Text by Travis Hancock | Images by John Hook & Keoki Saguibo
It’s a long, hot walk to Ka‘ena Point, the westernmost tip of O‘ahu. Two rocky trails lead here, one from Yokohama Bay on the Wai‘anae side, the other from Mokulē‘ia on the North Shore. Standing atop the fallen lighthouse at the end, gazing out to sea, you are quickly reminded of the power of island geography: waves coming from alternate shores crash together in a long, rippling V-shape. Strange as the wave pattern is, you can bet that at some moment in the centuries during which surfing has proliferated in these islands, someone has asked themselves, “Should I paddle out?”
And they often do. Stories of surf legends Greg Noll and Ken Bradshaw riding 60- to 80-foot-tall winter waves off Ka‘ena Point in the 1960s are still shared over North Shore bonfires. Across the islands, surfers have successfully ridden many of the anomalies generated by reefs, jetties, and changing sands. Like the waters flowing across the reefs, the names and cultural significances of surf breaks are fluid. For example, the popular west side bodyboarding break called Yokohamas, or Yokes, inherited its name from the beach that in turn was named after Japanese fishermen originally from Yokohama, Japan who moved to Hawai‘i in the early 20th century and frequented it shores. But this area was once known primarily by its Hawaiian name, Keawa‘ula, or “the red harbor,” for the masses of squid that turned bright red when spawning there. Here is a further sampling:
Home to perhaps the most recognizable beaches in the world, the commercial coast of Waikīkī hosts a number of soft and accessible surf breaks. Front and center is Queens, which got its name from Queen Lili‘uokalani’s beach home, which stood at its shore in the early 1900s. Surfing a single summer wave at Queens—alongside five full-speed-straight-ahead longboarders, two hot-dogging virtuosos, a full outrigger canoe, a dozen bodyboarders wearing goggles, and a hapless, tumbling snorkeler—produces a truly unparalleled experience. No wonder it’s the birthplace of the party wave.
An east side gem, this surf break has remained relatively under the radar thanks to its location off the coast of the Marine Corps Base Hawaii, which ensures that only military members and their company are given access to its nearby beach. So, with rare exception, when eastern swells roll in and bank off the Mōkapu Peninsula, which is topped with a large triangular rock formation, the glassy waves go unslashed.
Surfers willing to make the extra paddle over shallow reefs and through notoriously sharky waters enjoy this typically uncrowded break off the small northeast islet of Mokuauia, more popularly known as Goat Island. Now home to protected seabirds—the goats said to have once grazed here being long gone—the islet’s location causes swells to wrap around its shores, producing multi-directional waves, some of which break away from the shore of the mainland, forcing unexpected wipeouts.
Isolated between Sunset and Rockies, two popular surf breaks on the North Shore, Kammies, or Kammieland, offers a consistent and friendly alternative ride. But more remarkable than the break is its long-gone namesake: Kammies Market. Established in 1961 by the Kam family, this little cinderblock general store just across the road from the beach offered everything from snacks and beer to a full selection of video rentals until its demolition in 2006. While food trucks and new construction take off where Kammies once stood, the long rights at Kammieland will keep supplying stoke well into the future.
Tucked behind a protective manmade jetty at Hale‘iwa Harbor, this North Shore freak of a break requires massive ocean swells to even muster an ankle-biting crest. Although it can be a fun haven for kids and beginners, Chocolates requires surfers to brave the brown water that churns where Hale‘iwa’s Anahulu Stream carries all manner of floral and faunal runoff to its meeting place with the sea.
Waimea Bay is famous for both its shorebreak and its skyscraping monster waves tamed by the likes of legendary surfer Eddie Aikau, for which the big wave riding surf competition held here is named. On smaller days, a surf break known as Pinballs peels off the right side of the inlet, but don’t be fooled, as it’s no less forgiving than the shorebreak—lose your board and it may very well, as the name suggests, ping you off the rocky wall all the way to the sand.