It’s still one of the boldest moves ever pulled in pro surfing.
In April 2019, Thanos snapped his fingers in Avengers Endgame, and half of the population of earth disappeared. That was one helluva snap. Before that, in the semi-finals of the Pipe Masters in 1991, there was a snap that was more dramatic, more exciting, and had way more significance.
Two-times world champion Tom Carroll pulled off a move at absolutely heaving Pipe that has never been forgotten and never will be. It was a move that was so beautiful and so grotesque at the same time, that it has been soldered into the annals of professional surfing forever.
To understand the severity of the move, we have to go back to that time, nearly thirty years ago. Surfing was delivered to the masses in magazines and occasionally in movies. Exciting moments in our sport had time to gather momentum, for wave size to increase, for the drama to be upped, and for legends to grow. Moments that were witnessed by a relative few took time to reach the masses. After they had been mused on and written about, they were sometimes lit up beyond the pale by verbose writing.
The surfing that was done in Hawaii, and in particularly Pipeline, always had serious consequences. It was hallowed ground, and it was the place that nearly killed Steve ‘Beaver’ Massfeller in the 1983 Pipeline Masters. Beaver went head-first into the reef, was airlifted unconscious and ended up with a steel plate in his head and memory and speech problems. Pipe was not a place to mess with, and the magazines loved to bring this point home in every Hawaiian issue.
Carroll’s snap, however, was a move that needed no verbosity due to its absolute savageness. Imagine Tom on the beach. He’s 5’6, and he has thick, oversized quads. He’s got a 7’8 Rawson, but it is oh so knifey. The rest of the dims are somewhat underwhelming for a Pipe charger, at under 18 inches wide and only 2 1/4” thick, and the surf is seriously thundering.
To make up the picture, the board has a pink striped spray, and TC is wearing a Gath helmet, and a Quiksilver short-john wetsuit.
When that set came through, Carroll dropped out of the sky literally on a 12-foot wave and corrected himself off the bottom before grinding into a power, bottom-turn. It was that bottom turn that got him into the precarious situation of heading for the lip, on a Pipeline beast, when he could have been stalling for the tube.
The rest was pure instinct. On recalling the move, Carroll remembered little and conceded that it was just a reflex response to a critical situation.
“I didn’t really go, ‘This is the wave I’m going do the snap on this wave,’ said TC after the fact. “I just hit it.”
It was absolute savagery, and the wave closed out soon after the move, shutting down across the channel. It was a radical departure from the classical Pipe approach, which typically involved getting in as early as possible, picking a line and pulling in. Instead of holding his track Carroll broke it and climbed the wall like some kind of possessed gecko. You just didn’t do that at Pipe – most surfers still don’t.
That move was the snap to which all other snaps are still compared, and it was the power move that showed the world just what a power move is all about. It’s also the defining move of the time, in that it broke barriers and pushed the performance envelope so far in one sublime, split second.
Carroll went on to win the event, his third Pipeline Masters. He often speaks about a wave that he caught in the final that was actually Derek Ho’s, but Derek for some reason didn’t go. It featured a clean barrel, followed by a nice, long cutback that put enough points on the board for Carroll to walk away with his third Pipe masters. Perhaps if Derek had gone he would have been deeper, and the scores might have been different.
Still, that wave was not the wave everyone spoke about post-event. It was the snap in the semi-finals that shattered re-cast Pipe as a possible high-performance arena for the world’s best to push their boundaries further and further.
It took eight years for something equally as astonishing to emerge from competition at Pipeline when Kelly Slater came within a whisker of pulling off a rodeo clown at the 1999 Pipe Masters.