Epic swell and clash of eras make 40th Pipe Masters an instant classic

The 40th anniversary of the Billabong Pipe Masters is already being called one of the best surfing contests ever, and for good reason. The best Masters’ swell in decades was pounding the North Shore of Oahu all week, making for an incredible climax to the 2011 ASP season.

The most anticipated match of the event was between 39-year-old Kelly Slater, the 11 time world champion, and his 19-year-old protege, John John Florence of Hawaii.

Florence, an ASP rookie, was born the same year Slater won the first of his six Pipe Masters crowns back in 1992. The famous wave breaks roughly 100 yards from John John’s bedroom, and he started braving the ferocious conditions when he was 8. By the time he was 12 he was appearing on the cover of Surfer Magazine. Slater, meanwhile, has spent a good portion of his career surfing in Florence’s backyard, and has played a big-brother role for years.

Many viewed this week’s battle between them as the possible passing of the Pipeline torch, and perhaps more. Florence won back-to-back events at Pipeline earlier this year, and clinched the first of what many believe will be many Vans Triple Crown of Surfing titles Saturday, becoming the youngest surfer to ever win the prestigious Hawaiian crown.

On Friday Florence drew first blood on Slater in a Round Four match-up that pitted him against Kelly and CJ Hobgood. He beat them both handily thanks to a perfect 10-point ride.

But during Saturday’s sudden-death quarterfinal heat, Slater came from 10 points behind in the final five minutes to slip past Florence in the final seconds. It was a remarkable comeback that seemingly only Slater could pull.

[Is Slater’s 20-year reign worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover?]

“I’m just trying to hold John John at bay a little longer,” Slater said afterward. “This kid is going to dominate here for the next 20 years. He’ll have plenty of Pipe titles before he’s done.” Indeed, it was easy to see that defeating Florence at his home break meant a lot to Slater. Years from now Slater’s last-minute heroics in 2011 are sure to be remembered as one of the finest in his remarkable 20-year career.

Pipeline is the planet’s most celebrated wave thanks to both its beauty and fury. When massive swells finish their journey across the North Pacific uninterrupted, they hit the shallow coral reef sitting just 50 yards from shore and jump to the size of four-story buildings before heaving, twisting and detonating with enough force to shake the sand under the feet of fans and the gallery of photographers on the beach.

Meanwhile, brave surfers are vying for the ride of their lives, risking life and limb while trying desperately to avoid Pipeline’s ferocious guillotine of glassy water.

“It’s really heavy out there but this is as good as Pipeline gets,” Slater said Friday.

While Slater and Florence stole most of the early headlines, the Pipe Masters is a career-maker-or-breaker for several others, but none more than veteran Kieren Perrow, who needed to make the quarterfinal this year just to remain on the ASP world tour. That was a tall order to be sure, but possible considering Perrow finished runner-up at Pipeline last year. His painful loss still haunts him, as he let the lead slip away in the final seconds.

Perrow managed to keep his career alive with a 10 point ride that got him to the quarterfinals on Friday. On Saturday he set out to right last year’s wrong.

Wrapping his many battle wounds in Duct Tape, Perrow worked his way back to the final against fellow Aussie Joel Parkinson (who defeated Slater in the semifinals). This time Perrow didn’t let his finals’ lead slip. He nabbed the title that eluded him in 2010, finally got his first tour win, and took home what Slater calls “The best trophy in surfing.”

[Video: amazing human feats of 2011]

Former Hawaiian State Senator Fred Hemmings, the 1968 world champion and founder of the Pipe Masters, was among those taking in the show. In 1971 he helped launch the sport of surfing with a card table and a bull horn. “We dreamed of surfing going global like this, but this has surpassed our wildest imagination. This is just an incredible show.”

Above: Gabriel Medina threads the tube at Pipeline during his run to the quarterfinals of the Pipe Masters. Click photo for full Surfer Magazine photo gallery. Photo: Todd Glaser

Results of 2011 Billabong Pipeline Masters
1. Kieren Perrow (AUS)
2. Joel Parkinson (AUS)
3. Kelly Slater (USA), Michel Bourez (PYF)
5. John John Florence (HAW), Jamie O’Brien (HAW), Evan Valiere (HAW), Gabriel Medina (BRA)

Winner of Vans Triple Crown of Surfing

John John Florence (HAW)

PHOTOS: The Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore (top) is the world’s most photographed wave for good reason. 19-year-old John John Florence (middle) has come of age under the microscope at Pipeline, where he grew up. These days the ASP rookie is the biggest threat to Slater; Last week Kieren Perrow (below) was pondering life after pro surfing, Saturday, after an emotional victory, his career is going strong. Photos: ASP/Kirstin/Cestari