Article

Island at the Center of the World

| posted on July 22, 2010

For more than half a century the world’s most fabled surfing destination, the North Shore, has left its share of powerful first impressions.

Rabbit Kekai
Back in the ’30s and ’40s we used to have a home at Paumalu, right by Velzyland. There used to be one good peak out here, like an A-frame, and it used to be one of the best places to play around. Like right now at V-Land everybody hits the rights, but before we only surfed the lefts. We used to take off and there were no rocks over there. Now you gotta go over that all that rock. But like everywhere else, things change.

Bobby Owens
I remember sitting in the backseat of an old VW Bug, with Colonel Benson driving us up to the North Shore sometime around 1969, I think it was, and I can even remember the song playing on the radio. It was “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by the Beatles.

Brock Little
I remember getting barreled on a 5′ 11″ blue and yellow single-fin at inside Chuns, and I kept my eyes open. I was about 4 feet tall.

Tom Carroll
Colonel Smith from Newcastle came back after winning the Pro Class Trials in ’78 and just gave me story after story. He was saying, “Aw, you pull into a closeout and it’s like a Mack truck hit you! Take off and it’s like you got a V12 engine underneath you going ka-boom!” Just really animated, he was, really expressive.

Layne Beachley
My first season was in ’92 and it rained for weeks. I had borrowed a friend’s bike and was riding along Ke Nui Road when Todd Holland and Barry VanDermeulen came up behind me in a car. I thought I was being really funny by holding them up. So eventually I went on the wrong side of a puddle, and they sped past me and just barreled me on my bike. They got the last laugh.

Strider Wasilewski
The first day I got here I got dropped off by taxi. I was 13, and was just kind of wingin’ it. Ran into Davey Miller who I knew from Ventura in the Sunset parking lot and we ended up at the Off-The-Wall house.

Sunny Garcia
I was 13 and surfing at Ehukai with Brian Keaulana and he wanted me to surf Pipe. It was 6- to 8-feet, which is not that big but when you’re 13 it is, and I was like, “No way, I’m not coming.” And he said if I didn’t surf Pipe and get a wave then I was walking home to the Westside. So I went out, got a good wave, a good barrel, and went straight back to the sandbar. I had no choice. I wasn’t walking home.

Kelly Slater
First time I came to Hawaii all I wanted to do was go to Pipeline. Matt Kechele picked me up that night at the airport, and it was a full moon, so when we got to the North Shore the first thing we did was drive down to look at the waves in the dark. We could see them breaking in the moonlight. That was in ’84, the day that Joey Buran won the Pipe Masters.

Duncan Campbell
Touching the sand and the water in the morning and feeling the warmth. The coolness of the sand and the warmth of the water. That first step that I made into the sand, that famous coarse sand. That’s my first, most vivid memory.

Jodie Young
I would have been about 14, turning 15 and I remember coming on a drive with Fred Aikau for a circle island trip. Fred was Eddie’s older brother and he loved to drive, but not to surf. We got to the North Shore, and it was one of those wet, gray, cloudy winter days. We stopped at Pipe and then we stopped at Sunset and I remember thinking, “Man, I never realized these places were all so close together.”

Joel Tudor
In 1990, my first year, here was this huge scandal with all the Honolulu airport baggage handlers. Guys would go through your stuff before it even came out on the baggage claim. I was riding for Airwalk and they had given me all these new shoes. And I put them in this bag, a Maui and Sons bags, like full bright neon, but when it came down the ramp it was all zipped up, so I though everything was cool. I grabbed my bag and patted it down and could feel that there were still shoes in there. But when I got out to where I was staying and unzipped it, I saw that the guy had taken his shoes off and put them in my bag and then zipped the bag back up. So I had some luggage handler’s shoes. That’s my first memory of the North Shore.

Dustin Barca
Me and [Danny] Fuller used to sneak into Chris Lassen’s house at Sunset and sleep there every night. And I’d wake up at like 6 in the morning and get out there before anybody else woke up. I was like 13 or 14. The guy who stayed in Lassen’s house used to let us stay there, but then Lassen came back and he was all eggy. So we just left the outside door unlocked and would just stay there every night anyway.

Ross Clarke-Jones
The first time I came here it was night and I drove out with John Shimooka and Sunny Garcia. I woke up in the Turtle Bay condos, and I thought, “So this is Hawaii, this is the North Shore.” But the next day we were at Sunset for the Billabong Pro, then at Waimea Bay. And I quickly realized, “Oohhh…”

Mark Cunningham
When I was in high school, and it was my first time bodysurfing here, when the wave closed out over me I’d hold my breath. But I’d still be riding, and I’d look up and I’d still be in the barrel. So I’d have to grab another breath, and then another. Like at Sandy Beach or Makapuu, where I grew up, once the wave started to curl over you the end was near. But here it was like, “Oh my God, you can ride these barrels for a while!” But it took me a while to get the breathing down.

John Carper
I’d been living on Maui for about three years but I’d always wanted to go ride Waimea. So I went over on the next macking swell and just studied it for hours. It was a big deal to me. It’s not a big deal to people now but it was then because not a lot of guys surfed it. So I went down, did the whole prep and everything. And I paddled out and made it through the shorebreak without getting my hair wet, which was awesome, and I was all stoked but as I paddled out this huge set came and everyone starts scrambling for it. I was about 40 feet in front of Ricky Grigg and I’m thinking there’s no way he’s getting over this. So he paddles up this mountain and at the top he just stands up on his board and does a back-flip, into the lip. Just right over the falls, and I’m going, “Oh, what am I doing out here?” But then he comes up after the wave breaks, raises his arms and goes, “I love it!” And I remember thinking, “Well, this is the North Shore.”

Reef McIntosh
I remember coming over with my dad and Johnny Boy did an aerial on my head. It was my fault.

Michael Ho
You know where the park is at Haleiwa now? It used to be a motocross track. And Eddie Aikau lived across the street. That was fun.

Daize Shayne
When I was 14 a friend and I ran away from home in Kailua and we used to just sit in front of Benji Weatherley’s house, smoking clove cigarettes. We were from the Eastside and you always hear about the pro surfers on the North Shore, how they all don’t wear shirts. I wasn’t really into surfing when I was really young, I was more into boys, I guess. Because when we heard there were a lot of hot guys out there we’d hang out there all day.

Kimo Hollinger
I remember having to be rescued in 1956. By Henry Preece and Joseph Montgomery. Not a big day, but there was a current. We didn’t have that current like that at Waikiki.

Shane Dorian
I had moved over here from the Big Island and went to get my car from the inter-island barge, then I went to the surfboard factory and got, like, 15 boards and stacked them all on top of my car, inside my car, and then drove out to the North Shore. And I could only do about 45 mph. So I pulled over on this hill by a pineapple field and the waves that day just happened to be like 18- to 20-feet, and seeing that…well, it was just one of those moments of clarity.

The North Shore’s common denominator? Mistakes. Big ones, little ones, life-threatening or simply embarrassing; nobody gets this place wired without first paying some dues.

Layne Beachley
The first year that I came, I had no place to stay and I had no idea what I was doing. I was traveling with Neridah Falconer, and we had slept at the airport—we were both under 21 so there was only one place in Honolulu that would rent us a car, so we had to wait till they opened. But we were driving out, and ended up going around the Eastside because we didn’t know how to get to the North Shore. And we ended up holding up what turned out to be a funeral procession. Being from Australia, we were driving on the left, thinking it was the slow lane, there were all these cars going past us and we kept wondering why all these people in suits were giving us these glowering looks. And they had purple flags halfway down on their aerial antennas. We were like, “What’s with all the purple flags?”

Keone Downing
I was pretty lucky because I had a father who was able to teach me the correct things. But in one incident I was put into the position to get pounded. This was the first time I started to ride big waves and I paddled out with my dad and he put me in the spot and then he paddles off toward the point. I was thinking that he put me there so I would be safe and could get a feel for big waves. First set came, broke 10 yards ahead of me and I got pounded and washed up on the beach. I was crying and he came in and said, “You handled the worst, so let’s go out and surf.” And that sunk in in my mind early on. I understood that if you could handle the punishment, then you could start riding big waves.

John John Florence
I got pulled down the face of the wave at Pipeline and got super worked.

Brock Little
I went to high school for way too long. My parents made me go, but if I had quit in 6th or 7th grade instead of 10th, I would have been Kelly Slater. I had to take the bus to town every day and didn’t get home until 5 and it ruined my surfing career. I had to pick up big waves because I didn’t have enough talent otherwise.

Kelly Slater
When I was 12 I got slammed on the reef at Backdoor on about a 3-foot day. I just really wanted to get a tube, to get barreled at Backdoor. I tried to duck-dive a wave and got sucked over backwards on the reef. And I didn’t surf at Backdoor for two or three more years. I couldn’t relate to the power of the waves.

Tom Carroll
It was one of my first wipeouts at Sunset. It was Inside Sunset, I was on my 6′ 8″ Simon Anderson, a lovely board, orange deck. I was stoked, just starting to get the feeling and I was hanging out watching Ben Aipa and just trying to figure out where to sit. I was going, “This is the best!” But then I get f—in’ picked off by this wave and I’m going over the falls and everything’s coming at me at once and I actually shit myself. In my pants, I let loose. I had those Quiksilver scallop legs , one panel aqua and the other orange, and I shit myself. It was brown.

Duncan Campbell
I once paddled around Lopez, thinking I could catch a set wave. That was a mistake. But I wanted to surf Pipe and I wanted to be able to establish some sort of credibility out there, so I paddled around Lopez, but I missed the wave. Lopez just recently wrote a great story in which he said that you should never go for the first wave of a set. I wish I had read it back then. I paddled around Lopez, missed the first wave, and got seriously tromped on. Really close call, really close to being killed. I survived it but I neither paddled around Lopez nor tried for the first wave of a set at Pipeline again.

Shane Dorian
I once went out at really big Backdoor after taking a ton of cough syrup. It kind of made me drunk and I ate shit really bad.

Dustin Barca
I beat up the team manager from Rip Curl. That was pretty funny.

Ross Clarke-Jones
At one point I thought I knew all the locals, so I grabbed Brian Suratt’s surfboard when he dropped in on me, and threw him off the wave and he wanted to kill me. And after that I thought, “God, you just never know who’s out there.” We actually became really good friends later, but that was sort of a wake-up call. You never really know. You just have to be careful all the time

Michael Ho
I paddled out at Haleiwa when it was too big and had to get saved. That was my worst mistake. I was there with my friend Brant Ackerman, a well-known guy, and he ended up having to save me.

Ryan Rawson
Almost drowning bodysurfing Ehukai at 10 feet one day. I wasn’t even going outside, I just got sucked out. I wasn’t even dreaming about going out there and I got stuck in the impact zone, my legs went numb, but I somehow made it through.

It’s the most intimidating surf in the world and has broken the will of countless barefoot pilgrims. But if you want it bad enough—if you’re bad enough—and can truly focus mind, body and soul, the day may come when you feel like you almost have the North Shore under control.

Sunny Garcia
In ’91 I won the XCEL Pro at Sunset and I beat Michael Ho, Myles Padaca and Richard Schmidt. That was the first time I actually felt like I had a hold of it and was going to do well here. That was the first year I felt really comfortable.

Reef McIntosh
I don’t know if I would ever feel comfortable here. I feel comfortable home on Maui but never around here.

Tom Carroll
Winter of ’85-’86 I really started to feel it, you know, knew what I was doing and getting really confident. So after shitting myself at Sunset and realizing it wasn’t that bad, that I didn’t need to shit myself, I had some fantastic surfs at Sunset where I stood in the inside section. There were a lot of wild north swells that winter so I was just hanging on the inside bowl.

Dustin Barca
Last year I kind of got the wave of the day at Pipe for the first time in my life. There’s no better feeling than getting the wave of the day at Pipeline.

Brock Little
It’s funny because I remember the first barrel over my head at Chuns, and I can still remember the barrel over my head at Waimea that afternoon during the ’93 Eddie. Everything came together for me that day, even though I wiped out and got Second Place. I caught a big wave at Waimea and got barreled. Easy.

Strider Wasilewski
The only time I felt like I really had my act together was that session when I got the cover of SURFER at Pipeline. Other than that to this day I still don’t really feel like I have it together.

Kelly Slater
It took me until I was about 18 until I felt I really had my act together and was taking off on big waves, felt totally comfortable, stopped being worried about it. But there was a day when I was 14, surfing Sunset Point, and there were some 6-foot waves coming through. And it was the first day I got blown out of a barrel, just completely spit out. I felt like I was doing something right.

Ross Clarke-Jones
I made the Quarters of my first contest over here, the Billabong Pro. And I had Curren and Gary Elkerton and Michael Ho in a heat, and I was winning the heat, and it was like perfect 10- to 12-foot Sunset. And I was just this young, crazy grommet, but I had my shit together, you know. But this was another lesson I learned, because I got interference. I was a bit too loose out there, a bit stupid, and they got me on interference. So I lost. I was just counting my chickens so badly.

Coco Ho
I had a day at V-Land where I went in the morning and had a really, really good session and then I went in for like 30 minutes, and I had cereal, then went back out, had another really good session and the whole day was little barrels, just fun little waves.

Michael Ho
I always really thought I had my shit together. But obviously I didn’t.

Daize Shayne
Honestly, I surfed yesterday and this place will kick your butt every time you go out there.

The flip side of paradise, the poisonous spider in the sugarcane, the falling coconut that cracks your skull, the tiger shark lurking just beneath the blue dappled sea. It’s waves that can kill you. Heavy: The term was invented for North Shore surfing.

Fred Patacchia
I was out at Haleiwa on my 7′ 6″, and just a huge 12-foot left came through from Paradise out the back, and hit Avalanche and just mowed right through Haleiwa. It was a big whitewash closeout and I took two of those on the head and then three more 10-footers and by the third or fourth wave that hit me, I was underwater, about to give up. I was like, “Oh this is it, I’m done.”

Layne Beachley
I remember being out at Haleiwa with a couple of Californians and a few Brazilian girls, and Johnny Boy Gomes came screaming out into the lineup, hurling insults at all of us, trying to send us all in. But none of us went. So he went in. And then he came out 20 minutes later like nothing had ever happened. I was like, “Is this guy schizophrenic or what? What the hell was that all about?” He came out so aggressive and then left and then came back all calm.

Strider Wasilewski
Probably the heaviest thing was seeing my friend Travis Musselman die at Pipeline. He was out on a really big day and just disappeared.

Kahea Hart
I was there when Tamayo Perry got hit with a board and split his head open. The water was red everywhere.

Dustin Barca
And everybody was there waving to the guys on the beach, but nobody could see him. So I was waving my board. Then we pushed him on this whitewash, and when the whitewash hit him it was like pure red. The water just flared red.

Kelly Slater
I remember Flea [Virostko] taking off on that wave during The Eddie last year. We were in the same heat and he had backed out of one that was a similar size and I think he felt like he would never do that again. I was paddling out, the closest person to him, so I could see straight into the barrel. He started paddling and hesitated, and he knew he was stuck in the lip but was going no matter what. He didn’t hesitate like he wasn’t going to go, he just delayed a little, because he wanted to get pitched out a little bit before he jumped. He knew he wasn’t going to make it. That was one of those situations where you imagine a wave that size and someone on it and just think that they’d have to die.

Shane Dorian
John John Florence is pretty amazing, just being so completely fearless out at Pipeline at 9 years old. Pretty inspiring, especially for other kids his age. It must be pretty intimidating too.

John John Florence
I saw someone start having a seizure in the water once.

Ross Clarke-Jones
Donnie Solomon died right in front of me. I think I was the only one to actually see him in the water. He sort of talked to me and hassled me, telling me, “Your board’s too thick,” but I was, like, “Oh, I need this if I want to catch it.” But we both paddled for this wave and he missed it but I got it, and when I turned around I saw him going over in the lip on the next wave, and that was the one that drowned him. But that was probably the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen in the water, seeing him in the lip like that, upside down. I didn’t actually see him expire though, or all full of water, thank God, because that would have haunted me a bit. But I did see him go over.

John Carper
Kimo Hollinger. I saw him take off so deep at Waimea there was no way in the world he would ever make it, it was hopeless. I think those old school guys, Kimo, Greg Noll and those guys only thought about how big the waves were. It didn’t matter if you made it or not.

Reef McIntosh
Actually I saw that Japanese guy die that one year from my house. I was watching football and I look out there and was, like “Oh no, don’t go!” But he went over and I was like, “Where is the guy? Where is the guy?” and they finally got to him but by the time they got him to the beach he was gone. I watched him die.

Bobby Owens
When Sunset is breaking really big and it’s just northwest and really focused right in the saddle, I’m always taken back in awe by how much power is focusing in just one area. And just the way that wave jacks up and pitches. To this moment it still gets my attention and you realize you have the whole North Pacific come in and focus on one part of the reef. It amazes me every time.

And despite all the craziness there exists a very exclusive fraternity of surfers who could be said not only to have the North Shore wired, but to actually dominate. And of these Immortals, some more than others.

Brock Little
Kelly Slater. But in a weird different way I’ve always been into big waves so guys like Darrick Doerner would be up there too for a North Shore guy who used to surf Sunset. Kelly for one reason, Darrick for another.

Strider Wasilewski
When I first got here it was Marvin Foster and Dane Kealoha.

Kahea Hart
Shane Dorian. He’s the most well-rounded surfer. But then there’s guys like [longtime North Shore shaper] Chuck Andrus. Chuck still paddles out at 15-foot Phantoms when it’s glassy. You’ll still find him out there.

Coco Ho
My dad and brother Mason. Oh, and Uncle Derek.

Joel Tudor
Michael Ho. It’s a toss-up though for me between Michael Ho and Dane Kealoha. Dane I’ll give it to for Backdoor, but Michael was on the same level. But Michael came before Dane. And you have to look at longevity. Dane isn’t here anymore, you know what I mean? Michael still surfs Waimea on a 7′ 10″. So if you want to look at that kind of stuff, he’d be my choice.

Taylor Knox
Michael Ho is a freak. A superfreak. He would be my pick. I mean he’s 50 years old. That’s amazing. Just amazing. I guarantee you he is the only 50-year-old who is doing what he’s doing. Michael Ho is my pick.

Ryan Rawson
Michael Ho. That guy knows every break, the take-off spots from the beach, he can ride every wave, knows every spot.

Duncan Campbell
Over time, I think, Michael Ho. His longevity is amazing. And in all conditions, you’re looking at Michael Ho. He can go from 3-foot Rocky Point to Waimea.

Kalani Chapman
Well, the North Shore is a place for big waves, and my brother Shawn was pretty much the gnarliest guy for big waves at his time, pretty much at anybody’s time, because he’d turn around and go on waves that people didn’t even want.

Shane Dorian
My first inkling would be to say Marvin Foster, or Dane Kealoha or someone like that, but I think you have to give it to Andy Irons because he’s been so good. He’s won at Sunset, he’s won at Pipeline, he’s done well in The Eddie, he killed it last year here at Waimea, surfs super good at Haleiwa, won contests there. He just surfs super good all around. So I’d have to say that Andy

Ross Clarke-Jones
I’d say Kelly Slater still. I mean I’ve surfed everywhere with Kelly. He may not be the very best at Waimea, or the best here or there, but he can do it all just as good as anyone.

John Carper
George Downing and those guys who first surfed the North Shore. Nobody knew. You don’t look at it as that big of a deal now but when you think about doing things that nobody had ever done before, it makes you understand how incredible those early guys really were.

Reef McIntosh
I’m going to have to go with Sunny Garcia.

Michael Ho
I’ve got a bunch of guys who are dead.

Mark Healey
Between free-surfing and contests I think it’s Pancho.

Bobby Owens
I always think of Jock Sutherland as the guy that inspired me when I was really young. In his early years he was switching stance, surfing Sunset, surfing Pipeline and Waimea. At times he was a regularfoot and at times he was a goofyfooter. And that really left a distinct impression on me.

Tom Carroll
Dane was pretty awesome. His power, his control. But there have been so many good surfers. Shaun was pretty awesome. Guys like that had such control at every break. People tend to specialize now because of the photo thing and the exposure. But those guys did it all. Really awesome.

Layne Beachley
Jeff Hakman, Pancho Sullivan, Simon Law and Kelly Slater.

“Ours is not to make reply, ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die…” But really, what is it about that 10-mile slice of sand and sea on the northern shore of the island of Oahu that keeps drawing us back season after season, year after year, decade after decade?

Kahea Hart
I don’t think you can find anything like this anywhere else in the world. Tahiti, Indo, Fiji, there’s no place like this. You don’t need a boat to get to the spots, everything is right here on the side of the road. Blue ocean, white sand and green mountains…and big gnarly waves. It’s paradise.

Kelly Slater
There’s nothing like the waves in Hawaii, anywhere. Big corduroy lines like nowhere else. When you see a set coming in to Waimea…well, that will never, ever get old.

Duncan Campbell
The North Shore myth is alive and well. The myth lives. And who doesn’t want to be a part of an accessible myth?

Jodie Young
It’s like Alice in Wonderland and this place is like the hole in the hedge. There’s like a whole other world in that hole.

Joel Tudor
This is it. I’ve been all around the world. I’ve been everywhere. I’ve seen beaches all around the world and nothing looks like this. From Waimea, to Sunset, to V-Land. I mean, forget about it. And yeah, Teahupoo is sick, and Tavarua is cool, but the North Shore, I mean I don’t need much more than that.

Dustin Barca
There’s chicks everywhere, parties, contests. It’s like Disneyland for us over here. Girls, waves, parties, whatever you want to do it’s here.

Ross Clarke-Jones
I mean, I’ve been looking around the world for different waves, and I’m going to continue to do that, but I still haven’t found a place like this. It just seems like there is only one Rock in the whole universe.

John John Florence
Probably because there are such good waves and so much power on the waves. Oh, and the aloha.