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Moana Jones Wong on being crippling shy while excelling at the world’s most examined wave, lineup politics, her DIY approach, and growing up on the North Shore.
By Beau Flemister
Light / Dark
At the end of a trail off Ke Nui Road—between the old Volcom house and the old Gerry house—a particularly friendly and well-fed cat aptly named Smokey plops down on the bench next to me. Presumably more attention-starved than starved-starved, he sits as the two of us stare out at the Banzai Pipeline, a small late-season swell stuttering on the horizon, sending chest-high lines onto the shallow reef.
I can sense Moana Jones Wong approaching from behind the bench. She is bronzed and fit from surfing. She smiles bashfully and holds out her hand, looking both at and around me at the building swell—a talent (or malfunction) only surfers have when speaking to someone whose back is turned to the sea.
Smokey scooches over to make room for her and the three of us stare at the blindingly bright water. Clearly, Moana sees Pipeline differently than most of us. Surfers like her, who’ve forsaken every other wave on the coast to devote themselves to it, understand Pipeline uniquely: where to sit, where to line up, which ones to go on, which ones to not.
She proved this type of connection in 2022, catching a dozen or so proper Pipe bombs in the Backdoor Shootout—waves that’d feather on Second Reef, giving the 23-year-old North Shore native enough room to throw her hands above her head, Uncle Derek style, before being blown out into the channel. Her performance earned her a wildcard slot into the WCT Billabong Pro—which she’d go on to win quite handily, smoking multiple world champions and assorted World Tour vets. Thing is, she’d wholly given up on pro surfing just a few years prior. What’s Pacino say? Just when I thought I was out… With that win at Pipeline, she began the 2022 season as the world No. 1.
Smokey yawns while a random ripper hides himself inside a Backdoor right that grows on the inside. The surfer scratches back out into the lineup furiously, very aware of this late-season fortune, and turns on a left, crouching into another head-high tube. Watching, Moana seems to be increasingly antsy, noting that she needs a surf to train for the inaugural WQS contest at Ala Moana Bowls—another event she’ll go on to win. As the swell continues to rise, the newly dubbed “Mrs. Pipeline” stays put long enough to explain what it’s like to be cripplingly shy while simultaneously excelling at the world’s most examined wave.
BF Why do you think some people have such a deep relationship with this wave?
MJW I think Pipe kind of chooses you. It brings me happiness. I know it brings it to all the boys out here, who are addicted to the same feeling. And it’s this feeling that we can’t get anywhere else. We can only get it here. That’s why we’re all addicted to it. And it’s such a challenging, unforgiving wave. But somehow, to certain people, you can just feel there’s this special connection. It feels like such a special space when you’re out there. I know for a fact people like Derek Ho, Jamie O’Brien—all these legendary Pipeline surfers, Gerry Lopez, these types of people—I know that they’re addicted to this wave because it gives them something that nothing else can give them.
BF When you were younger, you hada fairly successful amateur career, no?
MJW Yeah, I won four national NSSA titles at Huntington from when I was 13 until I was 16. I just really enjoyed doing surf contests because, number one, all my friends were there. I’m a super-competitive person, but not to the point where it’s a toxic competitive drive. I’m pretty levelheaded about it. But I do really enjoy it. And then I got runner-up a handful of times. And yeah, I did a lot of QSs. Then, when I turned 16 or 17, I stopped competing because I lost my sponsor. I tore my MCL and I couldn’t surf for a while. It took a long time for it to heal.
BF And your sponsor dropped you because of that?
MJW I don’t know. They kind of dropped everybody on our team. It was weird. It was kind of a bummer because I was with them since I was 11. It was like, “Wow, all my support is gone. What am I going to do now?”
BF That sucks.
MJW Yeah, I don’t really know what I was thinking at the time, but I just know that it really hurt me. They didn’t even send me an email to take off my stickers. I didn’t even know what happened until one day the rep was like, “Oh, you guys all got dropped.” It was a really weird situation. And then I decided—actually, my mom decided—like, “All right, you’re going to college.”
BF You didn’t plan on going to college?
MJW When I was younger, I wanted to be on the CT. But then, when that huge shock happened, I was like, “Maybe I’m not supposed to be surfing.” So I just transitioned into school and fully did that and kind of stopped surfing for a little while. I kind of had to stop for a while because I got really injured.
BF When did you start surfing Pipe?
MJW Before my injury, I totally avoided Pipe at all costs. I remember being 12 and my two friends, Makana Pang and Barron Mamiya, were obsessed with it and dragged me out with them. It was small and I caught a wave and pearled. I caught a couple other sideline waves, but was just so uncomfortable. It’s so steep. A 3-foot wave out here is gnarlier than any 3-foot wave anywhere else that I’ve been. It’s crazy. At that stage, I didn’t feel ready to be out here. Then, over the course of the next few years, I watched them blow up out here. I dreamed of surfing Pipe, for sure. I always wanted to surf it and to be the first woman to really, really surf Pipe well. I’m not talking badly about anybody else, but I just wanted to surf it at the next level, you know? But I didn’t think it was achievable. So I fully gave up on the surf industry. Then I swear Pipe was just drawing me to it and it was just like, “Come surf—let’s go.” Somehow I got completely drawn to it. No matter how hard I would try to stay away, it would take me to it. I guess Pipeline made me just feel like… When I got dropped, I felt like I was a nobody. Then Pipeline made me feel like I was a somebody again.
BF So did you just figure it out on your own?
MJW Growing up here, I know how Pipe is. I know how the crowd is. I know all the locals are out here. And I know that it’s a huge respect thing. You can’t go out to Pipe and think you’re going to catch waves. You have to legitimately earn your spot to get respect out there. And there were no girls out there when I’d go out. And I’m a really, really, really shy person. I never even walked down the Pipe entrance until two years ago, because I didn’t want to be seen.
BF There’s a lot of people watching.
MJW Yeah, so much vibes going on. I would run around from Ehukai or run around from Off The Wall and just be sprinting down the beach as fast as I could, hoping nobody saw me. I didn’t want anyone to watch me surfing out there. Of course, you can try to hide as much as you want. But Pipe is the show. Everyone’s watching. If you do something, everyone’s going to see it and everyone’s going to talk about it. But I didn’t try to get anybody to help me. I wanted to do everything on my own just so that everyone could say, like, “Oh, yeah, she didn’t get any help. She did it by herself.” That’s what everyone else did. You never saw John John getting babied out there. Nobody got babied out there. If anything, they probably got roughed up. Nobody gave me a hard time, but I was also extremely respectful and never, ever got in anyone’s way. I never chandeliered anyone. I would sit underneath everybody and just wait for the waves they didn’t go on. And then I would go.
BF When did it change to where you were actually getting proper ones?
MJW Probably this year. This past season was when I started not sitting underneath everybody and sitting with everybody. They kind of would be like, “Here, come sit over here.” They welcomed me to sit out there, and that’s when it felt like I’d earned my spot, which meant I also knew I had to start going on the bigger ones, too.
BF And then you beat the very best of the very best in the world at the Billabong Pro—the best women in the world at the scariest wave in the world. And you dominated. What did that feel like?
MJW I was stoked that I won, but I mostly wanted to get all-time waves. This is the only spot where that’s all I care about. I didn’t even care if I didn’t win. The week before, at the Backdoor Shootout, I got the best waves of my life. I’ve never even tried to go on waves like that before. I would normally only go on 4-footers, and I couldn’t believe I went on some of those waves. I was so comfortable at the CT Pipe contest because the week before I was surfing the biggest Pipe I ever surfed. And I handled. The waves that I caught in the Billabong Pro weren’t even that big.
BF And now you’re back in it, sponsored by Volcom. Are you having another go at pro surfing or what?
MJW I really want to keep doing what I’m doing. I love what I’m doing. I definitely love competing. I want to see where that goes. It’s always been a dream to be on the tour, since I was a grom. I can’t hide that. But I’m not going to be disappointed if that doesn’t happen. Whatever happens, it’s meant to be; I’m just going to go with it and see where my surfing takes me, pretty much.
BF And you’ve just graduated from college?
MJW Yeah, University of Hawaii. I graduated with a degree in Hawaiian health and healing.
BF Is that a field that you’re going to pursue?
MJW I could pursue it. But then, at the same time, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year or two. I might go down that route when I’m older, but right now I just want to focus on my surfing. I’m not a person to make plans. [Laughs.] I tried to leave surfing behind and forget about it, but Pipe was like, “No, that’s not what’s going to happen.” And that’s all I think about. I haven’t been surfing and training and loving it this much for a very, very long time.
BF After a four- or five-year hiatusfrom pro surfing, how do you feel the treatment or portrayal of women is in the industry these days?
MJW I think they definitely stopped with the stereotypical bikini-model stuff. I think they’ve kind of turned it more into athletic girls. Maybe it’s more like how we normally act or look. We’re not posing on the beach in our bikinis all the time. I haven’t really experienced any discrimination with the men at all, though. They’ll shit-talk me, but I’ll shit-talk them back. We’re really close. So I don’t get offended about that at all. If anything, they push me harder. I don’t know, because I haven’t really been in the big leagues of the surfing world. But within my little leagues of the surfing world, I have only felt positivity and support from most people. I mean, I’m surfing with a hundred guys out here every single swell, and everybody’s cheering me on. Everybody’s being super cool. I feel equal with them when I’m out here. I don’t ever feel beneath them. I always feel like I’m with them. I’m sure back in the day it was worse or something, but I think nowadays the boys are definitely more supportive. But I didn’t live back then, so I can’t say.
BF Is there anybody who surfed Pipeline, man or woman, from any era, who truly inspired you?
MJW Uncle Derek.
MJW He’s my inspiration. Every time I was out here, I don’t care how bad it was—onshore, 1-foot—me and him would be out here, just the two of us. He pretty much is my all-time favorite surfer, ever. Yeah, forever.
BF Your rep is being built around this wave. “Mrs. Pipeline,” they’re calling you. You cool with that, or…
MJW I’m perfectly fine with everyone just knowing me for Pipe. [Laughs.] I’m fine with that. Could be called worse.
[Feature Image: Jones Wong feels Pipeline’s call particularly strongly on days like these—and she doesn’t hesitate to react. Photo by Pedro Gomes.]