Kaena Point

Narrow, dry, west-pointing finger of land located on the northwest tip of Oahu in Hawaii, fringed with black lava rocks and cliffs. On the biggest winter swells, Kaena will produce what appears to be ridable right-breaking 40-foot-plus waves on the southwest side of the point, and equally large but less organized left-breaking waves on the northwest side. From the late 1950s to the 1980s, Kaena Point was thought of as big-wave surfing's final frontier. Surf Guide magazine described it in 1963 as "near-mythical"; 10 years later Surfer said it was "surfing's ultimate challenge"; and another 10 years after that Surfing identified it as the focal point "for perhaps the greatest ocean energy on earth."

In the early 1960s, George Downing, Buzzy Trent, and Greg Noll were among the first surfers to contemplate a run on Kaena. Downing said he'd try it for $2,500, but found no takers. Anticipating tow-in surfing by more than 30 years, Trent said he'd have to be pulled into the wave from behind a boat. Jim Neece reportedly signed a $12,000 contract with a Los Angeles film company in 1973 to ride a 40-footer at Kaena; he said he would wear a small back-mounted canister of oxygen in case of a wipeout, and, like Trent, intended to be towed in to a wave. But Neece, like the rest before him, backed down.

On January 19, 1976, Flippy Hoffman, Roger Erickson, David Kahanamoku, and Jeff Johnson rode 15- to 20-footers at Kaena, using Johnson's boat to motor out to the break—but not to tow in to waves. Hoffman described it as "just a lot of fun," but noted that they hadn't taken on the heaviest section of the wave, located farther out from where they'd been riding.

Mercenary big-wave rider Alec Cooke from Hawaii rode a half-dozen 18-foot waves at Kaena in 1984, with photographer Warren Bolster there to document each ride. A year later, Cooke recognized that the outer reefs on Oahu's North Shore offered more fertile big-wave possibilities. In the 1990s, as breaks like Maverick's (California), Jaws (Maui), and Dungeons (South Africa) came to the fore, the impressive but erratic Kaena Point was all but forgotten as a big-wave break.

"Kaena" translates to "the heat," and ancient Hawaiians believed it was the place where human souls left this world for the next. The area is a state park, remains almost entirely undeveloped, and the outermost tip of the point is accessible only by foot.