Aspiring Sydney photographer and videographer Byron McLoughlin recently travelled to the North Shore of Oahu for the first time for his 18th birthday. Here he recounts the experience, from meeting Kelly Slater at Pipe, to swimming at Waimea and documenting a rare, and gnarly, sandbar.
First Time Pipe… and meeting Kelly Slater
Instead of a party for my 18th birthday party, I wanted a trip to Hawaii. Hawaii had always been in the back of my mind since I started ocean photography. Pipeline was the place where you make a name for yourself and that’s my ultimate goal.
However, I was unsure of what kind of place the North Shore was. Would I be welcome here? How would the lineup treat me? I had a lot of questions and was nervous.
I promised myself to swim on some small days and test the ropes out before swimming out on a big day. I also used my drone to get an idea on the lineup before I swam. I had a week there and saw one big swell. But when that day came, it was too maxed out to swim.
My parents had come out too, and as we getting ready to head home, I saw another swell on the charts. Changing the flight was expensive and I’d also be on my own. On the other hand, I hadn’t shot the images I had dreamed of. It was then that Sydney surfer Kobi Clements and legendary photographer Ryan Miller texted me saying that I should stay.
That was enough. I changed my flights, booked into Bernie’s Hostel down the road from Pipeline, and hoped I’d get one more session in to prove myself. In the first four days though there was no swell. At times I was like, “what am I doing here?” I also felt the pressure to prove to my family that it was worth staying.
I knew I needed just one good day, but I got impatient and distracted. I got high on weed and mushrooms for the first time, kinda wasting my time doing the backpacker thing. It was a huge wake-up call to remind me why I had come. Eventually, a solid Pipe swell arrived and I decided to have my first proper swim out. I was nervous about asking for advice, as the North Shore is so regulated and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Finally, I just asked a surfer on the beach. And that surfer was Kelly Slater. I swear he was the most humble human on Earth.
That was incredible to meet the GOAT, but the lineup humbled me quickly. I also found out that the surf photography etiquette or pecking order at Pipeline was full-on. I made some mistakes, accidentally got in the way, and was told in no uncertain terms to show respect, but I ended that session with some cool shots.
Waimea Bay… and acting like your belong
I felt I had to give Waimea a go. It was something a little different from my usual shooting style, as I’m into photographing short, steep slabby barrels, but I figured you can’t judge something without fully understanding and experiencing it. I arrived at Waimea on my shitty 10-buck bicycle that had no brakes, wearing my impact vest and carrying my flippers and a camera that weighed more than myself.
The swim out to Waimea was long and tiring, and again I was scared I was going to be told off by a lifeguard. However, I told myself I needed to act like I belonged. That session at Waimea ended up being incredible. And with Eddie being called on, and then off, all the big wave surfers were out there. The highlight was meeting another one of my idols; Ross Clarke-Jones.
A Sandbar Session… and Kelly strikes again
It was my last day on the North Shore. I was stoked about my Waimea session and in the back of my mind I was like, “I should be happy with what I’ve got and just get ready to go home.” But then I get a call from Kobi and Ryan saying that an infamous North Shore sandbar was firing.
I biked down to check the sandbar. It was fucking gnarly; no channel and a core group of dozen of the best North Shore surfers out there. I snagged a few drone clips before I decided to go out. My friends told me when the sandbar was like this you had to walk for hundred of yards down almost to Rocky Point to paddle out as the rip was so gnarly. But with just one other water photographer out, I made the call to give it a go.
On the shore, I bumped into Kelly Slater again. It was the full, lightning strikes twice moment. I said hi, and followed him into the line-up. Yet while he easily duck dived through a 10-foot set, my camera leash and pistol grip ripped right off my housing. I now had no Plan B. I could lose my housing at any time.
The current was so strong it had brought from Rockies to Off The Wall. I did the two-kilometre walk of shame back to where I had started. The question was; Should I try again? I had no camera leash and I could lose my 10-grand camera?
Impulse made me try one more time. This go I timed it better, and while I copped some huge sandbar closeouts on the head, I finally punched through, and sure enough, the first surfer I photographed was Kelly Slater. Eventually, I called it a session before the sun went down and made it in safe. I rode that feeling of adrenaline for 10 hours back to Sydney on my flight home later that night. I hadn’t made a name for myself, but I’d met my heroes and knew I’d go back to Hawaii.