World-renowned stretch of Hawaiian coastline located on the north side of Oahu; the undisputed capital of big-wave surfing from the 1950s to the early ‘90s; home to about 40 surf breaks, many of them hallowed. “If the surfing world has a shared mythology,” American essayist William Finnegan wrote in 1997, “then the North Shore of Oahu is its Olympus.”
What surfers know as the North Shore begins at the town of Haleiwa and runs east for seven miles to Sunset Beach. North Shore breaks include Haleiwa, Laniakea, Off the Wall, Rocky Point, Velzyland, Pipeline, Waimea Bay, Sunset beach. These last three are among the world’s best-known surf spots. Pipeline for its exploding tubes, Waimea for its fearsome size, Sunset for its consistency and complexity.
The power of the North Shore surf, combined with shallow reefs, crowded lineups (pressuring surfers to try marginal waves), and near-constant surf media presence (encouraging them to take star-making risks), makes this the most dangerous surf area in the world. About 30 surfers have died on the North Shore since the early 1960s, and hundreds more have been severely injured.
Waimea was ridden for the first time in 1957 by a group of California surfers including Greg Noll, Mickey Muñoz, and Pat Curren. California’s Phil Edwards is credited as the first to ride Pipeline, in 1961. Surf movies and surf magazines were by that time filled with images shot on the North Shore; the cover of the first issue of Surfer, published in 1960, showed Jose Angel of Hawaii dropping into a huge Sunset Beach peak. The annual winter surfer migration to the North Shore began in earnest in the late ‘50s, with dozens of mainland wave-hunters renting houses and staying for weeks, even months, at a time, and the number of visitors increased steadily over the years.
Crowded lineups have been a problem on the North Shore since the early ‘60s, and by the early ‘70s local surfers were using organized intimidation and violence to secure waves for themselves. A legacy that continues three-fold today.
Big-wave surfing, pushed to the background in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, roared back in 1983, and North Shore big-wave riders like Mark Foo, Ken Bradshaw, Darrick Doerner and Brock Little became surf world icons. Laird Hamilton and Buzzy Kerbox, along with Doerner, invented tow-in surfing on the North Shore in 1992. Dungeons in South Africa, along with Maverick’s, Todos Santos and Cortes Bank have broken up the North Shore’s big-wave monopoly, while Indonesia with its perfect waves has replaced the North Shore as the ultimate surf destination. But this relatively short piece of coastline is still the sports greatest showcase. World champions are crowned here in December, giant waves are ridden throughout the winter and no other surf zone in the world can match the North Shore for intensity on land as well as the sea.