The Nth Shore can be awesome but it's best to keep a few things in mind.
One of the most incredible experiences as a surfer is witnessing Pipe for the first time. We often forget those first times as they get pushed out of our brains in our short-burst information overload world, but the Banzai Pipeline first time experience is inimitable and memorable.
In fact the whole North Shore inauguration is a rich and unforgettable jaunt. There are stages of such a trip though, when as a surfer who isn’t Kelly Slater or John John Florence, you have to face a reality that in order to have fun you have to lower your expectations spectacularly. A few of the reality-check situations are thus:
You’re not going to get waves at Pipe on any day that vaguely resembles anything good during season. It’s not going to happen. If you think you’re a patient surfer, there are new levels of tolerance to be explored here, and if/when you inexplicably do get an in on a minor wave, there will be Hawaiians screaming at you, bodyboarders already committed to dropping in on you, and a shallow reef beckoning for your forehead as you paddle down. You really have little chance of success.
Similarly with Sunset, you’re not going to paddle out the back, wait for a huge west set and make the drop behind a towering, feathering peak a la Barry Kanaiaupuni. You have zero chance of this happening. What you can expect however, is to be sitting inside, desperately stroking for a mid-size in between wave, missing it, and confronting the biggest, meanest and orneriest west peak four-wave set that has one thing in mind and that is to mow you down.
With this recalibration of your expectations on the 7 Mile Miracle that is the North Shore, here’s how to go to Hawaii during season and still have fun.
1. Have zero expectations for every session. It’s not that easy an adjustment to make if you’re used to fairly high wave counts back home, but it is imperative that you paddle out every time with no expectations whatsoever. That way, if you get one single wave, even if it’s a close-out, you’ll still be stoked.
2. Identify all the B-grade spots, and get to understand their workings. This is not the secret spots list, these waves are still good, but are not along the flash-point stretch between Waimea and V-Land. We’re talking waves like Laniakea, Jockos, Chuns and Leftovers. They’re still crowded, but they are not the center of the universe. While the crew is less tense, you still need to watch yourself out here at these waves. I saw a Brazilian goofy-footer get properly panel-beaten at Laniakea on a good day out there a few years ago.
3. Identify the ‘inner breaks’ and get to understand them as well. Pinballs breaks inside Waimea on a small day, and is a fun and relatively uncrowded little right-hander running down the point. Sunset Point breaks way inside of Sunset on a small day, and Kammies breaks on similar conditions on the other side of the Sunset channel. Around the corner from Sunset and across from Velzyland is Freddyland, which is actually a reform from the outer Phantoms reef, Jamie Sterling’s local hangout. These inside waves get very little attention. All eyes are always on the bigger outside reefs.
4. Identify the C-grade spots. The North Shore C-grades are still pretty darn good compared to most surfing locales around the world. Heading west, Army Beach has a couple of great little peaks on small days, and Turtle Bay to the east has one or two little runners right out front of the hotel that you can always paddle out and throw some turns on, and then drink cocktails on the grass and watch the surf alongside the wealthy and beautiful clientele.
5. Avoid talking to locals while surfing. It’s a terrible generalisation to make, and I thought long and hard about it, but it goes like this. The whole North Shore winter season and pro tour invasion tends to irritate the local surfers. The few surfers who benefit from professional surfing are a small percentage, and even they are not really that friendly. For every likeable dude like Seabass or Zeke Lau, Mason Ho or Dustin Barca, there are others who are ready to make your life unpleasant at the moment you engage. Whether it’s a simple “shut the fuck up haole,” or more aggressive approaches, it’s not worth the risk.
6. Avoid in-the-water confrontations with locals as well. Even if you’re 90% sure that the Hawaiian surfer on the set wave is not going to make it, you still need to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Make one drop-in mistake on the North Shore, and your trip could be over.
7. Do not slow down and watch the surfing at Sunset from your car. Some very strong and very unafraid Hawaiian gentlemen control road security on the Kam Highway at this stretch during events. They are fairly unassuming, and are happy to engage, once, if you have a query like, ‘What contest is on brah?’ or ‘is Lau going to qualify brah?, but if you get told to move your vehicle, and you don’t do it fairly quickly, make sure before hand that you have dental cover included in your travel insurance.
8. Watch out for the ghouls. Crystal methamphetamine is still a problem on the North Shore, and there are high-risk areas at times. Best to just be aware and not get accosted by some desperate addict needing a hit of the good stuff.
9. Don’t worry about bigger boards too much, and just take along your regular go-to board that you use at home all the time. You’ll use it plenty, and if something happens and the waves come up, you’re ready and feeling good, and there’s an opportunity for a lift out to Marijuana’s or somewhere similar, you’ll find a board. Most houses on the North Shore have piles of boards left behind by travelers who were definitely coming back, but who got waylaid by life, and now their prized guns are lying in cobwebs. Boards are made to be surfed, so no one is going to get bummed if you take an old board out for a quick spin. Just grab one and head for the channel, and make sure you return it if you survive…