How To Survive the North Shore

Jesse Merle-Jones' guide to surfing's epicenter

| posted on November 26, 2012

Jesse Merle-Jones, in rhythm with life on the North Shore. Photo: Noyle

Whether it’s the crowds, the waves, or the locals, there is no stretch of beach quite as notorious as Oahu’s North Shore. Despite being one of the most intimidating locales in the world, Hawaii is the destination de jour every November when surfers arrive with bloated board bags, uneasy stomaches, and the dream of scoring the best waves of their lives. To help bring your pipe dreams into fruition, we talked to Hawaii’s Jesse Merle-Jones about making the most out of your trip to the proving grounds.

Never Be Under Gunned:
“Most of us aren’t going to be able to paddle out to Pipe and sit under the ledge on a small board like Bruce, Jamie, or John John—that’s just not gonna happen. As a mere mortal, you’re gonna need some more board underneath you to surf those kinds of waves. If you’re coming out to the North Shore, you’re going to want a quiver that fits the waves. And the best way to do that is to get boards from a local shaper that knows the lineups. Tokoro, Schaper, Arakawa and Nat Woolley are all guys you should check out. Also, keep in mind that these guys get a lot of board orders in the winter, so the best time to order boards is in the summer. If you can’t afford a whole quiver, the North Shore is the best place in the world to buy a used board. You can also check Craigslist or just keep an eye out, but finding a good used board shouldn’t be too hard. I’ve actually had someone buy one of my old boards from a surf shop for around $400—they loved the board so much that they looked me up on Facebook to see if I would sell any other boards for cheaper and of course I did and we were both stoked.”

Get Off the Beaten Path:
“If you’re not coming out here to get famous, then to be honest, you’re better off not even bothering with Pipe and some of the other more star-studded waves on the North Shore. If you can get away from the main drag a little bit, you’ll find that there are a ton of waves nearby that are a lot less crowded. Check out Lanis, Jockos, and some of the other lineups. If you’re not trying to get your photo taken, I promise you won’t regret it.”

Respect Is Crucial:
“You’ll hear a lot of people talk about respect in Hawaii and I think some of them don’t truly understand the concept. It’s not all about respecting the tough guy in the lineup, but it’s about respecting everyone and everything over here. Of course you don’t want to be burning some nuts local, but you also want to be cool to the guy that’s just learning. You also need to respect the beaches. Pick up trash when you see it, help someone out when they looked lost. That’s the kind of respect we need out here. It’s more than just about doing the right thing because you’re afraid of getting slapped, it’s about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

Where to Stay:
“Come wintertime, trying to find a place to post up is gonna be a bit difficult. With everyone from the surf industry over here for the winter, it’s not easy finding something right in the middle of the action. But I actually think that’s a good thing. If you can stay a little bit removed from the action, I think that’s actually better. It’s less of a scene, which I like. There are some cheaper rentals around V-Land that aren’t bad either, or you can always go the hostel route. It’s always a good idea to check out Craigslist as well.”

Beware of Incoming Swells:
“The most dangerous time to be in the water on the North Shore is during an incoming swell. I’ve seen more people get hurt in those conditions than in any other situation. It can go from 2 feet to 8 feet in an hour, so you need to keep your guard up and be aware of how the conditions may be changing around you.”

Take a Lay Day:
“I think this rings true to any surf trip, but it’s important to take some time to get out of the lineup and see what else is out there. Hawaii has such an amazing history and it’d almost be a crime to not take a downday and go learn some things. Go check out the Polynesian Culture Center, go walk through Haleiwa, go to Town and check out Iolani Palace. You won’t regret it.”

  • Slightly Stoopid

    Love the comment about respect. nicely put.

  • Gentleman X

    One more point to add to the above: Introduce yourself to Kelpers.

    He is a good guy to know in the lineup…

  • Jdubbs

    I paddled out at pipe and got 3 waves and a barrell on one of them. Its obviously very steep and hollow, but doable. Nut I surf big waves in Norcal all winter so I felt prepared for the conditions. Sunset is where the $hit hits the fan, man.

  • doro

    JMJ you hit the nail on the head with everything you said

  • Justin L

    Well said JMJ,

    He’s so right about exploring other waves, its called the 7 mile miracle but really its the 20 mile miracle, Kaena point to Kahuku Point. If the winds slightly switch a whole different part of the coast opens up for clean conditions. I don’t need to mention where, anyone with a simple sense of wind and coastal shore interactions can figure it out where might be good on which wind direction.
    I cannot remember how many times I’ve had insane sessions with no one out in the middle of the Triple Crown when the country population is at its peak for the year. While some of these waves might not be as barreling as Pipe, lets be real, the average surfer does not have the skills or can afford the quiver it requires to give Pipe a go regularly throughout a season or better still a week or two visit.

    Explore and you’ll score

  • Islandtuberider

    And don’t forget…if you bring your girlfriend…multiply your budget times 4.

  • Thonas

    Great word by JMJ. Words to live by while on the norchore

  • Lwood

    If your a beginner/intermediate level and want to experience the North shore – a great place to surf and not drown is Puena Point. Caution, lots of beginners and your biggest threat is another surf board. I was just there for ten days and caught two separate 4-6 ft swells (they measure waves differently in Hawaii 4-6ft = 8 foot walls) and it was the best and most challenging surfing I’ve ever experienced. If Puena Point is flat…move on down to Chun’s Reef and depending on the wind conditions you will catch powerful sets of waves. Respect the people and the land and you will be fine. Respect the water or you can get into trouble fast – there are unseen rips in Hawaii that you need to know about or you will get a free ride back to the mainland the old fashioned way.

  • Chris

    “RESPECT” : Finally someone from Hawaii has given an intelligent definition as to what constitutes respect. I dare other people from Hawaii to go one year without using the word “respect” in every other sentences they say, but instead to just use the meaning behind it in their words. It would really help us non-Hawaiians understand what the f*ck they are talking about.

  • dnl

    great commentary JMJ, ripper. cheers from panama

  • Gladys Delgado

    Si quieren olas buenas para surfear vengan a san juanico baja california sur,mexico.

  • creepz

    actually good advice and actually a nice article.

  • Borat Sagdiyev

    JMJ forgot to add the most important advice, past down from the great Turtle: “When the waves breaks here, don’t be there! or you’re gonna get drilled!”

  • Dozer


  • EWL

    Best thing I have read: It’s more than just about doing the right thing because you’re afraid of getting slapped, it’s about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”

  • Gabby

    Kalani Hawaii at Rocky Point is great private lodging to stay at for the winter season!

  • D

    Cheaper Rentals all over the North-East too- Turtle Bay to Kaaawa you can bus or thumb your way up to the waves.

  • LuLu

    Good article. Great advice.

  • Angel HI Waikiki

    Aloha Jesse for mentioning hostels as a great place to stay for a surf trip!!! I manage a hostel in Waikiki & love hosting surfers from around the world year round!

  • Tarek Abd El Rahman

    Thanks for advice
    The North Shore has the biggest surf this few manths.

  • 301

    On behalf of everyone at
    we are gonna have to check out Jockos!

    Mahalo nui loa for a great article.

  • Bobby Fisher

    awesome advice . when i went in 1999 and Sunny Garcia won, there was tension in the air, but I had the trip of a life time. Hopefully next winter I will get to go back and actually surf,

  • Citizenofhawaii

    Don’t recommend the off-the-beaten path breaks!!!

  • pissant