A peak at Waimea Bay, up close and personal.
Living out a child's dream
Since we were little children, our Holy Grail, our Mecca, has been the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii's main island. That's where the real surf is. We grew up on a diet of Surfing World and Surfabout, our hunger building to a craving until each issue lobbed at Stamm's, the Swansea newsagents, with their reports from Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline, Makaha, and the biggest daddy of 'em all, Waimea Bay.
Reports of Bob Pike breaking his collarbone at Pipeline added a human dimension to something that otherwise remained the stuff of fantasy. Greg Noll standing on the beach at Waimea with his 12' gun, his horizontal striped black and white boardies, his motif, stark against the towering sea (some bloke sunning himself on Waimea Beach on Mondee was wearing Greg Noll boardies, but it wasn't Greg).
We got there this week, 45 years later, give or take half a decade. We holidayed for a week on Maui, then for two days on Oahu's North Shore. Living a dream.
And the gods smiled on us. Our arrival coincided with the biggest surf in years. Sun'dee, it was big, big, rising towards 25', the weather reports said, but largely blown out by a howling sou'-wester. The weather reports said Waimea Bay would reach its peak around 2pm. We spent the day cruising from Sunset to Pipeline then on to Waimea, then back to Sunset... Our entire day was scheduled around being at Waimea at 2pm.
While the breeze blew hard, it was one perfect day: cloudless, the wind across the swell, sometimes and some places slightly offshore. Sunset and Pipeline a couple of kilometres along the coast were unrideable. But Waimea... This swell was made for Waimea.
The point at Waimea Bay, the afternoon after the afternoon before.
And the lads and ladesses were out.
The weather reports had predicted surf of 25 feet.
We sat on the beach at Waimea as a peloton of about 30 boardies bobbed around the break about 250m offshore. It was big. Oh yes, it was big. But from our vantage point on the beach, we didn't think it seemed all that big. Certainly not 25'. You judge things such as wave heights from a distance by how many standing surfers it takes to make up the face of a wave. We'd have thought, even allowing for their crouch, that it was probably 15-18 feet, maybe 20. Much bigger than anything we'd ever seen, and certainly a factor or two greater than anything we'd ever ridden as little teenagers. But certainly not 25'.
And the rides, the rides... Such a drop, a steep, startling drop, but the rides were just a drop, maybe a turn, then a petering shoulder. Or a drop already on the angle, to the right, then the petering shoulder. They weren't long rides, and they weren't rides that offered a face, a barrel, or much opportunity to manoeuvre.
We marveled at the size, all the same, at the louche ease with which the boardies slid onto them, vertically, at the marvelous consistency of the swell, which seemed to just keep coming, wave after wave, set after set, every now and again one set a bit bigger than the rest.
We trembled at the feared Waimea shorebreak. This isn't quite it (above), but it's close to the one that struck us from the pages of the surfing magazines when we were kids. All surfers have seen that pic of the Waimea shorebreak.
The shorebreak is more fearsome than the offshore break. It's absolutely stunning, the sets rolling in and, suddenly striking shallow water, a 15' wave rears up and just dumps down at once along the entire length of the beach. Mesmerising. Sobering. Frightening.
Waimea doesn't break until it reaches 10', we were told by Chris Gardner, who organises a series of swims along the North Shore over summer, when there's barely a ripple. Less than 10', it might break along the point. From 10', when it gets bigger, as on Sunday, it breaks on a deeper reef about 75m farther out and 50m farther across. The bottom on that reef is consistent, so the break is, too, governed by the size of the swell, the wind and the tide.
We fantasised about going out that day, not to surf but to swim out to the outer break with our Brownie Starflash-in-a-plastic bag, just to bob around off to the side of the break, where photographers bobbed, just to get a feel for what it's like, and maybe a pitcher or two.
Yes, it was a fantasy. We watched the shorebreak... We watched how the boardies entered the water in Waimea's eastern corner, through a minefield of boulders, mollifying the shorebreak and where the broken swells had run all the way in from the outer reef. Getting out at that spot didn't look hard, and the rip accelerated their passage to sea.
Coming back was relatively easy there, too. But the rips were terrible that day, my friends, and with no experience of the break, we weren't sure how they played out behind the shorebreak. Photographers have fins; we had none (we'd flown to Hawai'i with Jetstar luggage restrictions) and we reckoned, without fins, it could be problematic, not to mention reckless, to go out in that.
So we didn't.
Next day: the swell had dropped, but when we drove along the Kam Highway there was a good posse of boardies on the point. We were heading to Sunset, at the far eastern end of the North Shore surf strip, and we made a mental note: When we come back this time, we're going out.
We didn't make it back to Waimea until late afternoon. The swell had dropped even more, and there were just three punters off the point in a 4-6' swell. Two of them were on boards; the third was filming them. So out we went.
Bravely, we set out from the middle of the beach through a shorebreak that was by then about 1/10 the size of the day before. It was like an easy day at Bilgola. Under a couple of minor dumps, into the deeper water, and we swam easily, equipped with gogs, cap, and the Brownie Starflash, towards the point, where we sat, bob, bob, bobbing for about half an hour, taking pitchers as the opportunity arose.
We took a pano of the bay from the sea. It didn't come out. The sea was still so high that, as we got to the pano's second and third frames, the swells rolling through changed the perspective to distort the knits between frames.
The surfers were a bloke and a girl. Each of them greeted us warmly, like cobbers, remarking on the quality of the day, revelling in it, like we were all part of the same club. We didn't expect that, us in our lime green oceanswimsafaris.com swim cap and our View Platina prescription gogs. They were very welcoming.
We shot a peak as it broke over our head, gently today, not with the anger of yesterday, although it still towered over us. From far away, we captured the girl as she shot out of the shoulder of a wave with such speed that she was left hanging in the air momentarily, dancing brisé like a ballerina as her feet suddenly found themselves with nothing beneath them.
We mooched a bit; we checked out the reef below; we sidled over closer to the break; we bobbed around. Then we swam back into shore, and we captured a few of the 1/10-size shorebreaks, today just pale imitations of yesterday's monsters.
The day of the big sea, we asked a lifeguard how big he thought it was.
"Well, on the Hawaiian scale it's 25' with a 40' face," he said. "How big do you want it to be? It could be anything..." He was alluding to units of measurement.
Swell this size might come in twice a year, he said, or it may not come in at all. Sometimes, they'd gone seven years between breaks like this.
At Sunset on Monday, we asked the lifeguard over there how big he reckoned it had been. "Oh, 30 feet," he said. No ambiguity there.
Another remarkable aspect of Oahu's North Shore is that it's hardly developed (the loos are still connected to septic tanks, in the world's most affluent nation), and the parking is free. On days like these, a Sunday followed by the President's Day public holiday Monday, the Kam Highway is like a parking lot, bumper to bumper with surf pervs from the south shore out for a voyeuristic drive.
At Waimea, we came out of the water, we rinsed ourselves off under the outdoor shower, and we changed in the sheds. As we left, a voice back inside the sheds called, "Oh, sir... Excuse me, sir..." We turned on our heels as a bloke came around the corner of the shed, chasing us, holding up our straw hat, which we'd left on a peg in the change room.
Four days on now, it's all a bit dreamy. Did we really swim Waimea? Next time, we'll have fins, and we'll go out in bigger stuff. Next time, we'll have the experience of this time behind us, and we'll know the place a little better. Next time...
We'll tell you something about next time: it won't be 45 years from now.
Mum watches her son at Honolua Bay on Maui. True story. The lad, we were told, is the US U12 champ. Mum was very proud, but she was making sure he was home in time for homework. Before this wave, she'd signalled to him, one more wave. He certainly surfed like a champ.
Honolua Bay, on Maui, is another of our fabled locations from the days of our childhood. In 2013, we visited here in summer, and we swam through this break area, except there were no waves and no surfers.