Oahu is without a doubt Hawaii’s most frequently visited island, thanks to hugely popular tourism attractions like Waikiki or the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, but the island also hosts one of the state’s most awe-inspiring, although certainly lesser known, natural wonders: colossal wintertime waves that can exceed 50 feet in height.
Generally running from late October through mid-March, the big waves season on Oahu’s North Shore, about an hour’s drive from Waikiki in light traffic, occurs annually thanks to major winter storms in the Northwest Pacific, forming frequently off the coast of Japan or Kamchatka.
“The more intense the storms, the more dramatic the waves,” explained Jodi Wilmott, a 14-year North Shore resident and the owner of Ocean Promotion, an annual organizer of Oahu’s big wave winter events. “The formation of the North Shore’s reefs accentuates the swells that the storms generate. As they approach our coastline, traveling through extremely deep water, they abruptly hit our shoreline reefs and jack up to form incredible waves.”
It’s pretty tough to plan a trip to Oahu that will guarantee travelers a look at enormous North Shore waves, but visitors headed to the island during winter months should certainly pay attention to local weather reports and forecasts because certain Pacific storm swells can put on jaw-dropping performances.
“Watching big waves on the North Shore is a visceral experience,” Wilmott said. “At places like Shark’s Cove, Waimea Bay, and Pipeline you can literally feel the ground shake beneath you as the huge waves crash. …Big waves are our version of Niagara Falls, an incredible display of nature and raw power that is completely out of our control.”
Travelers interested in Oahu’s enormous winter waves can certainly enjoy a memorable show on big swell days without surfing contests; in fact, some of the largest North Shore waves often occur in conditions that make competition impossible. Many of the world’s most famous surf events are held on the island each winter, however, and visitors who are in town might want to consider rearranging their schedules if they hear about contests coinciding with a mammoth swell.
The planet’s most renowned big wave surfing competition, the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, will hold its opening ceremony Nov. 29 at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, marking the start of a three-month holding period. Contested only eight times in the past 28 years, the Eddie runs only when conditions allow about 25 invited surfers to consistently ride Waimea waves with face heights of at least 40 feet.
California surfer Greg Long won the last Eddie in 2008 before an estimated crowd of more than 20,000 spectators, and if the conditions allow the event to run this year, you’ll likely see at least that many folks turning out, many of whom will be Oahu residents skipping work to take in the extraordinarily rare performance.
“To see surfers attempt to tame and manage that kind of power is breathtaking,” Wilmott said. “I once heard a big-wave rider say, ‘If you’ve ever carried a full bucket of water, you know how heavy that is. Now imagine an Olympic-sized swimming pool coming down on top of you, and you'll know what it's like to be under a giant wave.’”
Wilmott advises folks interested in viewing Oahu’s big winter waves from the beach to watch from dry sand and keep a close eye on the high wave marks indicated by smooth, wet sand. Checking first with lifeguards at any location is always the best advice, and spectators should definitely heed North Shore lifeguards’ loudspeaker warnings.
“Shark’s Cove is another dramatic [North Shore] vantage point, but stay on high, dry ground,” she said. “Do not wander down close to the water and the rocky shoreline. It is a potential disaster zone for spectators.”
Visitors looking for a little fortification after the drive to the North Shore or before their return trip have plenty of choices.
Ted's Bakery is a local favorite right across the street from Sunset Beach that serves excellent local-style takeout food, or "plate lunches," along with stuff for folks with a sweet tooth until 8 p.m.; surfers can often be found here. The Cafe Haleiwa is a terrific place for breakfast or lunch, and Surfer, the new surf-themed place in Turtle Bay Resort, is a fun place to get a drink. Matsumoto's shave ice is something of a local institution in Haleiwa that's a fun stop after a day on the North Shore.
For more about this winter’s North Shore surf competitions, visit quiksilverlive.com/eddieaikau/2013 or www.vanstriplecrownofsuring.com.