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Hawaii's gnarliest surf spots

You can tell much about a place from the small shops that still manage to thrive in a world of big-box retailers and other faceless consumer outlets. In Hawaii, one of the defining local institutions is the neighborhood surf shop.
© Tommy Sea
/ Source: Forbes

You can tell much about a place from the small shops that still manage to thrive in a world of big-box retailers and other faceless consumer outlets. In Hawaii, one of the defining local institutions is the neighborhood surf shop. There you'll find not just boards, but something far more valuable: solid advice.

Befriend the informal surf ambassadors who run the local shops, and they will impart wisdom not easily found in a surf map or guidebook, including personal insights into Hawaii's gnarliest breaks—places with evocative names like Point Panic, Suicides and Avalanche.

And, of course, there's perhaps the most famous break of all: the Banzai Pipeline.

"As we know, Pipeline is the best surf spot in the world. It's the standard against which others are measured," says James Cuizon, owner of Crank and Carve, a surf, bodyboard and skate shop in the North Shore town of Haleiwa.

A good day at Pipeline means an encounter with fellow surfers who can be as friendly as pitbulls with migraines, and waves that can shatter boards into kindling. And then there's the reef. At Pipeline there can be 10 foot waves blasting over just three feet of water, so if you fall on the reef or get caught inside the break, you're lucky if you come out merely sliced up. In 2005 alone, Pipeline claimed the lives of two expert watermen, Tahitian surfer Malik Joyeux and photographer Jon Mozo.

Pipeline "is not the wave that the average Joe goes out to surf," Cuizon says. His bleak advice for that particular break: "Stay out of the water."

Whether big spots like Pipeline are firing depends on several factors, one of which is whether a swell is hitting the spot. Because of the Pacific Ocean's size, storm-generated swells have the space to travel thousands of miles and organize into well-defined groups of waves, or sets, without losing energy as they approach Hawaii. When they jam into Hawaii's reefs, the swells rise up like great blue leviathans and normally flat spots can become monsters.

Castles in Waikiki is a case in point. "Only when there's a south swell, only at 10 to 15 feet, will Castles fire," says Toru Yamaguchi, owner of Surf Garage in Honolulu. Castles is not a particularly steep wave, but it has "huge water" Yamaguchi says.

When Hawaiian surfers talk about wave sizes, they normally refer to the back of a wave, not the face. Thus, a wave desribed as "15 feet Hawaiian" can have a face the size of a three-story building. "It's kind of scary," Yamaguchi says. "You can see the whole island almost."

Castles also holds an honored place in Hawaiian surfing lore, Yamaguchi notes. It was there that the legendary three-time Olympian and father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, caught a wave that he rode for nearly a mile, from out near the shipping lanes to Waikiki Beach. Technically, Duke rode not one, but a series of waves, that linked several of Waikiki's breaks.

Among these was Canoes, which is one of the world's most-surfed spots. As far as sheer traffic and mayhem, Canoes also might be Hawaii's gnarliest spot. Located under the henna hulk of Diamond Head crater, Canoes has multiple breaks a short paddle from the beach. The waves are big but gentle, the vibe friendly and the beach boys guaranteed to have even the most hopeless kook standing on an inside bump within an hour. Surfing Canoes is the quintessential Hawaii experience. Unfortunately, a lot of people realize this.

Imagine a hundred or more people with 10-foot longboards sitting out in the line-ups and paddling for waves. Throw in a couple of 50-foot-long, 1,000-pound six-person outrigger canoes. Add a few oblivious snorkelers, some clueless bodyboarders and random swimmers. And then consider that at least a fourth of the surfers have never surfed before. "To me, over there is the most dangerous surf spot in Hawaii," Yamaguchi says. "It's a highway, and it's worse because people don't know how to drive."

This doesn't discourage locals and visitors, including Keoki Ching, a surf board maker who sells his handcrafted longboards at the Büti Groove boutique in Honolulu. Ching says he often takes his friends surfing at Canoes.

"One of the things you have to consider is the vibe," Ching says. "At Canoes, people can mess up all they want without getting blamed for it. At Canoes, anything goes." Of course, Oahu isn't the only island with tasty surf spots.

One of the most picturesque spots on the Big Island lies at the mouth of the mythic Waipio Valley. Largely undeveloped with taro patches blanketing its floor, the valley is surrounded by plunging "Jurassic Park"-like mountains. Brock Stratton, co-owner of Kona Boys surf shop in Kona, calls the valley "one of the most beautiful places on earth." And the surf spot off of Waipio Beach's black sand is one of the Big Island's most beautiful, he says.

But since the spot is so local, the crowd is not very open to outsiders from the mainland, Stratton says. "I wouldn't send a visitor down there (to surf)," Stratton says. "But it would be cool to go and watch."

Stratton also touts Pohoiki Beach, located in the Big Island's remote Puna District. Located near the rustic town of Pahoa and not far from the thermal "warm springs" of Ahalanui Park, Pohoiki has three main breaks: the beginner's First Bay, the intermediate Second Bay and the expert Third Bay. This last break is one of the Big Island's monsters, a spot that Stratton says "fires only when it's really big." The waves at Third Bay "can reach at least 15 feet Hawaiian."

Anyone wanting to check out these spots should consider going soon—at least in geologic time. The Kilauea volcano is continuing to change the coastline around Puna. In 1991, surfers on the Big Island lost 20 surf spots to lava from Kilauea, says Stan Lawrence of Orchid and Surfboards in Hilo. It seems only a matter of time before the other spots are gone.

Go to the waterfront in Maui's historic whaling town of Lahaina and you'll see surfers out in the water near the harbor. The waves are consistent and gentle enough for many of the surf schools that operate out of Maui's tourist mecca. Still, the spot can be reefy and shallow, and generally not very nice, says Sue-Jun Au, assistant manager at Local Motion in Lahaina.

Instead, Au recommendes going driving outside of town. Past the papaya, pineapple and coconut stands between two beachside parks is Launiupoko, which Au says is one of the best spots on West Maui. The waves are consistent, the break not far from the beach and the atmosphere full of aloha. "Even if they were beginners, I would recommend that spot," she says.

For all of the Pipeline's savage power, Castles' history, and the raw beauty of places like Waipio Beach, there is one spot that may beat them as a spot for old-school, longboard soul surfing—the surfing shown in those old sepia-toned Victorian-era photos of surfers at Canoes and Queens surf spots, before the masses came. This idyll can still be found on the island of Lanai. Formerly a pineapple plantation, Lanai is almost entirely owned by billionaire entrepreneur David Murdock, and its only notable commercial hub is a tiny village built around a square of Cook pine trees.

Lanai is so small that it has no surf shop. But you can rent boards from Nick and Alex Palumbo at Lanai Surf School and Surf Safari. According to Alex the best surf spot on Lanai is Lopa. Reachable only by four-wheel-drive vehicle, Lopa doesn't offer the towering glamour waves of Pipeline or Waimea Bay; instead, Alex says, it offers spectacular views of Maui and the Haleakala volcano, breaching humpback whales, green sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, an ancient Hawaiian aquaculture pond and breaks as gentle as those at Waikiki, with a small wave inside and an outside break that can hold five- to six-foot faces in a swell. The ocean bottom is mostly sandy but dotted with unspoiled reef. "It's like a mini-Waikiki," she says. But with one big difference: There is almost nobody else there. "It's very secluded," she says. "It is old Hawaii."