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Makaha


History-rich surf break located on the arid west side of Oahu, 30 miles northwest of Honolulu; often described as the birthplace of big-wave surfing; home to the 1954-founded Makaha International Surfing Championships, the world's first international surf competition.

Bordered by steep lava- ridged valleys and mountains to the east, Makaha (Hawaiian for "fierce") is one of the state's most consistent and variegated breaks; summer waves are generally below four feet, winter waves are frequently six feet, and can get up to 25. The predominant northeast tradewinds blow offshore. The enormous Makaha reef is home to a group of interconnected breaks. During a medium-sized swell, the most popular takeoff zone is located at the Bowl, which produces a steep drop that quickly backs off into the Blowhole section, which in turn leads to the Inside Reef—a zippy tube that funnels into a notorious throttling backwash-filled shorebreak just a few yards off the beach. When the surf is below eight feet, the Makaha lineup is filled with all manner of surf craft, from tandem boards and SUPs, to outrigger canoes, bodyboards, longboards and shortboards.

When the swell at Makaha hits to 15 feet or bigger—less than a half-dozen times each season, usually—the crowd thins out considerably as the wave breaks over an outer section of reef known as Point Surf. Makaha gets bigger than 20 feet maybe once or twice a decade, but when it does it often shapes up as a thundering 200-yard-long wall that terminates at the looming and frequently non-negotiable Bowl section, the "royal flaw," as described by Surfer magazine. (Big-wave surfer Fred Van Dyke had such a hatred of the Bowl section that in 1958 he planned to level the responsible area of reef with dynamite. The plan failed, and the Bowl remains the great challenge for Point Surf riders.)

Makaha's close-knit surf community is often praised for upholding Hawaiian traditions and mores. The economically depressed area is also noted for its violence and crime, and outsiders are generally made to feel unwelcome. "You want to come to Makaha?" local surfer Melvin Puu told Surfing in 1991, addressing the magazine's readership. "Don't." Rusty Keaulana, Makaha local and three-time longboard world champion, for a time sported a bumper sticker on his fender that read "Welcome to Makaha—Now Go Home!"

While Makaha was likely first ridden by premodern Hawaiians, 19th-century Makaha Valley landowner Kuho'oheihei "Abner" Paki is generally cited as the break's first surfer; after 1860, however, Makaha remained unsurfed for more than 75 years. In late 1937, just a few months after the development of the racy hot curl surfboard—sometimes called the original big-wave board—John Kelly and Wally Froiseth of Honolulu, along with a few others, rediscovered the Makaha surf. This new break was the perfect seasonal counterpart to Waikiki, where the surf is biggest in the summer and early fall.

Teenager George Downing joined the original group of Makaha surfers in the mid-'40s, and soon gained a reputation as the island's finest big-wave surfer. Venturesome Californians like Buzzy Trent, Bob Simmons, and Walter Hoffman soon joined the Hawaiians, and by the early '50s the mainlanders were spending their winters living in a small row of army-built Quonset huts at the mouth of Makaha Valley, eating rice and peanut butter, and lying in wait for big Point Surf. America at large got its first look at Makaha in 1953, when newspapers across the country published an Associated Press photo of Trent, Downing, and Woody Brown shooting across the face of a sparkling 15-footer; inspired, another two or three mainland surfers packed their boards and headed for Oahu.

The first annual Makaha International Surfing Championships were held in 1954, and before decade's end the contest was known as the unofficial world championships. It was also the world's first televised surfing event, running from 1962 to 1965 on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

By the late '50s, Oahu's North Shore had replaced Makaha as the capital of big-wave surfing. But the west side break still had its moments: Downing and Trent rode immaculate 25-footers there in 1958, and in 1969 California roughneck Greg Noll paddled out at Point Surf and caught the biggest wave ever ridden up that time, a 35-foot closeout that he was lucky to survive.

As Makaha faded somewhat from public view in the '70s, a colorful local surf culture continued to flourish, in large part thanks to longtime Makaha patriarch Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana, along with the "Queen of Makaha," Rell Sunn, who organized events like the Buffalo Big Board Classic meet and the Rell Sunn Menehune Contest. Makaha also hosted the 1984 United States Surfing Championships, the 1997 World Longboard Championships, and the 2003 Masters World Championships. When Sunn died in 1998 after a long fight with cancer, her ashes were scattered at Makaha.

Makaha has been home base for a number of world-class surfers since the late '70s, including Rusty Keaulana, big-wave riders Brian Keaulana and Keone Downing, 1999 world tour champion Sunny Garcia, and power surfer Johnny-Boy Gomes. Makaha has been featured in more than 50 surf movies and videos, including Trek to Makaha (1956), Slippery When Wet (1958), Cavalcade of Surf (1962), The Endless Summer (1966), The Golden Breed (1968), Five Summer Stories (1972), Ocean Fever (1983), Surfers: The Movie (1990), and Blue Shock (1998). Surfing magazine named Makaha one of the "25 Best Waves in the World" in 1989. 

Fierce Heart: the Story of Makaha and the Soul of Hawaiian Surfing, a book by Stuart Holmes Coleman, was published in 2010