Why Oahu's North Shore Is the Perfect Place to Surf

By: John Donovan  | 

North Shore Hawaii
Pro surfer Balaram Stack is seen here coming out of the barrel during a late afternoon free surf session at the legendary Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore in January 2018. BRIAN BIELMANN/AFP via Getty Images

A handful of places in the world — a small handful, maybe — might lay claim to the unofficial title of the "surfing capital of the world." But on the beaches at the North Shore, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the sand is so deep it can swallow you to your knees, and the waves so big they can swallow surfers whole, no claim, unofficial or otherwise, is needed.

In season, the North Shore is more than a simple surfing capital. When the waves are rolling in, it is the entire surfing world. Every peak, every break, every curl. In season, the North Shore is surfing's mecca. It is a surfing Shangri-La.

And from November through April — give or take a week here or there — it's surf season at the North Shore.

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A Lifestyle Unlike Any Other

Some 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the hotels and beaches of Waikiki, westward through the business district of downtown Honolulu, past the airport, around Pearl Harbor, and up through the farmland at the heart of the state's most populous island lies the small town of Haleiwa, the center of the North Shore.

Buses full of gawking visitors regularly make their way through the area on tours around the island. But the North Shore remains a place largely removed from the ill effects of tourism, a place where agriculture and surfing coexist, a legitimately quaint place reminiscent, in some aspects, of a long-ago Hawaii.

"That's just the way this region has developed. And not developed," says Jodi Wilmott, a 51-year-old Australian who has lived much of her life in Hawaii, including the past 23 years on the North Shore. Wilmott runs a promotions company, Ocean Promotion, and has been deeply involved with the surf scene as a public relations director for the Association of Surfing Professionals (now known as the World Surf League), among other roles. "The North Shore really does feel like you took a flight to a neighbor island and landed somewhere very different."

According to Wilmott, there is no real nightlife to speak of at the North Shore. Restaurants close early. Most bars do, too. Shortly after the sun sets, with the tourists on their way back to Waikiki, most who live in the area are heading for home.

The reason is simple: Whether you're in agriculture or run a small business — and, especially, if you're a surfer looking for big waves — the best time on the North Shore is when the sun is shining.

Haleiwa, Hawaii
Haleiwa is the largest commercial center at the North Shore and a popular tourist destination for surfing and diving.
Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

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Three Iconic Surf Spots

The North Shore consists of two main ZIP codes — 96712 and 96791 — a few towns (Haleiwa, Pupukea, Waialua) and a roughly 7-mile (11-kilometer) stretch of coastline that includes three iconic surf spots: the southernmost, Haleiwa (at Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park); the northernmost, Sunset Beach; and Pipeline (also known as the Banzai Pipeline, at Ehukai Beach Park). Those three breaks are the home of professional surfing's famed Triple Crown of Surfing, sponsored for decades by shoe and clothing company Vans.

In the winter, starting sometime in November, a confluence of oceanographic and geologic magic happens there, leading to sometimes 40-, 50-foot (12-, 15-meter) and bigger waves. Favorable winter winds from the north churn the ocean and birth ocean swells. The curve of the shoreline shapes the incoming water. Add to that the depth and temperature of the water — and the position of reefs and underwater rock formations — which allow majestic waves to climb and break at breathtaking heights. Waves here also form the "tubes" that surfers live for, and both visitors and longtime residents flock to see.

"It really doesn't ever get old. I think the deeper you get into surfing, the more deeply it resonates and draws you in," Wilmott says. "It's kind of like becoming a professional meditator. You know, what do they call it: 'dropping in,' where you drop into your feelings and find that zone to tap into? That is what happens when lifelong surfers go to the shoreline. You drop into a different place. Different senses take over, thinking comes through — or not thinking. Surfers may say they never meditate. But they're only meditating when they're out there."

Thousands of slack-jawed onlookers often line the beaches of the North Shore when the surf is up, and many more have watched professionals take on the waves in competitions through the years.

The Triple Crown of Surfing — like many competitions in the world of sports — has been forced into some unfamiliar territory in the past couple of years. But, as sure as the winter waves come, the surfing goes on.

Waimea Bay, North Shore
It's not uncommon to see the beaches of Waimea Bay on the North Shore lined with spectators and photographers there to catch a glimpse of the epic waves and daring surfers.
tropicalpixsingapore/Getty Images

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Surfing in a Pandemic

In the winter of 2020, because of the continuing worldwide pandemic, the Triple Crown of Surfing was held digitally for the first time. Instead of judges (and fans) onshore watching and scoring rides, competitors submitted videos of their best efforts.

It was different in a lot of ways, some surprisingly good. Because competitors weren't limited to a certain time period in front of judges to surf, they were able to chase the best waves from among the three venues. If the surf wasn't good at Haleiwa, competitors could zip up to Sunset or the Pipeline, with videographers in tow, to grab a wave or a few there. In addition, women surfed alongside men in competitive situations, something never before done at the Triple Crown. "That did a lot to elevate everyone's performance," Wilmott says.

Though the crowds were not concentrated like they have been during the surfing windows in years past — and it was not broadcast live on television — some of the sport's best praised the new format.

"It allowed for so much more freedom, and you're really going for broke on every single wave," 2020 winner John John Florence told Surfline after the competition. "The digital format pushed the level of surfing a lot, and to see all these surfers pushing at that kind of level at Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipe — it was really fun."

The digital format continues in 2021. Surfers will submit videos of their two best rides from each of the three famed North Shore surf spots, taken when the waves are the best, any time from Dec. 21, 2021, to Jan. 21, 2022. After judging, the winners will be recognized, with total prizes of $217,000 split evenly between men and women. Fans get a vote, too, and videographers are also eligible for prize money.

Whether that format will be back in 2022 and beyond is still up in the air. But the waves on the North Shore, barring some climatic catastrophe, will be. And the surfers will be waiting.

Carissa Moore
Last year's Triple Crown Champion, Carissa Moore, is one of the most decorated surfers on the planet. She's a five-time World Champion who also won surfing's first-ever gold at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. She'll be back to defend her Triple Crown title.
Vans/Miller R.

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