The Gathering

Every winter, the Pacific stirs up massive ocean swells that descend on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. For 50 years, the surf world has followed suit, coming together to crown their champions, celebrate a sport many consider a religion, and ride some of the biggest waves on the planet. Welcome to the North Shore.

    Photo: Robert Maxwell

Haleiwa Town, entry point for the North Shore of Oahu, is an easy 30-minute drive from the tropical urban sprawl of Honolulu. But drive through Haleiwa late in the year with an arsenal of boards strapped to the roof and the atmosphere suddenly feels heavier, more pressurized. This isn’t just a surf trip. You’ve ventured to the center of the surfing universe.

How this affects you depends on several things. The number of North Shore visits you’ve made in the past. Local connections. Your World Tour ranking, if applicable. Above all, your place on the sport’s invisible but finely calibrated scale of gnarliness. Badass veterans with reef scars on their feet and shoulders can usually keep the anxiety in check. The mood for most newcomers is roughly three parts dread to one part anticipation.

North Shore waves are famously big and powerful, but the truly distinctive feature here is how tightly clustered the breaks are. Beginning near the harbor mouth at Haleiwa and moving east, more than three dozen surf spots, many of them exceptional, are squeezed into what has long been called surfing's "Seven Mile Miracle." From late fall to early spring, the surf generally ranges from five to 15 feet. A few times, it jumps up to 20, or 30, or even 50 feet. Nowhere else does the velvet glove fit more snugly over the iron fist. Warm sand, aquamarine water, tropical blue skies, plumeria-scented trade winds—and beneath it all a vast submerged plateau of lava reef, knuckled and ribbed and crevassed, shaping North Pacific swells into fearsome and occasionally life-altering waves, especially at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, and Pipeline

With few exceptions, every wave rider of note from the past half-century has come to the North Shore. Long-gone people and events flicker constantly around the edges, just out of sight. Big wooden boards washing ashore at Laniakea like matchsticks after a cleanup set in the late fifties. A generation later, Barry Kanaiaupuni leaning into turns at Sunset Beach with enough force to peel his lips back from his teeth. Donny Solomon, a rookie from Southern California, punching through the lip of a 25-footer at Waimea in 1995, nearly safe on the wave’s far slope before getting sucked over the falls, backwards, to his death.

These days, roughly 500 surfers from around the world spend most of November and December on the North Shore. The surf media follows. Photographers, filmmakers, reporters, and bloggers focus on the North Shore the way the fashion media focuses on Paris and New York. A framework for the season is provided by the annual Triple Crown contest series, which concludes with the Pipeline Masters, the final stop on pro surfing’s ten-event world tour. Rides at Pipeline are short but spectacular, and often disastrous, and the reef itself is close to the narrow beach, which is backed by a row of vacation houses whose front porches look out to the lineup like Yankee Stadium box seats. Pipe has played host to a half-dozen nail-biting down-to-the-wire world-title finales. Kelly Slater has had his finest moments as a pro at the Masters, as did the recently deceased Andy Irons. The list goes all the way back to Gerry Lopez, the original tube-riding deity, who won the event twice in the early seventies.

But the contests have always been a kind of add-on to the North Shore experience. What it boils down to, really, is adventure and drama—thousands of episodes, yours and everybody else’s, mostly in the water but also at the beaches, vacation rentals, and night spots, linked into a kind of six-week free-verse surfing epic. Australian Wayne Bartholomew, former world surfing champion and the greatest raconteur the sport has ever known, used to close his eyes during the transpacific flights from Sydney and imagine that he was the Hobbit venturing to Mordor, “with all the dragons and goblins and danger. The idea was to get in there, steal the treasure, and find my way home.” Bartholomew won his world-championship title on the North Shore in 1978, but he’d be the first to say that his defining moments took place outside of the contest arena: sprint-paddling over the ragged foam-flecked tops of a huge set of waves at Pipeline, say, or getting pulverized by a gang of local thugs near Kam Highway after shooting his mouth off. "For a surfer, it’s the heaviest place in the world," Bartholomew once said. "I'd spend the whole rest of the year psyching up for the North Shore. Riding well there was all that mattered, and to do that, you have to be a little obsessed."

The North Shore is no longer the lone capital of big-wave surfing (equally huge waves are now ridden in Maui, Baja, and Northern California), just as Hawaii itself is no longer considered the planet’s richest wave zone (that would be Indonesia). Purists make the case, convincingly, that this once cheap little do-it-yourself year-end North Shore pilgrimage has been hopelessly co-opted, stickered over, and tricked out by surfing’s $2.5 quadrillion industry, or whatever the figure is. Nobody rides a garage-made board, or steals chickens for dinner, like they did during the Eisenhower years. Surfing has more or less pushed its soul like meat through a deli slicer as it’s grown from sports-world curiosity to small-nation-size economy.

And yet the North Shore abides. The center holds. Every year, the gathering happens at the same breaks that were already famous when Gidget opened at the local drive-in. The objective also remains unchanged: to stand calmly, a Jams-wearing toreador, in the same breathing space as a beautiful, destructive, hard-charging force of nature. Then paddle out and do it again. For hours in a row, at every opportunity, until it’s time to drive back to the airport, with your adrenal glands lying at the bottom of your gut like deflated party balloons.

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