If you happened to look at Surfline nearly any day in January and/or February, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pipeline was the only wave in the world. (Or Nazare. But that story is next week.) We did Swell Story after Swell Story, we went Live a few times and generally went overboard in our coverage because, well, Pipeline went crazy, and it’s impossible to look away when that happens.
How good was it? “Gerry Lopez once told me that the best Pipe he’d ever seen was a swell in the ’70s that lasted 25 days straight,” said North Shore lifeguard and charger Dave Wassel. “This season there’s been at least three good days of Pipe a week for eight straight weeks. So what I’m saying is there hasn’t been a winter this good since the 70s.”
North Shore based photographer Sean Davey agreed. “I think that stretch of endless Pipe was probably the single longest run of quality conditions that I’ve seen ever,” he said. “And I’ve been watching it since the early 90’s.”
January 29th. Photo: Pedro Gomes
Now that the dust has (sorta) settled, we figured it was worth a bit of a deeper dive into just what the heck happened and why. Good thing is, we have a whip-smart forecast team with access to decades of data, so when we began harassing Director of Forecasting Kevin Wallis in late February, he was reasonably quick to oblige. Here’s what he had to say:
There’s an old-time surf saying on the North Shore that goes something like this: A few days after heavy snow in Japan, Pipeline will be pumping. It’s overly simplistic, but has a relatively strong basis in reality. Here’s why: When cold storms slide off of Siberia and encounter the relatively warm water of the Sea of Japan, they’re able to pick up a tremendous amount of moisture. As the freshly moisture-laden storms continue east and eventually encounter the terrain of Japan, that moisture is dropped as snowfall. These storms often track further east into the open Pacific off of Japan — the prime zone for perfect Pipeline swells to be born.
Sheldon Paishon. Photo: Ryan Craig
Pipe loves west swells, specifically between 295 and 315 degrees. Any more west and you get some shadowing from Kauai. As swell direction becomes more north, Pipe isn’t quite as perfect, and once the direction gets above 330 degrees, it focuses much better elsewhere. The storms that slide off Japan — often after having dumped snow there — are in the sweet spot to create the more westerly swells that Pipeline transforms into the most beautiful and scary waves on earth.
How’s Pipe Right Now? We Have a Cam for That.
Well, Japan got dumped on this winter with several record-breaking single day snowfall totals across the country as well as seasonal totals in some areas that were the highest in 30-40 years. And Pipeline? It followed suit and had the best season of the last 20 years and arguably the best season in living memory.
The top quality surf occurred almost exclusively in January and February, with a handful of decent swells that have been sprinkled in during the first half of March. The season didn’t start nearly as strong, however. November was about what you’d expect at Pipe — mostly northerly angled swells with too much sand on the reef.
December was marked by a mix of strong tradewind days and occasional Kona wind days with heavy rain. Stubborn high pressure was anchored to the north of the islands through the month and was the dominant feature in the North Pacific. That set up the strong tradewinds and also kept the swell-producing storms on the fringes of the Pacific.
Photo: Ryan Craig
As we turned the calendar into 2022, the North Pacific took on a decidedly different look. Persistent high pressure north of the islands through December cleared out and settled over the East Pacific near the Western US, opening up real estate for the storm track on the other side of the basin. (This was the primary reason California saw generally great weather and conditions in Jan/Feb but, unfortunately, just about zero rain.) It also allowed more breathing room for the storm track in the west Pacific — and boy did those storms take advantage of the opportunity. By early January it was on, with storm after storm moving off Japan and generally tracking toward Hawaii. The resulting WNW swells started up about a week into the month and didn’t really slow down until early March.
“Pipe was so good for so long that people stopped surfing it,” said Koa Smith. “There were crazy windows with just a couple guys out. By far the best run of waves I’ve ever seen out there.” Photo: Ryan Miller
They were, with a couple of XL or XXL exceptions, in a great size range for Pipe as well. There were lots of days in the double to triple overhead range, which is an excellent size at First Reef, with roll-ins from Second Reef as the surf climbed into the triple overhead zone. But there weren’t too many days that were more than four times overhead (when waves begin to break out on Third Reef and wash through the lineup). And even those occasional swells that were too big for Pipe to handle at the peak offered good to excellent waves on the way up and way down.
“This season was fun just like the other seasons before,” said Moana Wong. “It was different though, for me, in the sense of contests. I got to surf the HIC Pro, the Backdoor Shootout, and the Pipe CT. I got the best waves of my life at the Shootout, though, and I really feel like I learned so much in such a short time from that contest.” Photo: Pedro Gomes
Of course, swell size and direction are just a couple of several components that make up quality surf. Pipe, like just about every other break around the world is also heavily reliant on local wind. And it’s more sensitive to the subtle shifts in direction that can surprisingly happen from break to break along the North Shore. The dominant east to east-northeast trades are generally ok — straight east is great (side/offshore) and east-northeast (sideshore) is doable as long as it stays relatively light. But Pipe truly lights up under east southeast to southeast wind, which is straight offshore.
“It was cool, because the swells would rise, then we’d get to surf the whole swell all the way down to Rockies as it dropped,” said Mikey Bruneau. “Then the next one would show up before it got small. There were never really two swells in the water at once. They were spaced out perfectly, which made for very clean distinct lines coming in. Gotta be the best stretch I’ve ever seen for sure. So many Pipe days it’s all kind of a blur now. Everyone got fed. Seven-Mile-Miracle most definitely living up to its name!” Photo: Ryan Craig
Typically, east southeast to southeast wind regimes occur when storms sweep past to the north of Hawaii, weakening the high that is generally located somewhere to the north of the Islands. That will mean atypically glassy conditions in the morning for Pipe and the rest of the North Shore, although a sea breeze often develops in the afternoon to put a little chatter on the surf. But this year was a little different with the east southeast to southeast wind often sticking around all day with buttery conditions from sunrise to sunset.
“This winter was an interesting one,” said Jamie O’Brien. “We had all these storms that stayed the perfect distance off of Hawaii with a lot of light east-southeast winds, which when the swells show up is as good as the conditions get. There was just so much Pipeline that you weren’t just beat up from the day before, you were beat up from the week before and then the week before that…it was just an endless winter of waves and sometimes, honestly, sometimes too much is too much, you know? At the same time, when there’s too much swell, there’s days where there’s not a lot of guys out, so…I’d say it was the best winter in the last five years.” Photo: Ryan Craig
A final piece to the surf quality pie was that the sand on the reef at Pipe was non existent — a good thing — by around mid January. The consistent west swell and lack of either north swell or strong trades meant that it was swept down the beach to the east and never got pushed back. With too much sand on the reef and in the Ehukai channel, Pipe can get pretty ugly — warbly, backwashy and closed out. But when that sand gets pushed down the beach toward Rocky Point the ugliness largely disappears.
“The thing that differentiated this winter season on the North Shore was the consistency we had from January through February,” said Makana Pang. “Pipeline was at least four-foot and barreling for nearly a month or maybe even more. I got my best waves at Pipe — it’s obviously pretty hard to top any type of wave out at there — but to be honest, I didn’t totally get the waves I was looking for this season. As consistent as it was out there, a lot of the days weren’t perfect, and it was hard to pick off the right ones under the big dogs, but I did still get some great waves and always stoked to walk away from another winter alive and healthy.” Photo: Ryan Craig
La Niña likely helped influence the location of this bountiful storm track, keeping it over on the western side of the Pacific and in the perfect spot for Pipe swells (and snowfall in Japan). But no two La Ninas (or El Ninos) are exactly the same. Last season, La Nina helped deliver all-time Mav’s, but it’s been a subpar one at the NorCal big-wave spot this time around. Likewise, a couple of classic XXL swells unloaded on the North Shore last year, and while there were decent windows of XL/XXL days this year, most days stayed in a great size range for Pipe. There were lots of double overhead+ days, excellent size at First Reef with roll ins from Second Reef when the surf hit the triple overhead zone.
How Good it’s Been, By the Numbers:22: Number of Days with at least double-overhead surf and good or better conditions in Jan-Feb — more than two times the historical average.13: Number of days with at least double overhead surf and good or better conditions in January1: Where the above number ranks in our report database (20 years) for January
“It’s just crazy to me that we’ve had a third straight good Pipe winter in a row,” said Mark Healey. “The conditions have been so good since January 1, nearly every day. There are so many events these days at Pipe that you don’t always get the amazing windows you’re waiting for, but we got them this year. But I will say…Pipe doesn’t get as good as it used to. Unfortunately, I’ve locked in that theory at this point. There’s just more water and it always breaks like it’s high tide now. It pinches more and you don’t really see the A+ days where every single wave stays open like in the past. There’s often an element of backwash, even on the best days we’ve had. It’s like there’s another six inches of water over the reef. Something’s changed…you see the erosion and houses falling into the water, it’s pretty evident. It definitely wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Pretty interesting.” Photo: Ryan Craig
The Best of ‘Em All (Waimea Buoy):
January 16th, 10 feet at 14 seconds from 310 degreesJanuary 29th: 6 feet at 15 seconds from 310 degreesFebruary 4th: 8-9 feet at 14 seconds from 319 degreesFebruary 26th: 8 feet at 17 seconds from 303 degrees (see below)