The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez: Coming to terms with the darker side of surfing’s Zen master

Hawaiian Gerry Lopez has long been revered for his laid-back surfing style, but a new film by Stacey Peralta shows the icon in a whole new light, writes Roger Cox
Gerry Lopez PIC: Jeff DivineGerry Lopez PIC: Jeff Divine
Gerry Lopez PIC: Jeff Divine

When I was in my teens, one of my most prized possessions was a poster advertising the 1995 Pipe Masters – then and now, the most significant competition in the sport of surfing. The design was simple yet perfect: a green-tinted photograph of an enormous hollow wave, with a surfer positioned precariously just beneath its thick, feathering, guillotine-like lip. Any normal surfer – any normal human – would have been crouching down low in this impossible-looking situation, fists clenched, braced for impact. But the surfer in the picture is none of these things. This guy looks so relaxed it’s as if he’s out for a morning stroll.

You can tell from the sheet of water jetting out of the side of his board that he’s travelling at about a million miles per hour, but his body hardly gives any indication of the huge forces at play. He leans almost casually into the maw of the wave with his right leg dead straight, his left leg slightly bent, and his upper body arched slightly backwards. His arms are held straight down by his sides, and his fingers are loose, perhaps a little flared. His mouth is open wide, and common sense tells you that this must be because he’s screaming his head off. However, if you look long enough at the combination of open mouth, arched back and flared fingers, you can almost convince yourself that he’s stretching and yawning, having only just woken up.

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The surfer is Hawaii’s Gerry Lopez, winner of the Pipe Masters in 1972 and ‘73, revered surfboard shaper, pioneering surf explorer, lifelong yoga practitioner, and by almost any reckoning the most effortlessly stylish waverider of all time. By the time I came to tear this poster very carefully out of a copy of Surfer magazine and blu-tack it to my bedroom wall, Lopez had long-since stopped competing on surfing’s world tour, of which the Pipe Masters in Hawaii is traditionally the final event. However, his grace under pressure was still cutting-edge in 1995 and it’s still cutting-edge now – in fact, his style is so distinctive that he’s almost become a meme: if you took a black felt-tip pen to that poster image, coloured him in so he was just a shape, then showed that shape to ten surfers, at least nine would instantly identify it as Lopez.

The trouble with icons, though, is that they always turn out to be more complicated than you expect. Last summer, a new documentary about Lopez by leading skate and surf filmmaker Stacey Peralta (Dogtown and Z Boys, Riding Giants) had its UK premiere at the London Surf Film Festival, and in December it was made available to watch for free on YouTube, at which point there was really no excuse for not watching it. Trouble was, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it or not. Titled The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez, the film promised to “lift the veil on one of surfing’s most enigmatic heroes”. The introductory blurb also said: “While ‘Mr Pipeline’ is famously known for his calm demeanour in the tube, Gerry built his early career on cutthroat, aggressive surfing.” Did I really need to find out about the darker side of one of my childhood idols? Couldn’t I just hang onto my perfect image of him, stalling effortlessly under that giant green wave?

Finally, the other week, I caved and watched it, and – well – when it comes to shattering the illusions of Gerry fans, Peralta doesn’t hang around. Even before the intro credits roll, he has Lopez doing a beautifully-shot little mea culpa straight into the camera, in which he pretty much tears up his Zen master persona and sets the pieces on fire. “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise,” he says, a hint of a smile playing on his lips, “to all the people that I stole waves from, because, you know, I know that my surfing has been a subject of admiration and the way my surfing got to that level is… stealing a lot of waves from other surfers.”

Sure enough, Peralta’s film goes on to show Lopez committing the cardinal sin of “dropping in” on other surfers – not just once, but again and again, and not just in everyday waves, but on ten-foot Pipe bombs where the consequences of falling over the shallow coral reef could be severe. We see footage of Gerry brawling on the beach; we hear veteran surf journalist Matt Warshaw say “to own a spot like Pipeline the way Gerry owned Pipeline, you don’t do that by, you know, Zen and mellow. You do that by being hardass.”

From that point on, the myth-busting comes thick and fast: we see Gerry fall. We see Gerry fall badly. We see Gerry fall so badly that the fin of his surfboard ruptures his intestine. We see Gerry set up his famous company, Lightning Bolt, and enjoy huge initial success, but we also see him selling out on an industrial scale, using his image to flog all kinds of tat, from cheap jewellery to horrific “Star Bolt” polo shirts.

Poster advertising the 1995 Gerry Lopez Pipe MastersPoster advertising the 1995 Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters
Poster advertising the 1995 Gerry Lopez Pipe Masters

“I think, though,” says former Surfer magazine editor Sam George, “that it’s a measure of his approach to the sport, that he could survive that with his reputation intact.” And maybe that’s the point: nobody’s perfect, not even Gerry Lopez, and the best any of us can hope for is that, in the end, the yin and the yang of our lives will balance each other out.

To watch The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez, visit

Gerry Lopez PIC: Dan MerkelGerry Lopez PIC: Dan Merkel
Gerry Lopez PIC: Dan Merkel
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