North Shore contests inspire mixed emotions for many surfers and locals.
While the Pipe Masters hangs in limbo (after several WSL staff tested positive for COVID-19) we reached out to one of our Hawaiian-based friends to gauge the mood in Hawaii.
Our contact (who prefers to remain nameless) has lived on Oahu and surfed the North Shore for twenty years. He’s witnessed the annual pilgrimage of pro surfers to The Rock and while he is a self-professed pro surfing fan he concedes that the contest season always inspires mixed emotions. Meanwhile, the threat of a WSL-inspired COVID outbreak has only sewn the seeds for further discontent.
“I love pro surfing but some people are pissed. People are sick of the whole circus… sick of the traffic, contests back to back, and having 1000 of your best pro surfing friends stealing waves… ”
“Many of the local surfers get shit on,” he continues. “When I moved here I knew that was part of the whole deal but no-one likes to have surfers back-paddling (Hawaiian for snaking) in the line-up because they’ve got photographers on the beach.”
Our correspondent’s thoughts reflect the divided response to pro surfing on the North Shore in the wake of the event’s postponement. “I feel sorry for the pro surfers. I want to be able to see them make some money … I was hoping the show was going to go on and it’s been great to see a local guy like Josh Moniz doing so well. But I also understand why people get upset.”
Many of us might assume that, given the absence of international travellers during the COVID crisis, the Hawaiian residents would have been enjoying uncrowded lineups for the first time in years. However, our correspondent tells a different story. In the midst of the crisis, non-essential workers stayed home and were propped up by government stimulus packages. “It’s more crowded than it’s ever been,” he insisted.
And while international travel has, up until recently, been non-existent, US citizens have still been permitted to come to Hawaii. For those with the resources to do so escaping the mainland, which has been ravaged by COVID, has been a highly desirable option. “The Mums and Dads come over and work remotely and the kids go surfing,” explained our correspondent.
In terms of the impact of COVID, the Hawaiians, who so far have 272 COVID-related fatalities, can still glance across the Pacific to mainland USA, where the death toll is well over 300 000, and feel like they have dodged a bullet. To put that in perspective it’s more lives lost than by US servicemen in the Vietnam War and the equivalent of 100 Sep 9/11 days (previously the US’s most deadly day with 2996 death) in a row.
When they consider the horrors of the mainland, it’s understandable why the residents of Oahu, and in particular those on the North Shore, are hell-bent on suppressing the spread of COVID. “If any outbreaks happened, the people would be pissed,” insisted our correspondent.
While the fate of the WSL may now be in the hands of the Hawaiian health department, the state government also has to weigh up the economic impact of maintaining strict travel and quarantine restrictions for international visitors.
At present, the official travel website for Hawaii carries the following message “Trans-Pacific travelers arriving WITHOUT a confirmed negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.”
On an island dependent on tourism (typically US 48.6 million spent a day by tourists across the islands) huge hotels have been empty and retail sales flat for a long time. Despite the oft-peddled image of rainbows and good times, Hawaii already had a major poverty issue before COVID hit and the government stimulus packages can only support the economy for so long.
The Pipe Masters fiasco is playing out against a backdrop of a much bigger drama for Hawaii. The delicate balance between economic collapse and COVID-related health concerns is felt more acutely in the islands than in most places. Getting the response right will require all the skill and subtlety of a late drop and big barrel ride at Pipe.