Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew is sitting on the beach at Pipeline and is staring out to sea. The waves are fifteen feet and the sets are even bigger. It is 1988. “Rabbit” has been coming here each winter for well over ten years… since he was a skinny little kid, in fact… and now he figures he knows the wave like the back of his hand. That’s why he is staring out to sea. Smart people who know Pipe don’t take on the monster tubing waves without carefully studying where the waves are coming from, how big they are, how often the sets are coming, where they are peaking, what the tide is doing etc.
Not many surfers are real Pipeline experts. A select few like Jerry Lopez, Rory Russell, Tom Carroll, Derek Ho, Shaun Tomson, Tom Curren, Bruce Irons, Andy irons, Sunny Garcia and Kelly Slater have shown mastery at the place and “Rabbit” runs high in the pecking order with this crowd. It seemed like ages ago that he, along with another young pro, Shaun Tomson, had led the charge to surf the right breaking section known as “Backdoor” that had previously been thought to be too dangerous to surf.
An hour passes and “Bugs” is still studying the waves. There have been a dozen blokes sitting at the second reef for ages and no one has caught a single wave yet. There are as many as forty surfers milling around the first reef and a few are scoring the smaller waves but no one is handling the bigger sets.
Another hour and a half passes. It is now eleven o’clock and, by his reckoning, only two decent sized set waves have been successfully ridden from the second reef into the deep spitting bowls of the first reef. “Rabbit” picks up what he considers to be his beautiful, almost Pipe-perfect, channel-bottomed Al Byrne board and slowly strolls to the water’s edge. He enters the water and slowly paddles way wide edging his way steadily towards the second reef. He doesn’t make a beeline for where the other second reef surfers are sitting but targets a spot another twenty or so meters further out. Neither does he pick a spot in line with the others. “Buggs” paddles to a place much deeper than where they are positioning themselves. Gary Elkerton notices “Bug’s” chosen spot in the line-up and immediately paddles out to join him.
Only two second reef surfers had caught decent waves in the two and a half hours that “Rabbit” had been watching from the beach but Bugs bags a big one in a short five minutes. Gary Elkerton follows suit in grabbing the next set wave after having joined him in the line-up only moments before. Both fly past the crew at second reef and score deep churning barrels as each wave pitches out on the approach to first reef.
For an hour and a half “Rabbit” is in his element. The waves are big. The water is warm. He has the line-up sussed. He is charging as hard as he ever has and is scoring some amazing waves. After a while he moves into his favourite Pipeline spot about half way between first and second reef and he is still ripping. This is a surf-blessed day! One of the extra-good ones. Maybe one of the best ones.
Moments later “Bugs” spies a massive bump on the horizon way beyond second reef. A close-out set. A twenty foot plus barrelling close out set! No one will ride this wave. As the monster wave approaches, he takes evasive action and manages to scramble over the biggest wave of the morning and survives the rout that the wave is inflicting upon the rest of the crew in the line-up. “Rabbit” looks around after the wave has passed and he discovers that around forty surfers have been completely smashed by the wave and are scrambling to recover their boards, their breath and their composure. There is just one other surfer left with him in the line-up who has survived the onslaught. “Rabbit” looks over towards Shaun Tomson and laughs, “Hey Sean… it’s just like the good old days”. The kings of “Backdoor Pipe” are alone again together on the stage. “Rabbit” is keenly aware that this is a special day of surfing for him and having Tomson by his side seems synchronicitous.
The next set wave looms over second reef and, like the previous one, it’s face is bigger than twenty feet from bowl to feathering lip. Like the previous wave it is probably unrideable. It is probably a total close out. Rabbit is sitting in a position way deep. To go right at Pipeline on a twenty foot plus wave from this position is simply unthinkable. So why is “Rabbit” thinking about going? He has done mad things at “Pipe” before but then it was about being noticed. About making a point. About building a name. About winning a heat. Today it’s nothing like that. Today “Rabbit” just knows that he has to go.
As the beast looms he knows that he is in the ideal position so he paddles several powerful strokes and drops vertically a huge distance until the fins, inside rail and plaining surface of the board connect with the face. He adjusts his position and sets himself up for the tube of his life. The massive lip throws out so far it is impossible for him to estimate the distance. He is inside the biggest, darkest and most powerful barrel he has ever experienced. He can see the exit from the tube way off in the distance but even at that distance it still looks like a huge gaping hole… one big enough to drive two double deck buses into. Despite years of surfing in big waves this was a totally new experience for “Rabbit”. The power of the wave smashing down only meters behind him is causing his beautiful Al Byrne channel bottom to quiver, shudder and warp as he charges down the line.
“Bugs” goes into total survival mode. Any thoughts about dying now would probably become a self-fulfilling prophesy. He must believe that he can make it to the entrance of the barrel and then do a spectacular exit from the wave by charging up the face and flying over the feathering lip. He sets his line and charges with all the speed he can muster for the convulsing opening. He does not make it. The massive foam ball smashes down onto him (as he knew it would) and causes his board to bounce into his leg. The excruciating pain that tells him he had done something unpleasant to his leg is almost instantly forgotten as his body is sucked up the over twenty-foot face and thrown forward and down by the cascading curtain of water. Severe leg injuries become quite inconsequential when you have a lot more serious things to worry about.
More new experiences are to follow. “Bugs” has never before felt a wave lip penetrate the churning ocean but he certainly did this time as the lip drives him down onto the reef and pins him flat on the rocky bottom. The turbulence that follows drives him along the reef in the same way that a road grader pushes and flattens the road base it is working on. His one thought is to protect his head. If he smashes his head on the reef he will either die instantly from the concussion or drown a few seconds later as he sinks into unconsciousness. Neither option appeals. After what seems like ages he finally breaks through the surface and takes a huge breath.
The next set wave is about to detonate right on top of his head. He has popped up at precisely the wrong spot… right on the impact zone of “Backdoor Pipe” with more monster sets about to land. A few meters further in towards the beach might not be so deadly and a few meters further out might be survivable too but right in the impact zone is totally not the right place to be. He tries for the further out option and swims as quickly as he can towards the approaching monster wave then, as it explodes, he dives as deep as he can. The next few minutes are a nightmare of wave after wave dragging his oxygen depleted body across the reef… but he has survived the original wave and avoided the deadly impact zone of the following waves. He is bashed, beaten, caned, bruised, injured, bleeding, disoriented and dazed but he is alive and his trusty old dog-paddle swim stroke in combination with the wash of the white water eventually bring “Rabbit” back to the beach.
He cannot stand up. He crawls a few meters up the sand to escape from any further unwanted shore- break smashing then collapses exhausted, face in the sand. Martin Potter who has witnessed the entire event comes running up to where “Bugs” is lying and says, “Man, that was the heaviest thing I have ever seen”. Darrick Doerner is also on the beach. Darrick, who has probably experienced more North Shore horror wipe outs than anyone, also walks up and just sits down on the beach next to “Rabbit” to watch over him while he recovers.
Wayne Bartholomew has experienced literally hundreds of wipe-outs at Pipeline… some worse than others. This one was by far the worst that he had ever experienced. A few minutes earlier he had been thinking about what a special day it was for him. Now, as he sits on the beach, he knows that it has been an extra special day. He has survived!