New York, the Mother Wave, and a Hail Mary



“New York has got something to say. . . New York has got something to say,” was the commentary from Sal Masekela that captioned the win of the 2022 Vans Pipe Masters surf contest on the North Shore of Oahu by New Yorker Balaram Stack. Stack, with a deep drop and a perfectly timed bottom turn, tucked himself inside the growling barrel of a wave that would seal the unlikely win in a contest that featured the best tube riders and aerialists in the world of surfing. The win was not unlikely, in the sense that Balaram Stack was an unknown, or a newcomer to the North Shore, but because no New Yorker had ever been invited to the exclusive event, let alone been carried from the water on the shoulders of his supporters to the podium (as is tradition for the newly minted champion). As it turns out, Stack has been on his way to the podium at Pipeline for a long time. 


Balaram Stack was born in Sebastian, Florida, but moved north to New York by the time he was five years old. The move was ostensibly a return to the family’s New York roots.  Stack’s mother moved the family back home to care for her aging mother. Mary Stack, one of ten siblings from Nyack, New York, had spent summers as a child visiting Point Lookout, on the south coast of Long Island. Stack, his mother and two older brothers would eventually settle into a home just off the beach in Point Lookout, New York. It wasn’t long before Stack had fallen in with a crew of young surfers. Unfortunately, or maybe not, these young surfers were the only ones out in the water during the frigid New York winters. As is characteristic of the Northeast, Point Lookout only gets good swells during the winter. Stack and his friends were charging in the icy waters while his mother Mary either staved off freezing beach temperatures to watch him surf or huddled in the running car with the heater on full blast. Mary would later say, “it was hard to keep Bal out of the water, no matter what the temperature.” 

Before Stack was even a teenager, some of the core local surfers took notice of his ability and determination of the scrawny little goofy footed kid. Mike “Nelly” Nelson, co-owner of unsOund surf shop in Long Beach, New York, recalls “seeing this tiny kid in a women’s wet suit, because kid’s size winter wet suits were hard to find.” Nelson would go on to say, “I could see right away that he understood how to read the wave.” Nelson saw something special in Stack. “Bal’s early mechanics were already there. By nine or ten years old, he was already dropping in and doing bottom turns and squaring up to the top.” Nelson‘s unsOund surf shop played a crucial role in the New York surf scene, sponsoring local events and supporting local surfers. Stack also attracted the attention of the surf industry’s top brands. In 2004, Quicksilver invited him to join their team after reps noticed his surfing at a surf camp in Montauk. 

At just 13 years old, Stack spent his first winter at the Quicksilver House in Hawaii. The Quicksilver House sat on the beach directly in front of the iconic Pipeline. Pipeline can produce huge waves that break, in shallow water, over three treacherous reefs, creating big hollow waves perfect for getting barreled. Stack has said the little shore break in his hometown was the foundation for his lifelong love affair with Pipeline. That said, the transition to barrels at the potentially deadly Pipeline would be a huge progression for a young and impressionable Stack. He credits guys like Reef McIntosh, Dan Fuller and Mark Healey for helping him find the right frame of mind for this new world during those early winters at Pipeline. Stack recalls “days when Reef and I would paddle out at Pipe when other spots like Sunset or Waimea were firing, and Pipe was a choppy, whitewashed mess, just to catch the one or two good waves that might come through.” McIntosh explained that by paddling out on those rough days, and leaving the good waves for others, young Balaram was learning lessons about patience, determination and respect for the people who came before him. 


As a newcomer to Hawaii, Stack had to earn the respect of the locals and his peers by putting in the hard yards and learning to be humble. That humble, thankful and gracious nature still defines him today. Stack gleefully recounts the time that he was relieved of the nightly kitchen dishwashing duty (as is the tradition for the youngest surfer in the Quicksilver House) because he had paddled out at Pipeline that day when it was nothing but closeout and whitewash. Stack credits some of this patience and humble attitude to growing up surfing in New York. According to Stack, “When guys from the East Coast would come to Pipeline, they would be there all winter, and be back again year after year. I think that we have a more grateful attitude for the waves we get.” 

Stack will tell you that “getting barreled at Pipe, listening to the inside of the wave growl at you, then spit you out on the best barrel of your life will put you in her debt forever.” He credits much of his success in life and surfing to having two “mothers,” Mother Pipeline and Mother Mary. Stack’s mother Mary is somewhat of a legend in New York and on the North Shore herself. She was known to all the local surfers in New York as a devoted mother who would do whatever it took to help her son find his path. Mary is the centerpiece of Stack and filmmaker Ben Gulliver’s docu-biopic Hail Mary, which was filmed over three years and was released in 2022. The film pays homage to his mother Mary, his New York roots and the local surf community that helped prepare him for his future. 

When Stack is not travelling the world chasing big swells in epic places with iconic waves with exotic and ominous names like Teahupoo in Tahiti, he finds time for his other interests. Stack is just as likely to be found on the sidelines of one of his nieces’ or nephews’ soccer games, as he is to be found fishing with his friends. Stack is also set to release a shoe collaboration with Italian streetwear brand P448. As for his future, the sky is the limit. Stack has established himself as one of the adopted sons of the Seven Mile Miracle on the North Shore of Oahu, so you will probably find him there in the Volcom House every winter. (Sadly, the Quiksilver House has been sold, but the Volcom house is right next door.) As for the rest of the year, you will find him hanging out with his family in New York, or on a plane to anyplace else on Earth that has great waves.

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