North Shore, Oahu
World-renowned stretch of Hawaiian coastline located on the north side of Oahu; the undisputed capital of big-wave surfing from the 1950s to the early '90s; home to about 40 surf breaks, many of them hallowed. "If the surfing world has a shared mythology," American essayist William Finnegan wrote in 1997, "then the North Shore of Oahu is its Olympus."
The North Shore's thin coastal plain is backed by steep lava-ribbed hills and fronted by a dazzling system of nearshore reefs. Because the coast faces northwest, the reefs are open to virtually all North Pacific storm-generated swells from September to May (the biggest usually arriving between November and February), and breaking waves are met by side-offshore northeast tradewinds. Air and water temperatures are pleasant and balmy all year.
While the north side of Oahu technically extends about 20 miles from Kahuku Point to Kaena Point, what surfers know as the North Shore begins at the town of Haleiwa and runs east for seven miles to Sunset Beach. North Shore breaks include Haleiwa, Laniakea, Off the Wall, Rocky Point, and Velzyland; Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset are among the world's best-known surf spots—Pipeline for its exploding tubes, Waimea for its fearsome size, Sunset for its consistency and complexity.
Winter surf on the North Shore averages between four and eight feet; 10- to 15-foot surf might hit two or three times a month; three or four times a season the waves will get 20 feet or bigger. About twice a decade, the North Shore's outer reefs will produce ridable 40- or 50-foot waves. (Surfers have long used their own peculiar measuring system scale, so that a wave with an actual trough-to-crest height of 20 feet, for example, will be described as 10 or 12 feet. When the surf exceeds 30 foot, measurement sometimes reverts to the actual trough-to-crest height.) The power of the North Shore surf, combined with shallow reefs, crowded lineups (pressuring surfers to try marginal waves), and near-constant surf media presence (encouraging them to take star-making risks), made this the most dangerous surf area in the world. About 30 surfers have died on the North Shore since the early 1960s, and hundreds more have been severely injured.
Although Sunset Beach was surfed in ancient times, and the nearshore waves at Haleiwa were surfed as far back as the 1920s, the modern era of North Shore surfing started in 1938, when Wally Froiseth and John Kelly of Hawaii, along with California-born Gene Smith and Lorrin Harrison, began driving out from Honolulu to ride Sunset Beach. In the mid- and late '40s, teenager George Downing of Hawaii began pioneering western sections of the North Shore, including Laniakea; Walter Hoffman, Henry Preece, Buzzy Trent, and others joined in during the early '50s. Many surfers avoided the North Shore completely in the '40s and '50s, remembering that 17-year-old Dickie Cross of Honolulu had paddled out at Sunset one afternoon in 1943, got caught outside during a fast-rising swell, and drowned while trying to get ashore through 35-foot surf at Waimea Bay. By the mid-'50s, the North Shore was still lightly populated, mostly with field workers and small-acreage farmers; some of the beachfront houses were vacation homes belonging to the Honolulu elite.
Waimea was ridden for the first time in 1957 by a group of California surfers including Greg Noll, Mickey Muñoz, and Pat Curren. California's Phil Edwards is credited as the first to ride Pipeline, in 1961. Surf movies and surf magazines were by that time filled with images shot on the North Shore; the cover of the first issue of Surfer, published in 1960, showed Jose Angel of Hawaii dropping into a huge Sunset Beach peak. The annual winter surfer migration to the North Shore began in earnest in the late '50s, with dozens of mainland wave-hunters renting houses and staying for weeks, even months, at a time, and the number of visitors increased steadily over the years. Crowded lineups have been a problem on the North Shore since the early '60s, and by the early '70s local surfers were using scare tactics—and the occasional punch-out—to secure waves for themselves.
Surfboard-maker Dick Brewer opened Surfboards Hawaii, the North Shore's first surf shop, in 1961; the Dick Brewer Surfing Championship, held two years later, was the area's first surf contest. The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational debuted in 1965, and was the first in a long line of prestigious international surfing contests held on the North Shore, including the Pipeline Masters (which debuted in 1971), the World Cup (1975), and the the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave contest (1986).
The North Shore's influence on the surfing world at large was strongest from the late '60s through the late '70s, as resident surfers like Jock Sutherland, Gerry Lopez, Barry Kanaiaupuni, Lynne Boyer, Reno Abellira, and Jeff Hakman set the standard for high-performance riding. Pipeline meanwhile became the world's most- photographed and –filmed surf break. International Professional Surfers, founding group for the world pro tour, was launched on the North Shore in 1976.
Big-wave surfing, pushed to the background in the '70s and early '80s, roared back in 1983, and North Shore big-wave riders like Mark Foo, Ken Bradshaw, Darrick Doerner, and Brock Little became surf world icons. Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, along with Doerner, invented tow-in surfing on the North Shore in 1992; Bradshaw in 1998 was towed into a wave at Outside Log Cabins, located just east of Waimea, that was estimated to be 60 feet from trough to crest—the biggest wave ridden up to that point. Dungeons in South Africa, along with Maverick's, Todos Santos, and Cortes Bank, on the North American west coast, have broken up the North Shore's big-wave monopoly, while Indonesia with its perfect waves has replaced the North Shore as the ultimate surf destination. But this relatively short piece of coastline is still the sports greatest showcase. World champions are crowned here in December; giant waves are ridden throughout the winter; hundreds of high-performance boards are produced by North Shore shapers each month—no other surf zone in the world can match the North Shore for intensity.
Although visited by thousands of surfers annually, the North Shore is only home to around 1,000 resident surfers, including world tour pros John John Florence and Coco Ho, surfer-musician Jack Johnson, surf photographers Brian Bielmann and Hank Foto, shapers Erik Arakawa and Pat Rawson, and contest organizer Randy Rarick. More than a dozen surf shops are located on the North Shore; typically between 20 and 30 surf contests, amateur and professional, are held here annually.
Surfer magazine named Haleiwa #2 on a 2002 list of the "10 Best Surf Towns in America." The North Shore surf has been featured in hundreds of surf movies, videos, documentaries, and webcasts. North Shore, Universal Studios' coming-of-age surf drama, was released in 1987; sportswriter Bruce Jenkins's North Shore Chronicles: Big-Wave Surfing in Hawaii was published in 1991. Boarding House: North Shore, a reality TV show, aired in 2003; a YouTube reality series called Surf House debuted in 2013. The annual Surfer Poll Awards have been held on the North Shore since 2010.
North Shore surf breaks are detailed in Surfing Hawaii (1985), Surfer's Guide to Hawaii (1991), and The World Stormrider Guide (2001).