With an early season on the North Shore in full swing, we turn our focus to the iconic wave at Sunset Beach. The break has long been considered the epicenter of big wave power surfing whose roots date back to the dawn of professional surfing. The massive area that encompasses the beloved wave or waves, is set just at the north end of the main strip of North Shore country road. The Hawaiian name for the surrounding area is Paumalu, but became better known as Sunset Beach due to its view of the sunset 365 days a year. In the winter months, Kaena Point hides the full view of the sun at most of the beaches south of there. But it’s not just the sunset that has captivated spectators and watermen and women for decades, the wave itself is a world class phenomenon that picks up swell anywhere from two to fifteen feet and has been a mainstay in the heart of the surf world since the 1960s. Since then, surfing has gone through many changes but the wave remains just as relevant today.
In the 1960s and 70s, Sunset Beach was the proving grounds, before Pipeline ever was. It held the first contest venue on the North Shore beginning in 1965 with the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. When the buoys light up and the northwest swells start pumping, it puts the toughest watermen to the test, requiring immense physical conditioning and a knowledge of the ocean incomparable to any wave on the planet. From the north point’s precipitous drops, to the inside west bowl’s heaving barrel, to the punchy near shore peak of Val’s Reef, you’ll find waves of various shapes and sizes and every type of wave riding vehicle known to man. Sunset’s ability to humble even the most seasoned veterans of the sport is notorious. It can make the most experienced surfers look like beginners. Its fickle and untamable ways have challenged even the greatest of all time, Kelly Slater, who has won a contest at almost every wave but never at Sunset Beach.
Sunset has made legends of those who have risen to the challenge put forth. During the 60s it was Jeff Hackman, during the 70’s Clyde and Eddie Aikau, during the 80s Gary Elkerton, in the 90s it was Sunny Garcia and Johnny Boy Gomes, beyond that, Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson, Jordy Smith, and today, Zeke Lau - all power surfers, all standouts at Sunset Beach.
The playing field starts around the river mouth or aquifer to the south that has been responsible for carving the ocean floor into a deep water channel, funneling the swell energy up towards the reef. From there the coast curves up to the north toward Sunset Point, hugging an outcrop of lava rock known as Val’s Reef that leads up to the waves at Backyards. In this wide open field of play there is a lot going on. When the waves are below six feet most of the action is on the point, or when the swell is more from the north, at Val’s Reef - a peaky near shore slab-like wave. Sunset Point can be a playful but punchy right hander that breaks in wedges and sometimes reforms into a wall across the inside reef. It is fickle though, as is characteristic of Sunset. Wave selection can be the most challenging part of the place and sometimes the waves seem to be eluding only you. You’ll scratch for peaks that suddenly disappear into deep water, or paddle further and further up the point chasing a mirage of peeling rights all the way to Backyards.
Above six feet and all the way to 15 feet swells, Sunset is a whole different beast. Caution is highly recommended even for the most experienced watermen and women. Heavy currents, massive clean-up sets, and extra long hold downs are just a few of the obstacles you’ll encounter on any given day. Surfers have snapped leashes and broken boards just trying to duck-dive waves. Get caught inside on a really big day, you’ll find yourself in a really bad spot and likely be swimming to shore, praying that you make it there. At this size the takeoff zone can be highly subjective to the swell direction. More northerly swells will be unpredictable, sometimes sectioning off and closing out and sometimes drawing out into the inside barrel section. When the swell is more from the west, the energy surmounts to a peak with a heavy drop and sometimes condenses into a heaving west bowl barrel. You could get the ride of your dreams or the beating of your nightmares.
For swells under six feet, Glenn Pang recommends the CSU Model. It’s a step up version of the Flux Model with a somewhat relaxed rocker, clean outline, a single to double concave bottom contour with a slight vee going off the tail. It will give you enough float through the fat sections as well as generate tons of speed on rail.
For the bigger swells, Glenn recommends the W4 Model. Its vee off the nose, pulled in outline, and mellow concave will allow the board to settle in the water in big surf, yet will still turn on a dime.
Most of all, know your limits at Sunset, be respectful, have fun, and when in doubt, don’t paddle out!