Hallowed surf break located on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii; big-wave riding's main stage from the late 1950s to the early '90s. The Waimea season usually lasts from late fall to early spring, in response to swells produced by giant North Pacific storms. Waves begin to fringe on the Waimea reef at about 10 or 12 feet, but regulars don't think of it as "real" until it's 15 feet, and some won't bother until it's at least 18 feet. Waves 30 feet or bigger are unridable as they closeout across the channel. Pinballs, a mediocre right-breaking wave located inside of the regular Waimea takeoff area, is ridden from four to eight foot; the cataclysmic Waimea shorebreak closeouts are popular with bodysurfers and bodyboarders.
Waimea hits peak only a handful of time during an average season. The character of the wave changes slightly with the direction of the incoming surf—north swells create an easier takeoff and longer wave; west swells are steeper and shorter. The ride is for the most part straightforward: a huge drop, often made at an angle, followed by a bottom turn, and a beeline race for the adjacent deep-water channel. Tuberiding is sometimes possible. Rides usually last about 10 seconds. "Waimea" means "reddish water"; the name comes from the combination of mud and silt that flows in from the nearby river valley during winter storms.
Although Waimea has long been dismissed by some as "just a drop" (big-wave bulldog Buzzy Trent once described the break as "a mirage; now you see it, now you don't") this near-vertical plunge from crest to trough is in fact one of the sport's greatest challenges, testing the surfer's equipment, wave judgment, fitness, and nerve. The drop will often "jack" (steepen and expand) without warning as the wave curls over, a phenomenon that can actually reverse the surfer's forward motion and send him back up toward the crest—and then to an annihilating wipeout. "On a 25-footer," Hawaii's Darrick Doerner said of Waimea in 1989, "it's a complete blur; you're going totally on instinct."
Some historians believe that Waimea was surfed by ancient Hawaiians, but evidence is slight. Waimea made a disturbing entry onto the modern surf scene in 1943, as Honolulu surfers Woody Brown and Dickie Cross, after getting caught outside at nearby Sunset Beach on a fast-rising swell, were forced to paddle three miles down the coast to Waimea, where they hoped to come ashore through the channel. But the channel was closed out. Cross drowned, Brown washed up on the beach unconscious, and the incident helped keep surfers away from Waimea until 1957.
The canonical story about the first day of surfing at Waimea is that Greg Noll of California led a small group into the lineup on a 15-foot day, while surf moviemaker Bud Browne filmed from the shore. In the '00s, it came to light that a quiet Long Beach lifeguard named Harry Schurch had been out, alone, a couple hours earlier than Noll and his gang. In any event, Browne's movie The Big Surf, released in 1958, introduced Waimea to thousands of American and Australian wave-riders, and for more than 10 years the break was a media sensation, featured in general interest magazine articles (including Life and the Saturday Evening Post), surf magazine covers, surf movies, and posters. Columbia Pictures' 1964 action-comedy Ride the Wild Surf, starring Fabian and Barbara Eden, finished with a Waimea Bay showdown.
Top Waimea riders of the late '50s and early '60s included Noll, Peter Cole, Pat Curren (maker of the finest Waimea gun boards), Buzzy Trent, and Ricky Grigg. Although Waimea was overlooked for most of the '70s and early '80s, as tuberiding and high-performance small-wave surfing came to the fore, it nonetheless hosted a small number of professional surf contests, including the Duke Kahanamoku Classic in 1973, 1975, and 1980. The most spectacular Waimea event of the period was the 1974 Smirnoff Pro, held in stunning 30-foot surf, and won by Hawaii's Reno Abellira. From 1967 until his death in 1978, Eddie Aikau of Hawaii was the standout rider at Waimea Bay. In 1977, James Jones became the first to ride inside the tube at Waimea.
A mid-'80s resurgence in big-wave surfing was helped along by the Billabong Pro, held in part at Waimea in 1985 and 1986. The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau made its Waimea debut in 1986—nine years after Aikau died in a boating accident—and was won by Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother. The Quiksilver event returned periodically in the decades to come, and became one of the sport's best-known events. Premier Waimea riders in the '80s and '90s included Mark Foo, Michael Ho, Darrick Doerner, Ken Bradshaw, Brock Little, Richard Schmidt, Ross Clarke-Jones, Shane Dorian, and Noah Johnson.
Waimea's big-wave dominance was undone in the early '90s, with the introduction of Maverick's in northern California (which broke more often than Waimea) and Jaws in Maui (where machine-aided tow surfing allowed riders access to waves bigger than anything available at Waimea). But if Waimea was no longer the last word in big-wave surfing, and was sometimes ridiculed for the crowds of neophyte big-wave riders it attracted, it was still respected and feared; its hoary reputation as a deadly break was justified in 1995 when 25-year-old semipro Donnie Soloman of Ventura, California, drowned there after trying to paddle through a big set wave. "At Pipeline, it's white when you're underwater, and at Sunset it's gray," Hawaii's Dennis Pang said in 1990, comparing the terrifying Waimea wipeout to two other famous North Shore breaks. "Waimea is black."
Waimea had another comeback of sorts in the late '00s, as paddle surfing passed tow surfing as the new back-to-the-future favorite approach to giant waves. Jamie Sterling, Mark Healey, Shane Dorian, Greg Long, Grant Baker, and Ramon Navarro were among the top Waimea riders in the '00s and early '10s.
Since the late '50s, Waimea has been featured in hundreds of surf movies, videos, DVDs, webisodes, and TV specials. Waimea's surfing history is detailed in Maverick's: The Story of Big-Wave Surfing (2000). The break also had a starring role in The Endless Summer (1966) and Riding Giants (2004)