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Sunset Beach


Famously complex Hawaiian surf break located on the North Shore of Oahu; regarded by many as the center of the surfing universe from the 1950s to the '80s. "Sunset Beach," California surf journalist Drew Kampion wrote in 1980, "is the standard by which other waves are measured, and the best surfers here are the best surfers, period."

Sunset's enormous lava-rock reef faces to the northwest, and contains at least six named sections, roughly west to east as follows: 1) Val's Reef, named after local surfer Val Valentine, draws small northwest swells into a short right-breaking peak just a few yards off the beach. 2) The Bowl breaks over a shallow patch of reef along the edge of Sunset's deep-water channel; a slabbing, ferociously hollow tube section on a six- to 12- foot north swell, and all but nonexistent on a west swell. 3) West Peak, the classic Sunset Beach wave, takes shape over a double finger of reef that stretches out to the northwest and draws approaching west and northwest swells into the distinctive Sunset peak; a shifting, fast-moving wave that breaks from six to 18 foot. 4) Sunset Point, located on the tip of the bay's eastern arm, only breaks up to five foot; well-shaped on occasion, but often broken up and lumpy. 5) The North Wall is a broad area of reef between West Peak and Backyards, where north swells bigger than eight feet steamroll for up to 300 yards; sometimes handles the overflow crowd. 6) Backyards is a series of tricky, shallow peaks, mainly right-breaking, along a quarter-mile stretch north of Sunset Point.

Sunset is generally biggest and best from October to February, as the break acts as a funnel for almost any North Pacific storm-generated swell. One of only a few spots in Hawaii that breaks on swells ranging from the west to the northeast, Sunset is probably the world's most consistent producer of good eight- to 12-foot surf.

A vast wave field and endlessly shifting peaks mean that surfers have to paddle almost constantly to get into takeoff position, and often get caught inside; the tradewinds blow hard on this particular stretch of coast and hit Sunset side-offshore, which can make the take-off even more difficult. Crowds are also a problem. Few breaks in the world put a greater demand on a surfer's fitness, as well as his strategic and tactical know-how, and even the world's best often leave the water in boiling frustration. But the classic Sunset ride is long and exhilarating, as the wave whorls and explodes, then flattens and tilts back up, sometimes running through four or five distinct stages as it moves across the reef. "It's fabulously imperfect," San Francisco sportswriter Bruce Jenkins once noted. "It can give you the ride of your life, but you've got to earn it."

Premodern Hawaiians knew the break as Paumalu ("taken secretly"), and it was one of about 20 Oahu spots ridden prior to the 19th century. (Paumalu: A Story of Modern Hawaii, a surf-themed novel by journalist Rus Calisch, was published in 1979.) "Sunset Beach" was the name given to the area in 1919 by a real estate developer hoping to sell weekend getaway homes to wealthy Honolulu residents. Sunset was rediscovered as a surfing break by California-born riders Lorrin "Whitey" Harrison, Gene "Tarzan" Smith, and John Kelly, who ventured north from Waikiki in 1939 and surfed six- to eight-foot Sunset waves on their finless hot curl boards; Honolulu surfers Wally Froiseth and George Downing began riding there in the '40s; Walter Hoffman, Buzzy Trent, and others joined in the early '50s.

As the North Shore replaced Makaha (on the west side of Oahu) as the sport's big-wave capital, Sunset Beach remained the area's surfing centerpiece. The advent of surf media in the '50s and early '60s underscored the point; Sunset was prominently featured in nearly every surf film of the period, and a photograph of a thundering West Peak wave, with Jose Angel charging down the face, was used on the cover of the first Surfer magazine, in 1960. Sunset became the primary North Shore competition break, beginning in 1965 when it hosted the debut Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic, an annual event for two decades. When the world pro circuit was formed in 1976, four of the 14 events for the season were held at Sunset. Pro contests held at Sunset over years include the Pro Class Trials, the XCEL Pro, the World Cup, the Billabong Pro, the Chiemsee Women's Masters, and the Rip Curl Cup.

A short and incomplete list of top Sunset surfers, in roughly chronological order beginning in the late '50s, would include George Downing, Ricky Grigg, Peter Cole, Paul Gebauer, Paul Strauch, Jock Sutherland, Reno Abellira, Terry Fitzgerald, Ian Cairns, Simon Anderson, Mark Richards, Ken Bradshaw, Bobby Owens, Michael Ho (voted "Best Surfer at Sunset" by his peers in a 1992 Surfer poll), Tom Carroll, Gary Elkerton (voted "Best Surfer at Sunset" by his peers in a 1992 Australia's Surfing Life magazine poll), Johnny-Boy Gomes, Sunny Garcia, Pancho Sullivan, and John John Florence. The two surfers most closely identified with Sunset are both '70s-era Hawaiians: Barry Kanaiaupuni, the free-form master who all but defined power surfing, and three-time Duke winner Jeff Hakman, whose 1997 biography is justifiably titled Mr. Sunset.

Listed as one of the "Ten Best Waves in the World" by Surfing magazine in 1981, Sunset fell somewhat out of fashion beginning in the early '90s, as pro surfers on the North Shore began focusing more on the short, explosive tubes at nearby Pipeline, Backdoor, and Off-the-Wall. "Has anybody else ever noticed that Sunset is just not that good of a wave?" surf journalist and regular North Shore visitor Sam George wrote in 1990. Older surfers disagreed vehemently, but the surfing world at large seemed to share George's opinion. After hosting a total of 19 men's division world tour events from 1976 to 1991, Sunset didn't again figure in the men's world championship tour schedule until 2001, and it again fell off the WCT not long after that. The break checked in at #34 on Surfer magazine's 2011 "100 Best Waves" article.