Photo - Brent Bielmann

Here We Are

North Shore, Hawai’i 2020

By Andrew Oliver

Traditionally, this has been the time of year when FreeSurf publishes its annual Triple Crown of Surfing program. It’s a homegrown guide to the global surfing convergence that occurs on Oahu’s North Shore each winter. For decades, this coastline has delivered a stage worthy of hosting surfing’s globe-trotting circus. While the competitive drama is always at a furious boil during the officially sanctioned events – the three jewels of the crown, the action isn’t confined solely to the contest schedule, as the performance levels remain dialed up to 11 in the daily freesurfs along the coast, and extra-curricular activities abound as the sun sets into what becomes many a late night throughout its six-week span. The Triple Crown is one of the rare spectacles that lives up to its immense hype.

So, what do we make of its absence? While the complex totality of the North Shore is by no means defined by the Triple Crown alone, for better or worse, it does serve as the primary lens through which this community is seen by the wider surfing world. But, beyond missing out on the annual reaffirmation of the coast’s supremacy among the upper echelons of the global surf pop-culture, most important are the tangible losses left in the Triple Crown’s void. The economic hardship caused by the global pandemic have been acutely felt in the visitor and service industries. For the North Shore, the Triple Crown is an economic juggernaut to a community heavily dependent on visitor spending. The surf shops, restaurants, and the spare rooms for rent, will all be left wanting for the annual influx of surf pilgrims. In the early days of this evolving reality, optimism held fast that we would soon return to something resembling normalcy. While that optimism remains, the reality is, this season will be anything but normal.

Mason Ho, Backdoor Photo – Brent Bielmann

The cynical among us may welcome the purge of international surf stars, industry goons, hanger-ons, and the whole encompassing circus. It could easily be argued that the North Shore had been running at full-tilt for far too long and a recalibration was well overdue. The incessant traffic, maxed-out infrastructure, and soaring home prices and rents, just a few symptoms of the coastline’s hyper-popularity. However, these are incredibly complex and entrenched issues which are by no means the provenance of the Triple Crown alone, even though it has been the very visible event that tips the already over-leveraged scales in recent years.

One of the fundamental beauties of surfing is the opportunity it affords us to escape the burdens of our man-made world and return ourselves, however momentarily, to the sublime of the ocean.

Understandably, we become jaded to this essential fact over time, but as the cliche goes – “Even the worst session will have you feeling better than before you jumped in.” It’s a natural fix, a salve, which many of us come to rely on as a major source of balance in our lives. This was evident in the early weeks of the pandemic, with confusion and anxiety at a high point, the North Shore was blessed with a span of incredible waves unusually late in the season – and the lineups were packed. Admittedly, most found themselves with a glut of free time as their work was deemed non-essential, and surfing remained one of the few activities you could legally pursue in public. But, it would be insufficient to explain the late season crowds through circumstance alone. Our world as we knew it had been upended, and so we retreated to the sea.

Mark Healey, Photo – Brent Bielmann

Young, old, pro, and beginner alike, all were beckoned to the ocean, especially in the early weeks of the pandemic. Living in this era of widening inequality, we could take some solace in the fact that surfing and the ocean still technically remains there for us all. Being the individualist pursuit that it is, of course we all have a little cynicism in us, and would prefer to see the lineups and beaches devoid of crowds – as long as we’re among the lucky few who remain to reap the benefits of empty waves. As the weeks and months of the economic pause continue, and the reality of an uncertain future settles in, we have to ask, who among us will be able to continue to pursue the North Shore dream? Without the influx of visitors and the international events does the 19 years old surf-stoked grom living off of tips from their restaurant job, or the local family who rents out an extra room to visitors to bridge the gap, or the burgeoning shaper selling boards through word of mouth orders, will they still have a path forward?

Hopefully, it doesn’t need to be an either or, and out of this time of great upheaval we can find a more balanced and sustainable approach. Because, beyond the economic repercussions, the great tragedy of missing out on the Triple Crown, and the regular stream of visitors, is the vibrancy the global surfing tribe brings to this community. The North Shore, “the Mecca,” draws surfers and surf enthusiasts from all corners of the earth. And, yes they bring with them their buying power, but more importantly they bring with them their culture, friendship, and new approaches to riding waves. Which in turn enriches our lives and drives us to be better surfers, and hopefully better people. Should we return to the “bursting at the seams” business as usual approach? Probably not. But, on some level we’ll all miss the tangible buzz that comes from the energy of the Triple Crown. Knowing that here, this little coastline in the middle of the pacific, for six weeks every year, becomes the center of the surfing universe – and that you are very much a part of that.


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