Shooting the tube

When the waves get ginormous on Oahu's North Shore, the pros rise to the occasion for fame and fans

North Shore A pro surfer pulls into the barrel at the North Shore's renowned "Off the Wall" in 2005. (Jeff Flindt/NewSport/Corbis)
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2007

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HALEIWA, Hawaii - Nobody bothers with the weather forecast for this island's northern undeveloped coast, less than an hour from downtown Honolulu. It's the surf forecast they tune in for.

Late October into early April is the North Shore's season for big waves, which can reach 30 feet from trough to crest. The world's top surfers converge on a 7-mile strip between Sunset Beach and Alii Beach Park in Haleiwa to wait for the perfect waves. High surf also brings the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, the concluding events of the yearlong Association of Surfing Professionals championships.

The Triple Crown contests take place over five weeks (through Dec. 20 this year) with each event running a maximum of four days. Organizers consult weather maps and weigh local wave trends to try to pick a swath of big-wave days. Last year, we were among the 1,000 or so surfer groupies and wannabes who came to be part of the scene. We were rewarded with vicarious thrills - and a lesson in patience.

Nobody understands the lure of the waves and the lifestyle better than "Hurricane Bob" Brown, curator of the North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum in tiny Haleiwa, a former sugar plantation town. He had already caught a few early morning breaks when we stopped into the museum on a Sunday afternoon. Opening hours vary with surf conditions and the "no shirt, no shoes, no problem" sign at the door sums up Brown's easygoing attitude about everything but surfing.

A former US Air Force hurricane hunter - the guys who flew into storms to take readings in the years before weather satellites - Brown retired to the North Shore in 1980. "I sold my soul to the devil, and he was in the ocean," he joked.

Now in his early 70s, he competes (and wins) in the amateur Legends Division, "which means 'older than dirt.' " He also has a firm grasp of the meteorology behind those monster waves. As we perused the photos and longboards on loan from legendary surfers, Brown explained that winter storms with near-hurricane-force winds generally track within 500 nautical miles of the island before veering north. Unimpeded by a continental shelf, the storms' giant surf pummels the North Shore.

Brown knows every National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration motion buoy by number, and checks them daily on the Internet. "We're going to have a new swell, with a peak on Tuesday," he predicted with the certainty of an evangelist.

Waikiki surfers started flocking to the North Shore's Sunset Beach in the 1930s. When professional surfing began in the 1970s, the 2-mile stretch was declared one of the world's top competition beaches for big-wave riders. Giant waves start building as far as a half mile from shore, and they certainly looked impressive (if far away) when we arrived to see whether the competition would be held on Tuesday as Brown had predicted. No luck.

But the pros were out on their boards anyway. We watched wannabes paddling madly until their heads were only dots on the horizon, trying to catch a wave - and we saw the hotshots take possession of the rolling water, skimming acrobatically back and forth across the crests.

"You're a long way from shore," said Jodi Wilmott, a former professional surfer who helps organize the Triple Crown. "It's deep water with coral and a reef. It's like being lost at sea in a big swell. If you're not ready for a wave, it buries you."

Competitors are judged on their takeoff, the length of the ride, and their acrobatic maneuvers. (No, it's not enough to stay standing all the way to shore.) While Sunset is known for one of the most demanding breaks in the world, Wilmott said, "it's an exhilarating ride that allows for a range of maneuvers." She shrugged when we asked whether the competition would run the next day. "Our events run on Mother Nature's schedule."

While the action at Sunset starts farther out, the ferocious surf at the Banzai Pipeline, less than a mile west, breaks closer to shore - no need for binoculars here. Pipeline rolls in with quick and fast barrels and daredevils surf across the face of the curl. The beach claims a few lives every year, but the bronzed, long-haired blond boys in baggies snarl at the risk as they tuck and stand low to speed down the inside of the disappearing barrel.

"If you can't have a great ride, have a great wipeout," one told us as he caught his breath before paddling out again.

Most North Shore residents are "soul surfers." They may hold down jobs, but they surf before or after. They pedal bikes to the beach with boards slung under their arms. Boards are everywhere - on car roofs, sticking out the tailgates of pickups.

And when big wave season arrives, so do the wave followers. In the mornings we ran into them at Ted's Bakery drinking bracing cups of Lion-brand coffee. Later they would return for plate lunches and sinfully rich slices of chocolate haupia cream pie. The more flush might settle into a picnic table at Romy's, a roadside shrimp farm with a small take-out stand. But the surest place to find surf bums is Foodland, where they head for cheap deli food after darkness closes out the surfing. One evening a shaggy dude in flip-flops behind us in the checkout line had nothing but a six-pack of beer. His buddy behind him had a six-pack and a lime.

The largest employer in the area, Turtle Bay Resort, has a surfboard rack outside the employee entrance. The resort's half-sheltered bay gets a steady stream of easy-riding waves. As we walked the forest trails along the shore, we watched workers surf before or after their shifts. The tropical foliage looked just like the TV show "Lost," and for good reason - the banyan tree scenes are filmed at Turtle Bay.

One night at dinner our surfing waiter explained how he predicts the waves. "See that blow hole on the cliff outside?" he said. "The spray's still too short. When it spouts about twice that high, it means big surf the next day."

Known as one of the best places on the North Shore for novice surfers, Turtle Bay Resort also has a branch of pioneer pro Hans Hedemann's surf school. Born and raised on this coast, Hedemann champions his home beaches. "The North Shore is truly an amazing place," he said, never taking his eyes off the waves. "I followed the pro tour for 17 years. I won the World Cup at Sunset Beach in 1986."

He started the school when he left the tour. In any given class, he said, "Everybody will get up and surf and have a good time." In the introductory class, Hedemann teaches the essentials: how to paddle out to a wave, how to paddle into it, and how to choose the right position on the wave. He also teaches a bit of surfing etiquette. "Don't steal someone else's wave of a lifetime."

That dream wave never rolled in during our days on the North Shore, but it hardly mattered that we didn't watch surfers competing for points. Waves still clapped rhythmically on the beach, and surfers still paddled out to deep water, waiting for the motion, catching the pure edge of fluid mechanics, and riding to shore.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, can be reached at