Surfing's bad boy comes of age in Pipe's mean swells

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The Independent Online
The heaviest wave ridden by the heaviest guy. The result of the Pipeline Masters, the final event on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) world tour, confirmed what is received wisdom on the Hawaiian North Shore: that Johnny Boy Gomes is the undisputed head honcho. Kelly Slater from Florida may have won the world championship for the fifth time, but Gomes, 31, showed that experience and local knowledge are paramount at Pipeline.

Over three days, all non-Hawaiians, including the entire ASP top 44, were progressively eliminated. There were a lot of good waves, but there were even more bad waves - mean close-outs set to slam the insufficiently selective surfer into the reef. The final, on 6ft to 8ft waves, was fought out between two unseeded trialists, Gomes and another veteran, Michael Ho, aged 40, who last won the Masters back in 1982. The writing was on the wall for Ho from the moment the two took off on successive waves of a big set and Ho opted to go right into Backdoor - Pipeline's right-handed mirror image - and Gomes went left. While Gomes took the drop, stalled and pulled up into the tube and finally flew out with the spit, all grace under pressure, Ho vanished into the labyrinth but could not find his way out again.

"This is one of the best waves in the world," said Gomes after his victory, "and now I've proved - not just to myself but to the world - that I'm one of the best tube riders." He had something to prove: Johnny Boy, the popular local hero, is something of an anti-hero in the world at large. He refuses to have any truck with the pro tour, heaping scorn on the lesser waves surfed elsewhere by the ASP guys, and earning sponsorship on account of being a Pipeline specialist and big-wave bruiser.

"He is not the stereotypical 6ft blue-eyed, blond-haired surfer," said Michael Willis, who was one of his early shapers and sponsors. "He had to struggle against a lot of prejudice." Born on the west side of the island, in Makaha, with its strong ethnic surfing tradition, stocky, swarthy, a Hawaiian Mike Tyson, Johnny Boy built his reputation in equal parts on fearless and aggressive wave riding and casual random violence in and out of the water.

Gomes developed a possessive relationship with Pipeline. He didn't take too well to anyone else stealing "his" wave. "Dropping in" - the cardinal surfing sin of hitching a ride on a wave already occupied - will be punished severely. And anything else perceived as remotely similar. If he didn't paddle over and grab your board and inflict a nasty wipeout on the spot, he would wait until you hit the beach and then jump on you there. Soon it became a toss-up as to which was worse: being nailed to the reef or running into Johnny Boy on a bad day. He was famously moody, a Jekyll and Hyde by turns charming and monstrous.

I remember running into a young Australian female pro a few years back who had been out at Pipe and was looking the worse for it with cuts and bruises around her face. I sympathised with the war wounds I imagined she had received on the notoriously vicious reef. "These aren't reef injuries," she replied. "These are all down to Johnny Boy." He was even- handed and would never discriminate on account of age or gender.

Stories of Johnny Boy getting his come-uppance by picking on an incompetent surfer who also happens to be an Israeli paratrooper and who then proceeds to take him apart are legion and doubtless apocryphal. But I can confirm that I, too, have once accidentally dropped in on Johnny Boy.

In those days I had no idea even who Johnny Boy was. When I pulled into a driveway in Pukea Road I was expecting to find a couple of girls called Kristin and Sabine. Instead of that, this unshaven hombre comes out of the house and growls at me, not once but several times over: "Move your fucking car out of my drive."

In all my youthful naivete, I toy with asking him if he has some kind of problem, but decide to let it pass. Seasoned commentators derided this momentary impulse of mine. "He would have dismembered you!" they laughed. Fate had introduced me to Johnny Boy Gomes.

JBG as he is popularly known (initials bearing a similar proximity to GBH) is the main sponsored surfer of Da Hui. Da Hui is more than just a hip beachwear company. The "Hui O He'enalu" is the name of the Hawaiian wave riding club with an ethnic undercurrent also known as the "Black Shorts", with unintended echoes of PG Wodehouse's comic pseudo-fascist organisation. But "Hui" roughly translates as "gang" and, in the past, they have aroused contradictory emotions on the North Shore. One Hawaiian journalist condemned the "Water Patrol" services they provide at ASP contests as "a classic racket: who are they providing protection from? Only themselves, that's who." Another local retorted: "They may be the mafia, but at least they're our mafia."

There is a symbolic link with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, as the Hui reassert the entitlement of indigenous surfers to their breaks. With Captain Cook and American haoles (white guys) and annexation on the one hand, the Hui, on the other, have come to represent the Hawaiian heritage and the great tradition of the waterman, once identified with Duke Kahanamoku, the Leonardo Da Vinci of the Renaissance of surfing in the 20th century. Da Hui is a commercial offshoot and in an ironic twist that betokens a new-found respectability, its president is now applying for membership of the ASP steering committee.

Meanwhile, if Johnny Boy and Da Hui are reformed characters, the Hawaiian waters remain unforgiving. Two surfers have died in the last couple of days, on relatively small waves, one off the Wall, another at Rocky Point. But the talk is of the big swell that is forecast to hit at Christmas and fill all the North Shore stockings - but above all Waimea Bay - with sublime waves.