I first read the book “Pipe Dreams” by Kelly Slater when I was 22 years old and desperately striving to write a mini-thesis on my favourite subject– the sport and the man. The autobiography justified my adoration for this amazing athlete and confirmed my underlying suspicion that I’d never make it as a professional surfer. After all, I only had my first taste of the sport a year before and that was 15 years too late. Nonetheless, the desire to savor in reality what we have only read or seen in the surf magazines and books led us to the surf-haven of Hawaii. My encounter with Slater’s dreams in his book resulted in the trip of a lifetime–watching performances by surfers among the likes of Kelly, and simultaneously soaking up the culture on the Hawaiian archipelago–and surfing some of those waves myself.
Hawaii: pronounce it with a heavy emphasis on the “w-a” and a truncated “eee”. It imitates somewhat the expression that kids shout as they ride down an exhilarating slide- “Wheeeee!” That was exactly how we felt as G and I touched down at the Honolulu International Airport–in high spirits. “Sunny” is an apt description for the weather and the people of Hawaii. Traditionally, we would have gotten lei’d* at the airport had we signed up to stay with a renowned hotel–that was how malihini* to the Aloha islands are welcomed by the kama’aina*. The tradition of donning a lei was brought to the island by the early Polynesian travelers from Tahiti and its customary usage was to beautify and distinguish between classes of people. Different types of lei were exchanged between the ali’i* to symbolize affection and the accord of peace between them. Common-folk don leis not only as a symbol of love, affection, and class divisions, but also in worship of their gods. Naturally, modern-day tourism has reduced all the other significances of lei-giving and lei-wearing to merely one of extending a welcome. G and I, though, opted to uncover the island, its traditions, the waves and its people unfiltered and on our own terms. We did not get lei’d at the airport.
The reputation of the North Shore of Oahu preceded any of our actual experience with it. Our preconception was that it was a playground only for the professionals and the heavily experienced, i.e. the locals. The reefs, the winds, the currents, the breaks, the tides, and the interactions of all these conditions combined were an inscrutable mystery to us. But me, I had a predisposition towards risk, a kind of “go big or go home” attitude. At times, it was a bane that landed me into some sticky surf-related situations, but I knew that locating ourselves anywhere else (Waikiki etc) would simply not allow us to experience the island fully. And with that, we found ourselves based near Velzyland on the North Shore for the first week.
Velzyland, or V-land as many choose to call it, was named after a Californian surfer-shaper, Dale Velzy. A preliminary beach patrol–something that became a part of our daily regimen–on one of the days led us to believe that the V-land’s break population amounted to almost no one but locals-locals that rip and shred it to pieces. A quick online check told us that while V-land would give you right-hand waves, tubing walls, and hollow barrels, it would also give you strong currents and a coral reef bottom, neither of which are a beginners’ best friend. First thought was “No way, we’re not letting ourselves get shredded upon..”- neither by the locals nor the reef. Especially since duck-diving is the weakest point on my surfing learning curve.
As chance would have it, the timing of our visit on the island in December was perfect to do the only other favorite pastime of surfing adherents– watching others surf. On the North Shore of Oahu you can be certain that most of the time that person on the break who makes those Rip-Curl /Quiksilver/Billabong wetsuit tops look so good as well as surfing look so deceptively easy is none other than your professional competitive surfer on the ASP world tour. Competitions like the Billabong Pipeline Masters, the local Sponsor Me Sunset and the Quiksilver’s Eddie Aikau were either already rolling or would be rolling within the coming weeks. We traversed Sunset and Pipeline beaches frequently as a routine, aiming to understand the breaks better, be awed by some of these skillful practitioners and ultimately, hoping that it would inspire us to be better surfers. The sun was always out shining brightly but at times, the waves did not co-operate and the waters were flat (by Hawaiian standards of course!). But these did not stop the surfers from getting out there–either they had the inability to discriminate between good waves or bad waves, or they were simply dedicated to perfecting their craft despite the non-conducive conditions. I’d like to think it was the latter.
Our first actual foray into the waters took place, though, not on North Shore Oahu but on South Shore Kauai. Kauai is like the neglected sister of Oahu when it comes to waves but it certainly does serve up waves just as intense and fun as Oahu. Poipu Beach Park had several breaks that were friendly- Left Lefts, Waiohai and Lemon Drops to name a few. The beach was especially packed on weekends–as packed as you can imagine Waikiki to be on a Sunday. While G had fun usually being the only one on Left Lefts, I had to contend with many teenage longboarders on Waiohai. Their age did not belie their experience though for many a time, as my shoulders locked into position, my hands grabbing and pushing off my rails, my abdomen lifted inches off the board, my right knee starting to bring itself in towards my chest, I had to abort the whole process as someone from 5 metres to my left went “Wheeee…” sliding down that wave face. However, the atmosphere was such that a generous rather than murderous thought came to mind, “Better they be having fun here with water than on the streets with some ice.” And I’m not talking about the flavoured shaved cones here.
The flavoured shaved cones, however, did make up a big proportion of our diet while on the islands. Something that is so functionally delicious- it quenches your thirst under the hot Hawaiian sun, and yet unlike those isotonic drinks it satiates your tastebuds with flavourful sweet goodness to leave you craving more. We were Brennecke’s Shaved Ice’s best customers, but on days when the trail hiking itch bit us we’d patronize the best shave ice store in Kauai- Jojo’s. On North Shore Oahu though, the one tourist activity we simply could not avoid was hanging out at Matsumoto’s along with scores of others in queue for what is arguably Oahu’s most finely shaved ice.
Our sojourn in Kauai came to an end towards the end of December, and we returned to Oahu with bated breath in anticipation of the Eddie event. The Eddie Big Wave Invitational was created to honor Edward Ryan Makua Hanai Aikau, a dedicated Hawaiian lifeguard who was fearless in saving lives on the treacherous waters off the Hawaiian coastline. It is said that even in 30 foot waves, you’d see legendary Eddie braving it out to save lives and that when no one would dare head out, he would, thus the popular pithy phrase, “Eddie Would Go”. The really special thing about the Eddie event was that since its inception in 1985, it has only ever been held 8 times due to the exceptional conditions that need to fall into place- a minimum 20 foot open-ocean swell needs to come through Waimea Bay (i.e. at least a 30 feet wave face be visible consistently to the eyes of the organizers).
And so we woke at 6am of 20th January, breathing the cool, misty dews of the morning. It was still dark and yet, as we walked along the Kamehameha Highway towards Waimea Bay, throngs of people were hastily making their way, all decked out in hoodies, slippahs and iceboxes filled with food and drinks- once you’ve booked your spot on the beach, you would not want to leave it! As we walked by Sunset Beach and Sharks’ Cove, we were accompanied by thunderous sounds of humongous waves crashing onto the rocks. “Oh good, this is very promising. It could only mean that Waimea will be pumping big ones too!”, I mumbled.
We snaked our way past the crowds on the beach and found ourselves a strategically nice spot just next to the tow-in jet skis. I say strategic because this was where every one of the invitees to the event would have to register themselves before making their way into the waters i.e. a photographic opportunity dream come true for a fan. Or, a photographic opportunity dream come true for those who’d like to be caught by cameras for the live televising of the event- seeing some of the young, pretty girls all dolled-up at this ungodly hour in the morning, made me believe this conjecture was true for some.
And so we sat and watched the clock go by.. 715am no call. 745am no call. 815am no call. 915am STILL no call. The waves, meanwhile, pumped like we’ve never seen before. At least to this pair of greenhorns who had only seen Waimea on flat days, the surf was death-defying. Some uninvited bodyboarders were playing around near the shore-break and were chased out by the lifeguards. They had better things to watch at that time than to watch over some rogue bodyboarder repeatedly attempt to escape safely out of the pummeling shoreline. Up on the horizon, we saw some surfers drop in on some huge wave faces and shouts, hoots and applause would thunder from the beach. It was a majestic sight and extremely dramatic- a slight wrong footing could send you tumbling down a 25 foot wave face–and this was not an uncommon sight either. Some worrying incidents warranted the jet-skis to head on in a couple of times but nothing serious. Fortunately.
Unfortunately, though, 2011 was not the year that Eddie would be held. For reasons of maintaining the integrity of the competition that specify coagulation of some strict conditions, it was a freesurfing day. The waves were pumping at 1-hour intervals but with 45-minute heats, this was not a good enough condition for the organizers. But what did we have to complain about- we still got to see some big names giving it a go out there!
After all the excitement of seeing big wave riding, G and I decided that we should give Makaha a try. Makaha may be overshadowed by the popularity of the North Shore, but as many insiders and locals know, this ‘ferocious’ wave breaks comparably big to Sunset or Waimea, given the right conditions. As it so happened, on our day, the wave was breaking at 18 feet (Hawaiian scale). Like any prudent surfer, we checked out with the lifeguard on duty, about the conditions before heading in. After being given a green light, we went out there to find ourselves in the company of some really friendly locals- contrary to the stories we heard of local protectionism. When the waves were a little too thick for me to paddle into with my small arms, I got a friendly shove by a local named Kaleo and really, it was thanks to him that I had an unforgettable day in Makaha. I may not have surfed Pipe but I sure did felt as if I did on that day.