Mecca, defined as a center of activity or interest for a certain group of people, is one way to describe the fall and winter seasons on the North Shore of Oahu for the global surf community.
Our Mecca happens to be a 7-mile stretch of tropical land on the northern shore of Oahu. Located in the most remote island chain on the globe, and ideally positioned in the Pacific Ocean to catch the winter swells, the area between the town of Haleiwa and Sunset Beach is a surfer’s paradise unlike any other place on the planet. Nowhere else on earth can you find such a concentrated area of world class surf breaks. The locale is a virtual playground for surfers, littered with one epic surf spot after another and home to some of the most famous waves on the planet including the Banzai Pipeline, considered by many to be the most perfect wave on earth. Since the 1950s and 60s, the North Shore has become the gathering place for the majority of the surf world between the months of October and February. Year after year, this community inundates the small stretch of beach, eagerly waiting for what seems to be an inevitable forecast of perfect waves.
The North Shore is also where history is made in waves of consequence during the illustrious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. If that’s not enough, the North Shore this year also will be the site of the crowning of a world champion at the Billabong Pipe Masters, the last event on the World Surf League Championship Tour.
There are multiple factors why the 7-mile miracle is, well, a miracle. This includes a trifecta of ideal winds, uninhibited swell and the perfect slope of a seafloor all culminating in epic, world-class surf. What follows is a breakdown of these elements, combined with other unique aspects including the illustrious lineage of surf contests, the influence of ancient Hawaiian traditions and how the North Shore’s beauty is fiercely protected by its community, showcasing why the North Shore is, and forever will be, our Mecca.
Part I: Location, Location, Location
Whether it’s 2 or 20 feet, the North Shore is undoubtedly the most cherished surf zone in the world. Stretched along the 7-mile miracle is the big wave venue of Sunset Beach; high performance breaks such as Rocky Point; sand bottom beach breaks like Ehukai; the massive barrels at Pipeline, Backdoor and Off the Wall; mountains of seawater culminating at Waimea Bay and the outer reefs; long, stacked up lines at Laniakea; colossal walls groomed for power surfing at Haleiwa; fun-size longboard waves at Chun’s and Puena Point. All of these breaks see consistent high-quality waves throughout the winter season, and it’s all about location.
“Anywhere north of our latitudes is fair game as a breeding ground for swell,” said Pat Caldwell, a liaison for NOAA data centers and National Weather Service surf forecaster who lives on Oahu.
“Anywhere north” includes Japan to California, the Aleutian Islands and everything in between. Distant storms kick up swell that crosses hundred of miles of open ocean with no land masses to slow its path.
When swell begins to funnel towards Oahu’s northern shore, other factors contribute to the quality of these waves, including the wind.
“We have a dominant trade wind pattern and light variable patterns,” Caldwell said. This produces offshore winds, which delays the breaking of waves, grooming, and allowing them to group into sets.
What also makes the location ideal is that the North Shore typically is not in storm tracks. While big swell barrels towards places like California and Washington, the stormy weather comes along with it. Meanwhile, Hawaii – and Oahu’s North Shore – will often experience the swell, while remaining far away from the storms.
There’s something else beneath the surface of this special place. Before striking reefs throughout the North Shore, all of this pumping swell – groomed by quality winds – then meets the seafloor.
“That shapes the surf; that’s what makes the breaks,” Caldwell said. “With the volcanic geological history, there’s so many variations in the seafloor shape. There’s lots of ridges and troughs in the ocean floor that became surf spots – think of every surf spot as a bump on the sea floor – so we’re blessed with that irregular topography of seafloor to give us a variety of wave shapes.”
Besides the volcanic geological history Caldwell alluded to, freshwater runoffs also shapes the reef. The late Sean Collins, founding Surfline.com forecaster once said, “The best surf spots along the North Shore are all located close to a channel in the reef, created by freshwater drainage from shore.”
This runoff cuts and shapes the reef, or rather, volcanic rock. Reef or coral cannot form where there is an abundance of fresh water runoff. This is significant because over time, the coastal shelf has been carved down from the shoreline to the bottom of the seafloor, much like a perfect slope that the energy can ramp up and that can accept the ocean’s uninhibited energy to the fullest.
That’s where the North Shore’s power comes from, and why a 2 foot wave in the shorebreak can give you twice the beating as a wave in places like California or Florida. It is also why you can stand on the golden shoreline at Pipeline and have a front row seat to the awesome and deadly wave breaking a mere 30 yards from shore. Had there been not as much freshwater runoff, the coastline might have formed upward and out towards the horizon, resembling that of Tahiti or Fiji, with barrier slabs of reef far off shore.
All of these factors, when combined, create the incredible swell seen on the North Shore every winter. Caldwell summed it up best saying, “We are blessed.”
Part II: The Genesis of Historic Surf Contests
Besides the 7-mile miracle, the North Shore has also been monikered the proving grounds. When the buoys reach 10 feet or bigger, it’s as serious as life or death. If a surfer wants to prove himself here, it starts first with surviving the perilous conditions and crowded lineups, followed by handling waves of consequence, whether it’s navigating the massive tubes at Pipeline or Backdoor, or scratching to get out of the way of a monstrous clean up set at Sunset Beach.
The professional surfers who wish to stand out must test their fortitude at contests such as the Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa, the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach and the Billabong Pipe Masters at Pipeline. These three events have become known as the Triple Crown of Surfing.
But a winter season jam packed with contests, including the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the formerly named Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau and others, hasn’t always been the norm on the North Shore.
While competitive surfing was already in full swing on Oahu’s west side with the Makaha International Surfing Championships starting in 1954, the first surf contest on the North Shore – the Dick Brewer Surfing Championship – wasn’t until 1963. The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational followed in 1965, taking place at Sunset Beach. In 1968, with a $1,000 prize up for grabs, the Duke became a professional event.
In 1971, a new contest began at Pipeline: the Hawaiian Masters. Created by world champion surfer Fred Hemmings, the prize purse was just $1,000. While today’s officials areas are housed inside massive scaffolding, the officials area for the Hawaiian Masters consisted of 10 metal folding chairs and a card table. Also, according to “The Encyclopedia of Surfing,” “fewer than 50 spectators were scattered across the beach.”
In 1983, the Triple Crown of Surfing kicked off, combining these events – the Pipeline Masters, Duke Kahanamoku Classic and World Cup – into the Triple Crown, the format seen today, along with a myriad of other contests from the Hurley Surf Club Pro Junior, to the Wahine Pipe Pro.
“We were going to end up right where we are today, in terms of the whole super-sized competition scene on the North Shore, regardless of when exactly it got started, or who started it,” said Matt Warshaw, former Surfer Magazine editor and the author of “The History of Surfing” and “The Encyclopedia of Surfing,” discussing the evolution of surf contests on the North Shore. “The North Shore was already surfing’s Mecca before Brewer ran his contest, before the Duke, before the first Masters. It was just a matter of time until we got a contest structure in place to go along with that. Tip your hat to Fred Hemmings, Randy Rarick (the contest director of the Triple Crown until 2012), Kimo McVay (creator of The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational) and Fred Van Dyke (director of the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational) for building the foundation. But take away those four guys, and somebody else would have done it.”
Since then, iterations of the VTCS on the North Shore garnered progressive surfing, more fanfare and far more prize money collectively: The 2017 Vans Triple Crown prize purse is more than $1 million. Today, the Hawaiian Pro and the Vans World Cup of Surfing are the proving grounds for Qualifying Series warriors testing their talents against an international field to boost their ratings and qualify onto the CT, and the Billabong Pipe Masters is the final CT event of the year.
Part III: The Scene
The surf world flocking to the North Shore to compete in the world’s best waves every year makes it simply the place to be during the winter season, the site of gatherings and parties. The most notable celebrations took place in the early 2000s, a lawless era known as the “Wild West.” Since then, times have changed.
“It’s a lot more serious now than it used to be,” said Dave Riddle, who began surfing the North Shore in the ’70s and serves as a Volcom team manager. “There’s always been seriousness to it, but now it’s refocused into something that is incredibly important to a lot of people on a lot of levels, especially with the Triple Crown. What I’m seeing now is less of a party atmosphere, and that’s not to say there’s not a party going on because it certainly is. But because the companies have come in and maintained beachfront properties, it’s benefited the athletes.”
This benefit, according to Riddle, is a sense of responsibility. “Because of that, surfers feel an obligation to do well. Instead of saying ‘I lost my heat and I’m going to party and have fun’ – it used to be more like that back in the day – they’re obligated to get the job done,” he said. “It’s gotten really serious. We’ve got kids in Hawaii that they get these special slots in the contests that they don’t get anywhere else, and it’s a chance to build up points. Everyone wants to take advantage of those situations.”
What adds to the scene is that everyone is watching. With the majority of the traveling surf community living in the small area between surf breaks Log Cabins to Rocky Point, you get the feeling that whether you get a good wave or a bad one, everyone saw it either in person or on social media. Maui’s up and coming professional surfer Cody Young, 18 years of age, said, “The whole entire industry is here watching as well as guys that have already proven themselves, so you want to get that good wave. Plus we’re all living next to each other here so whether you’re just freesurfing or in a contest it seems like you’re always competing.”
Part IV: “Connections to the Past”
Even though the North Shore is the epicenter for the world’s best surfers riding the world’s best waves and celebrating along the way, there is more to the region than just surfing.
The North Shore is home to many sacred locations associated with Hawaiian cultural practices and historical events. For example, the largest heiau, or place of worship, on the island of Oahu is located on the North Shore: the Pu‘u o Mahuka Heiau, which overlooks Waimea Valley, signifying just how sacred the northern shore of the island was, and is to Native Hawaiians. There also is Waimea Valley, which historians believe was first inhabited as early as 1092 AD, and is known as the Valley of the Priests and the Loko Ea fishpond in Haleiwa, which once helped sustain its community by providing food resources like native fish and seaweed.
Take a stroll through Waimea Valley and you’ll see beautiful trees, free-flowing streams, colorful peacocks and meet Alika Bajo, a cultural practitioner and blood descendent to Waimea Valley. “You drive along the coastline, and don’t realize that this place used to be this, or that,” he said.
According to Bajo, born in 1960, there is an element that makes the North Shore entirely different from other areas of the world, and even parts Oahu.
“What makes us a jewel is our connection to the past,” he said. “We have a passion for it, and hold on tightly but also loosely. You have to have a hard enough grip to retain it, but loose enough to evolve.”
His advice to those who travel here for the winter surf season, echoed by other Native Hawaiians in Waimea Valley, is this: “Please come and enjoy our island, and please be open to knowledge. We embrace all peoples from around the world, and we ask please give us a chance to teach about our culture, heritage and way of life. We want that desire of wanting to learn so that you can see life through our eyes, how we used to look in our past and how we look in our present, and if you do that, you can truly understand what it’s like to live on the North Shore. Immerse yourself in our culture.”
Part V: “Keep the Country Country”
Although change is inevitable, organizations and individuals who had big plans for development on the North Shore have been met with a community insistent on protecting it’s raw and pristine nature.
“Any time an area has this natural beauty, there’s a lot of pressure to develop it, and there’s always going to be a demand for people to live there and buy properties there,” said Doug Cole, Executive Director of North Shore Community Land Trust, or NSCLT, an organization founded in 1997 by North Shore community members who wanted to be proactive in conserving the place they care the most about.
To date, the NSCLT has played a role in helping raise more than $60 million to conserve more than 4,000 acres within its mission area from Kahuku Point to Ka‘ena, including 1,000 acres at Kawela Bay and Kahuku Point, 1,100 acres in Pupukea Paumalu State Park Reserve and 1,800 acres in Waimea Valley.
Interestingly, the organization conserves these areas by taking the development approach and flipping it. “We work with the landowners and try and help them achieve their goals through conserving their land rather than fighting them when they try and develop it,” Cole said. “It’s less of a fight and more of a partnership. We’re proud of what we have achieved, but there’s still tens of thousands of acres to go. We go to community meetings, present ideas for conservation and vision and gain support.”
While the NSCLT has played and continues to play a major part in preserving the North Shore, the community as a whole is to thank as well. “Everybody is brought together by a shared appreciation for the place and the beauty of it and the experiences they have in the ocean,” Cole said. “I think that it brings our community together, unifies us in the desire to protect the place and keep it relatively undeveloped. For the same reasons as community members that love it, people all over the island have come to love having a place like the North Shore, and it’s not just people who live here that care. It’s also people that care from all over the world. Everyone can instantly appreciate the North Shore, and can quickly get behind the effort to protect and preserve it.”
The waves, the contest action, the parties, the culture and history and community protecting all of it: whether you call it the 7-mile miracle or the proving grounds, there is no other experience like spending the winter season on the North Shore. That’s why it is, and forever will be, our Mecca, a pilgrimage worth making every year.