There are a lot of different styles of surfing and a lot of different ways to ride waves, but most of us can agree that tube riding is the ultimate surfing experience. There’s a reason that barrels have been given lofty nicknames over the years—names like the “green cathedral” and the “Pope’s living room.” Nothing compares with the experience of traveling inside of a waves. It requires guts, focus, perfect timing, and impeccable placement—and that’s just pulling in. Making a tube is the height of accomplishment in surfing, and barrels have changed many of our lives, setting us on world-wide chases that often last decades, if not lifetimes.
Over the years, barrels have also changed the sport surfing altogether, informing the design of our boards and dictating which waves and regions we obsesses over. A few of these barrels have been pivotal in shaping our pursuit and community, exerting a lasting influence on the entire act of wave riding. Whether you pulled into your first closeout last week or have logged hours in the tube, you likely have one of the following six waves to thank.
There are waves that barrel, and then there are waves that ARE barrels. Pipeline is patriarch of this latter family, and has arguably had a greater impact on surfing than any other wave. When Butch Van Artsdalen and John Peck paddled out at Pipe for that first session in the 1960s, they started a revolution that would ultimately give us everything from mini-guns and Gerry Lopez to pig dogs and foam ball rides. Pipeline was the wave that took the dream of barrel riding and made it a reality. Six decades later, it’s still the centre of the tube riding universe. When to go, click here.
By the 1970s, barrels dominated our collective psyche—and Gerry Lopez was the high priest of the tube ride. Thus, it was only appropriate that he came to be associated with the first of Indonesia’s many perfect left-hand drainers. While Lopez was not the first to surf G-Land, he put in more time there than anyone, getting piped alone for weeks on the edge of a wild jungle. G-Land eventually led us to the rest of Indo’s freight training left-handers—waves like Desert Point, Super Suck, Kandui, and One Palm, but the wave is still considered one of the archipelago’s best. Any surfer over the age of 30 will recall the world tour contest there in 1997, when 10- to 15-second tuberides redefined both performance and perfection. Click here for the forecast.
The wave at The End of the Road had been surfed rather consistently by bodyboarders and a few lunatic surfers since the late 1980s, but it was the QS event there in 1998 that properly introduced the Tahitian monster to the rest of the world. Almost overnight, there was a new boss in the “heaviest wave” department—even heavier than Pipe!
Once Teahupoo hit the eight-foot mark (triple overhead), it turned into the gnarliest, most perfect, most backless barrel anyone had ever seen. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to know your way around the foam ball—now the world’s best surfers had to figure out how to make impossible drops, too.
And just like that, Teahupoo became the sport’s greatest spectacle. The wave that Cory Lopez caught in the 1999 world tour event forced us to rethink what was possible to paddle, and the next year, when Laird Hamilton towed the “Millennium Wave,” an entirely new sub-genre of surfing was born. A decade later, Nathan Fletcher whipped into what still stands as one of the heaviest barrels in surfing history, and somehow survived when Teahupoo swallowed him whole. From there, things escalated quickly. Forecast: Teahupoo
While Teahupoo was slabby, it was too perfect to be considered a true “slab”—a twisted category of wave that was largely the domain of bodyboarders. The only slabs that surfers were regularly attempting in the 1990s were Shark Island and The Box—and both were sort of considered novelty waves, a side show freak fest for when the more perfect and user-friendly waves in their vicinity weren’t working.
It wasn’t until Kieren Perrow, Drew Courtney, Mark Matthews and went down to Tasmania and paddled Shipstern’s Bluff in 2001—and ended up on the cover of Surfer Magazine—that slab hunting became a mainstream pursuit. Suddenly nothing was off-limits. Shippies started the ball rolling, and within a few years slabs were being paddled and towed everywhere—but especially in Australia, where names like Cyclops, The Right, and Ours soon dominated heavy-wave surfing.
From the mid-1960s through the early 2000s, the world’s best barrels all broke over reef. Hawaii. Indo. Fiji. Tahiti. Even the cold-water slabs were reef breaks, albeit not of the coral variety. Sand-bottom barrels were fun, but beach breaks couldn’t compare with the perfection of Restaurants and HT’s. But then came footage of Cory Lopez surfing a symmetrical, backless, mile-long, sand-bottomed barrel in Namibia, and suddenly all anyone wanted was to find the next endless spit.
Debate raged over whether or not another wave like Skeleton Bay could exist, but soon secret sand points started popping up all over the place—waves in Morocco and Angola, and other hidden locales sniffed out by Mick Fanning and Natxo Gonzalez. They didn’t break often and they were far from user-friendly, but the potential for 20- and 30-second barrels (even longer?!) was enough to lure us far from home on risky, hair-brained adventures. Sand bars suddenly dominated our collective consciousness—and likely will for years to come. Forecast: Skele Bay.
Up until around 2012, big wave world titles and XXL Awards were won simply by paddling the tallest lump of water. But the first all-star paddle session at Jaws changed all of that, with the barrel on Peahi’s west bowl adding a performance dynamic to big wave surfing that would affect everything from positioning and approach to board design and judging criteria.
Suddenly it was all about paddling the biggest barrel, not just the biggest wave—and the guys (and gals) who could do that quickly became household names. Albee Layer. Shane Dorian. Billy Kemper. Paige Alms. Ian Walsh. Grant “Twiggy” Baker. Over the past decade, the barrels these and other chargers have ridden at Peahi have turned big wave surfing on its head—and reinvigorated surfing as a whole in the process.
Cover shot by Romu Pliquet