The Lopez Factor

Mr. Pipeline and surfing’s long game.

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In today’s world, millions pursue riding waves. To those who can understand it as such, the act has come to stand as a totem of humans and nature joined in an artful dance that produces nothing of physical substance—nor does it expend any. Yet those who are enticed by that ocean mambo devote a significant percentage of their life to dreaming of it, preparing for it, traveling to it, experiencing it, inventing for it, and artistically portraying it in various ways in order to communicate their thoughts about it to other like-minded souls. 

If you fast-track Gerry Lopez’s life, he started in Hawaii at the end of the longboard era, then was energized by and helped interpret that energy into the shortboard era. Lopez emerged in the earlier transition of Pipeline being understood to be fully experienced. His deeply personal approach to that deadly wave became famous for replacing paralyzing fear with relaxed grace. Lopez surfed daintily but powerfully, elegantly but dangerously, a combination so rare that it transfixed his audience and made him a hero—not something he sought, but an asset he understood and handled with the same grace he did the wave.

Gerry Lopez, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Tim Davis

As wave-search travel became a growing engagement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Gerry quietly veered off into it. The then-unsurfed islands of Indonesia’s archipelago slowly began to reveal themselves as perhaps the richest wave field on our globe. Gerry and a select group of outlaw explorers tasted the long, complicated left walls of Uluwatu when the Balinese were afraid of the monsters inhabiting the depths. As the visitors helped to dispel that fear, the Balinese youth began to enjoy their own ocean treasures. Meanwhile, Gerry and his crew moved on to Grajagan. Ferried across the channel by fishermen and dropped raw on the coast of Java, they lived in trees and rode long outer peaks that sheeted off in long tears until a brief pause allowed escape. It was the edge of reality, soon overrun by others who sought exotic waves.

Back on the North Shore, Gerry began shaping surfboards. It’s a skill that lifelong surfers take to naturally. The boards are the brushes they paint with. Their feelings are transmitted through their legs to the soul of each rider. His partner in that venture, Jack Shipley, sold them, leaving Gerry to his craft and his aura. They made a team of sorts. Each winter’s crop of arrivals from the world’s other surf centers realized they must equip themselves with local knowledge, and Lightning Bolt symbolized that. Thus the photos that graced the pages of surf magazines were large, powerful visual statements broadcasting the fact that the world’s best rode Lightning Bolt surfboards—a loud, if silent, endorsement of Gerry.

Last year, I was asked to contribute to a film about Gerry that Patagonia was sponsoring. To do so, I drove up to headquarters in Ventura. The production crew buzzed around while Lopez sat quietly bemused, interacting politely with the various participants. Evidently, he had just returned from Indo and was about to depart for some other paradise—all part of his well-manipulated life pattern. Even at 73 years old, Gerry continues to do what he has done all along: look for clean trims and embrace the aesthetic of Zen experiences.