The Dubious Documentation of Surfing's First Slab
“I had been looking at Pipeline for two or three years and I couldn’t get anybody to go out. We’d seen those pinnacle rocks underneath the break . . . So, we just kept passing on it,” says filmmaker and Surfer founder John Severson. In the winter of 1960 he aggressively prodded Mike Diffenderfer to surf the place. “Diff” turned him down flat. Yet, it’s almost certain bids had been made on Pipe as early as the mid-‘50s. Pat Curren and Bob Shepherd camped at Pipe as early as ’57-’58. Rabbit Kekai says locals from Kailua challenged Pipe even earlier. Interestingly, in the generational gap between, awe of the “impossible shore break” grew—an affect that may have to do with the drowning a swimmer, but certainly enhanced by erroneous tales of the reef’s “antler coral” surface.
In his narration of “Surfing Hollow Days,” however, Bruce Brown framed up that first documented session as a discovery. Among this group of pioneers and entrepreneurs, facts often fell along party lines. If you can imagine it, the first feature exposing Pipeline in the pages of Severson’s Surfer didn’t bother to include Phil Edwards’ name.
As filmmakers, Brown and Severson competed fiercely for what usually amounted to footage of the same surfers at the same spots. That December of ’61, Mike Hynson was living with Brown and his surfing idol, Phil Edwards. According to Hynson, the three of them were checking Sunset Beach with the usual cast of North Shore surfers. “Sunset didn’t look like it was happening,” Hynson says. Jose Angel lived within earshot of Pipeline and casually let Brown know the wave in front of his place was breaking. “We kind of snuck away from Severson,” Hynson says. “I’ll never forget this: we were loading up and he called, ‘Where are you guys going?’ We said we were going to Makaha or someplace.”
Brown and his crew of surfers then drove down to Angel’s house. Clean and barreling, Pipeline broke in the eight-foot range. According to Hynson, Edwards was not as keen on surfing as Brown’s narration suggested. “Bruce had his camera out and he was making it pretty obvious that he wanted to film something. You could always tell when he was in the mood,” Hynson says.
Not all of them knew that Brown had actually filmed Edwards surfing a couple of shoulder-high waves on the reef the day before. Those piddlers were far from the feathered, A-frames breaking that afternoon with Hynson and Diffenderfer. Edwards admitted, “I don’t think I want to surf that.” Hynson remembers the 24-year-old Edwards then muttering, “Screw it,” before charging out. As soon as he reached the outside, a good-looking set began to crest, and all were stunned when Edwards wheeled around and stroked into that first wave. He angled the drop backside with a hands-out stance and navigated a shallow bottom turn. The curtain quickly caught up and the fast-moving water seemed to suck him back into the pocket. Although not nearly a tube ride by today’s standard, the harrowing feat on the lumbering longboard and inelegant fin was definitely a severe trim.
“As Phil came in, I was running for my board,” Hynson brags.
Edwards was later quoted as saying, “After that first ride I came to the beach and walked to the car. I put the board on the roof, turned around and there were three guys out.”
In fact, Brown and Edwards had brought part of the crowd with them, and Severson’s group—including George Lanning and Loren Swan—were so hot on their heels, Hynson never made the lineup alone.