This wave is known as the Pipeline. It breaks near the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii’s third largest island. It’s one of the pinnacles of surf culture. In the 1970s, when this shot was taken, it was probably the most radical wave in the world. We knew of nothing else like it.
To catch a wave like this, you need to amass a wealth of knowledge from years on the ocean. In California, the slope of the wave is more gentle, thanks to the gradient of the seabed to the shore. In this part of Hawaii, the waves form on such deep water that when they reach the shallow reefs near the shore, they tower right up and create a ledge at the crest. They go straight up and down.
Mastering the ledge takes real expertise. You need to analyse the wave’s approach then, at precisely the right moment, paddle furiously to get over the top. Then you need to hold your balance as it pitches out furiously. You’re this tiny body being launched with unimaginable speed. It’s like jumping off a 20ft building without a safety net.
It doesn’t always go right. This guy who’s wiping out here was called Fred. My friends, who were very good at surfing the Pipeline, were terrified of him. One day, they bumped into him on dry land and he barely recognised them. They realised it was because he wore these super-thick glasses because his eyesight wasn’t great. So when everyone lines up in the water, jockeying for position as the wave approaches, they’d furiously paddle out of the way for fear of being wiped out by him.
Fred didn’t suffer any major injuries. What was interesting, in the decades I’ve spent shooting surf culture, is how few people get killed. It’s not unheard of, and this wave can be really dangerous, but you mostly pick up only scratches and bruises. That’s remarkable when you think about the force of the waves and the risks you’re taking.
In my early 20s, I was working in a commercial studio. We did rock bands, jewellery, condominiums, bread – you name it, we’d shoot it. But one summer, I remember thinking: “Screw this, I’m doing surf photography.” I knew the ocean, I grew up on the ocean, and I knew I would be good at it because I was so passionate about it. The Beach Boys asked me to photograph them at one point, but it seemed like a joke. Why would I want to hang out in Los Angeles when I could be on the shores of Honolulu?
When I was growing up, the ocean was basically my backyard. My friends and I started surfing in our teens. It was our entire life. Whereas some people played tennis or golf or socialised or whatever, we were going to beaches that weren’t named on any map, finding secret paths out to the sea that we’d label and that nobody else knew about. My parents and all their friends had no clue what it was like. It was a secret world. We were like wilderness kids exploring.
Surfing isn’t just sport: it has its own language, codes and culture. It’s like sailing communities, historically, or skate culture today. It’s often hard to explain it to outsiders. I remember showing an issue of Surfer magazine – where I’ve worked throughout my career – to my grandmother. She said she couldn’t really tell the difference between the images. As someone who has spent a life on the inside, that was crazy to me. But that’s because I recognise the people, the landscapes, the waves, the positions, the interaction between man and wave.
The work is a joy but it isn’t always easy. You wait for hours, analysing the waves, getting to know the surfers, predicting who’s going to make it and who’s going to wipe out, because you have maybe one or two seconds to get the shot. When I started out, film was $10 a roll and you had to wait up to a week to see the finished shots. It felt amazing when you got what you wanted, but there was that element of suspense.
Spending years in the blazing sun takes its toll: I’ve had multiple skin cancers. But the lifestyle was incredible. It’s a world I remain completely enamoured with. Photographing man and wave has been the work of my life.
Jeff Divine’s CV
Born: La Jolla, California, 1950.
Trained: “Self-taught but mentored by Steve Wilkings in Honolulu in the mid-1970s.”
Influences: “My artist grandmother: she painted watercolours of begonias.”
High point: “A yacht trip to the Mentawai islands off Sumatra, Indonesia, in 1996 with a group of the best surfers in the world. A surf photographer’s dream.”
Low point: “Numerous skin cancer surgeries from sun damage. For you youngsters, apply sunscreen, then repeat.”