Koa Rothman On How Pipeline Has Changed
Less violence, more people. The North Shore’s not what it used to be.
Can you recall the whistle?
It was infamous on the North Shore back in its day. It usually meant that somebody had fucked up at Pipeline. And that the same somebody was about to get fucked up at Pipeline – but by fist and muscle, not lip and reef.
Apparently, the ol’ whistle was misplaced in the last decade or so.
The North Shore ain’t as wild as it used to be. You could blame all the smartphones, maybe. Technology n shit. As the old adage goes, you never find out that somebody’s father is a lawyer until after you’ve punched their face on camera. Or you might suggest it’s due to a tilt away from violence in surf culture as a whole. Who’s to say?
Koa Rothman, maybe.
Koa is an heir to the Rothman throne and a prince of Pipeline. In the last few years, he’s won both the Wave of the Winter and the Da Hui Backdoor Shootout. He’s got that rare mix of fearless and technical, and we reached out to him about how everything has changed.
Koa Rothman tucked into an aggressive sheet, at home.
Stab: What was it like growing up at Pipeline?
Koa: It was really intimidating. When you’re a kid, it’s scary being out there with everyone, watching people get hurt and sometimes even watching people die.
What was it like to climb the ranks?
I remember Jamie O’Brien telling me that if I wanted to be a good Pipe surfer, I had to surf it every single day it’s breaking no matter what. Doesn’t matter if it’s big or there’s backwash or anything — he told me I had to just go out there and surf. And so that’s what I did.
For years, whenever it was good, I pulled into straight closeouts. It got my name out there and people started recognizing me and letting me getter better and better waves. Some time has passed and now I can take off where I want and actually make waves. [laughs]
When did you notice that things were starting to click?
As I was getting older, I could tell people that people were starting to look at me differently. They’d be watching as I paddled for a wave to see if I was going to go or not. And when you see that it’s one of the boys doing that, you can tell you’ve climbed the ranks.
What’s it take for a kid to climb the ranks now?
If I see a kid go on a big one and pull in, I’m stoked. He’s got my score for sure — he’s just gotta keep doing it for a few years and then maybe I’ll give him a good wave [laughs]
Do you think Pipe is as regulated as it used to be?
Pipe is nowhere near as regulated as it used to be. It’s nothing like what I saw when I was younger. The Volcom house had this whistle and every time it was blown, it meant there was going to be a fight. I was super young back then so I wasn’t actually surfing Pipe yet, but I remember liking the look of it. The crowd can be so dangerous out there that sometimes I wish it was still like that.
Why has it changed?
I’m not sure. Some of the biggest enforcers from back in the day have kind of mellowed out and moved on to different things. It could just be the amount of people out there too. It’s pretty much beyond control.
Are things getting worse?
The lineup at Pipeline can only handle a certain amount of people — and I don’t see how that could be any more people than there are now. I feel like it’s reached its peak. Or at least I really hope it has. It’s a nightmare out there.
Do you get frustrated?
I get really frustrated out there. All of my friends do too. And the problem isn’t the people trying to get waves off of us — it’s the people in the way.
Last year, I took off on a wave and some random bodyboarder tossed his board through the wave. I had to dodge it while negotiating the drop, then had to jump because an 8-foot lip was about to land on my head. I came up so angry, but there were so many people I didn’t know who it was. And nobody would own up to it.
Do you feel like you should regulate?
I get told by the older guys to do it. I’ve yelled at people when it needed to be done. I’ve seen my friends get into fights. Every time I get mad at people, I have the worst session after. It always ruins it.
With all the other heavy waves in the world, do you think Pipe matters as much as it used to?
Definitely. It’s such a difficult wave. There are a lot of really good surfers from all over the place who can’t figure it out. You really have to put in the time if you want to make it work out there. But I think getting a good one out there still means a lot more than getting a good one anywhere else and I don’t think that will ever change.
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