Behind the Scenes at the 2023 Vans Pipe Masters on Oahu's North Shore
35mm and medium format film photos from the legendary Hawaiian surf competition where the world's best surfers compete for $500k in cash—and glory
One of the most unique perks of being a magazine editor is having the opportunity to attend culture-defining events as a relative outsider. Think, "the Super Bowl of X," with X being some activity or niche interest that most have only the slightest knowledge of, yet the ones that do know dream of and live for it. I've traveled to the Isle of Mann to cover the first ever electric motorcycle race on the world famous and deadly TT course. I've swapped bibs and attempted a US championship cyclocross race (it did not go well). I've sat front row at Iceland's Fashion Week. And as of this month, went behind the scenes at the Vans Pipe Masters, where 60 of the world's best surfers paddled out at the world's deadliest wave for a piece of $500,000 in cash prizes—and eternal glory.
The common thread across these moments and so many more is a welcoming community of diehard enthusiasts—and a major sponsoring brand looking to shine a brighter light on their flagship event. Armed with some thorough research, just enough lingo to talk the talk, and enough cameras to let everyone know I'm there for a reason, I make my way around the event area (be it paddock, convention center, or beach) searching for familiar faces, the perfect portrait, the overheard quote to put it all in perspective.
Except this time around, I'm not totally an outsider—I do surf, sort of. And this wasn't my first time attending this specific event, sort of. Last year I traveled to the North Shore of Oahu for the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters only for Mother Nature (and/or Poseidon, depending on who you ask) to not cooperate. Zero swell. No waves. Along with a handful of other media I spent a full eight days on the island waiting for the contest to run—and it only did the day after I left. In a way, it offered the perfect backdrop for the 2023 competition—which delivered huge, heavy, heaving waves one after the other from the moment I touched down from New York.
Where the story of the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters was in part about a lack of waves. This year all was about Hawaii. And everything was in abundance. Big names, big waves, huge scores, huge crowds, and a shared excitement that had the whole North Shore buzzing.
Half of the 60 invited surfers (40 men, 20 women) were representing the Hawaiian islands. And in the end six of the eight finalists flew the Hawaiian flag, with North Shore locals John John Florence and Moana Jones-Wong each taking the Pipe Master title for the men's and women's categories, respectively.
As tends to happen with many tightly held cultures driven by "tradition", change comes bit by bit with much effort and then all at once. For nearly 50 years the world famous surf contest was reserved only for men. Then in 2022 women paddled out for their first ever live heats, with a women’s division having been introduced in late 2020 (that contest was held virtually due to pandemic restrictions).
Even so—and even though a heat stacked with three Florence brothers and Harry Bryant scoring a perfect score with an insane tube ride—the women were the true stars of this year's competition, despite having only been socially accepted at Pipeline (and Backdoor, Pipe's right-breaking sibling wave) for a decade or two, thanks to the pioneering wave riding by women like Keala Kenelly, Rochelle Ballard, and Lisa Andersen, among others.
The current crop of women surfers is much younger, with many decades of elite wave riding ahead. Though they charge with the confidence of surfers decades their senior. Led by 2023 winner Moana Jones-Wong with Molly Picklum, Carrisa Moore, Zoe McDougall, and dozens of others close behind, the future of women's surfing is bright. And every bit as gnarly as the men's.
More film photos from the 2023 Vans Pipe Masters below