The Pipe Masters became the last event, and hence the most crucial, on the WCT circuit.

In 1995 Sunny Garcia was leading the rankings going into Pipe, with Rob Machado second and Kelly Slater third. Between them they had won six of the nine events surfed and all three were in contention for the world title. Garcia however, only had to make the third round at Pipe to win and claim the title that many thought he deserved. With his ratings lead and Hawaiian experience he was the unbackable favourite.

Despite his undeniable surfing talent Garcia's status as favourite was given further assistance by his first round oppponents in the Pipe Masters: Pipe legend Gerry Lopez and young Hawaiian Ross Williams. With five minutes to go in their heat Garcia was leading, Lopez second and Williams last. Lopez had already dropped in on Williams once but, despite being penalised, was still ahead of him on the scoresheet.

With the clock counting down, Williams took a small inside wave and Lopez blatantly dropped in a second time. The gameplan was instantly clear; by deliberately rubbing himself out, Lopez allowed Williams, a fellow Hawaiian, to progress with Garcia. It was was highly dubious sportsmanship on Lopez' behalf, and his actions were to backfire in spectacular fashion. If it wasn't for the final drop in Lopez would've progressed to the next round and, as he was the lowest seeded surfer he would've met the highest seeded surfer in round two. Sunny Garcia was the highest seeded surfer. There could be no doubt that Lopez would've repeated his first round behaviour, thereby handing Garcia the heat and subsequently the 1995 world title. However, now that Lopez was out, Mark Occhilupo became the lowest seeded surfer and it was he that would surf against Garcia.

Occy landed in Hawaii in 1995 announcing himself fit and ready to tackle the WQS after a few years in hibernation and two ill-fated comebacks. He entered the trials to the Pipe Masters unseeded and surfed through five sudden death heats to reach the main event. Now, in round two, he was up against Garcia who was one heat away from a world title.

Nowhere in the surfing world are race and politics as enmeshed in the surf scene as they are in Hawaii. Colonised by the United States 115 years ago, Hawaiians have had their native culture diluted under the imposition of that superpower. Surfing is one of the last cultural bastions that they can hold onto, and they do so fiercely. There is a history of Hawaiian surfers throwing heats to allow other Hawaiians to progress (as Lopez did) or blocking foreign surfers to halt their advancement.

At the 1993 Pipeline Masters Gary Elkerton and Hawaiian Derek Ho were both going for the world title. A fellow Hawaiian competitor, Larry Rios, blocked Elkerton, allowing Ho to advance and take the world title. The individual sport of surfing becomes a team sport in Hawaii. The swell dropped after the first round and competition was postponed for three days. The north shore was rife with speculation and conjecture about the upcoming heat between Occy and Sunny: would Occy throw the heat or not?

In Tim Baker's biography of Occy, Paul Sargeant recalled an encounter he and Occy had with Hawaiian Liam McNamara at Rocky Point one morning. McNamara, who is known for his aggression, gave Occy an ultimatum, "I guess you got a choice: you can beat him and go to the airport or lose and stay around." In contrast, 1978 world champ Rabbit Bartholemew said in Tracks, "No way, a world title has got to be won!"

The situation was overwhelmingly tense. When competition resumed Occy had to be escorted to the waters edge to prevent him being taken out by an angry Hawaiian. Once in the water Occy ignored Rabbit's proclamation and did everything he could to let Garcia win, allowing the Hawaiian to roam the inside and take any wave, and deliberately relinquishing priority four times. Tactically Occy surrendered, however on the few waves that he caught he surfed with aplomb.

Sunny, for his part, surfed terribly. In the most important heat of his career, at a break he knows intimately, against an opponent who was all but invisible, he simply couldn't win. Perhaps it was that he needed an opponent that fought. An occasion to rise to. Whatever Sunny's internal reasons were, the fact was he chose bad waves, didn't make simple barrels and, towards the end of the heat, lost his board.

In a final show of surrender Occy even tried to give Sunny his own board. Occy couldn't lose and Sunny couldn't win. Garcia hugged Occy on the shoreline, displaying admirable sportsmanship and sending a clear signal to any Hawaiian seeking revenge. Later Garcia said, "He tried to let me win, it wasn't his fault. It's not often in surf contests that you have your competitor trying to give you their board."

With Sunny out of the picture it came down to Machado and Slater. They progressed through opposite sides of the draw and met in the semi-final.

Many commentators called it the greatest heat of all time. It was certainly the highest scoring. Pipeline was absolutely perfect, with light trades and eight-foot peaks breaking both directions. Thumbing their nose at the rules of competition the two friends agreed to take turns and did rock-scissors-paper to see who would go first.

Machado, who only had to win the heat to win the world title, concentrated on the lefts. While Slater, who would have to win the whole competition to capture the title, spent most of his time scoping the rights. They went wave for wave. Midway through the heat things stepped up when Slater jagged a lined-up eight foot right, dropped in late and gave the lip a good twenty metres headstart. The last thing the spectators saw before the curtain fell was Slater pumping madly from way back. Two sections threw with no sign off him in the barrel or whitewash. Then, with the wave tapering toward Off The Wall, he came flying out standing bolt upright. He knew, as did everyone on the beach, that it was a perfect score.

Ten minutes later he repeated the act with another ridiculous wave made from another impossible situation for another perfect score. The crowd on the beach went gaga. But despite the points tally the highpoint of the heat was yet to come. Slater caught a left, flicked off and began paddling back out. As he made his way through the channel Machado dropped into a wave and got a screaming barrel. Exiting onto the face he saw Slater sitting up on his board holding his arm out for a high-five. Machado stylishly cutback, swung off the bottom and slapped Slaters hand as he rode past. Beyond scorelines, adversaries, and accolades it was just two friends surfing perfect waves together...except it was for the world title.

In his biography, Pipe Dreams, Slater described it as, "like slap-boxing with your best friend for the heavyweight championship." He also said the heat was 'the pinnacle of my career.' In the final wash-up Slater got two perfect 10's and a 9.7 to win 29.7 to 27.3. With his score Machado would have won any other heat of the 1995 season. The title wasn't Slater's yet though, he would have to defeat Occy in the final.

As it transpired the final was an anti-climactic affair. Occy had already surfed through eleven sudden death heats and ran out of steam, while Slater struggled to back up after his almighty semi-final. He did enough though, to get the lead and maintain it. Toward the end Occy fell on a barrel that may have changed the outcome, but when the hooter sounded Slater was in the lead and claimed his third Pipe Masters and third world title.

Epilogue: Sunny Garcia went on to claim his first, and only, world title in 2000. He never won the Pipe Masters but won the Triple Crown six times. Occy won his first, and only, world title in 1999. He also won the Pipe Masters in 1985. Rob Machado never won the world title - 1995 was as close as he came. He won the Pipeline Masters in 2001. Kelly Slater has won the world title nine times, the Pipe Masters six times and the Triple Crown twice.

Next up: the 1998 Pipeline Masters where two tribes go to war - Wills and Campbell for Australia, Slater for America.