“The Seven Mile Miracle,” “The Proving Grounds,” “Surfers Paradise,” whichever moniker you choose to describe the fabled North Shore of O’ahu, one thing is certain, you won’t find any place on earth like it. For the obvious reason, like, there’s only one wave like Pipeline or Sunset or Haleiwa. But what really makes this place like no other is a combination of anomalies which creates a perfect storm of natural phenomena that has produced the most surf condensed stretch of coast in existence.
Whether it's two or twenty feet, the North Shore is undoubtedly the most incredible and cherished surf zone in the world. You’ll find world class wave after world class wave littered up and down the roughly seven mile stretch of coastline between Haleiwa and Sunset Beach. Each winter, surfers from all over the globe make their yearly pilgrimage to this sacred stretch of beach to play and compete in the surf. The wave at Sunset Beach is a big open ocean break that can handle swells anywhere from two to twelve foot seas. Haleiwa is regarded as one of the best big wave right-handers in the world that gets better as it gets bigger. There are the high performance rights and lefts of Rocky Point; dreamy sand bottom beach breaks of Ehukai; colossal big wave giants like Waimea Bay and Himalayas; long, peeling rights at Laniakea; fun-size longboard waves at Chun's Reef; and of course, the infamous hollow barrels at Pipeline, Backdoor and Off the Wall.
You would be hard pressed to find an area so jam packed with surf, let alone world renowned breaks like the North Shore has. Sure, places like Indonesia and Australia may have just as many great waves but they’re all so far apart, it could take days or weeks to see them all. On the North Shore, you can stand at Rocky Point and watch at least half a dozen of the world's best waves, all within view. And when you geek out on what exactly makes this place the wave machine that it is, it’s actually pretty interesting.
Hawai’i is the most remote island chain on earth. This vast distance between us and another land mass is crucial to the surf because it allows for the waves to organize into sets as they cross the ocean. The swells are generated hundreds of miles away over east Asia and Japan and as far as the Aleutian Islands. As cold air rotates down from the north it feeds low pressure systems that track straight towards Hawai’i. This energy meets an unwavering mid-latitude jet stream, and as it crosses half an ocean the trade winds groom the waves into sets, but the weather that comes from those storms tend not to reach the islands. The swell most certainly does, with nothing in its path.
As the swell nears the islands, the energy finds the continental rise, stacks up and turns into a breaking wave. How that wave breaks is heavily based on the seafloor, or ocean surface topography. Hawai’i has almost no continental shelf, so it is able to accept the full force of the swell. Places like Florida and California have a large continental shelf that exhausts much of the wave’s energy before it reaches shore. This is why a two foot shore break wave in Hawai’i can knock you off your feet, whereas a similar two foot wave in California might just give you a gentle slap to the knees. A wave like Teahupoo in Tahiti, goes from super deep, to a sudden shallow slab of reef, creating a mutant of a wave like no other. The North Shore of O’ahu is the perfect balance of both. Imagine a ramp built for a motorcycle stunt. The trajectory of the jump has everything to do with the incline or slope of the ramp. Much of the North Shore of O’ahu has this perfect incline to accept the full energy of the wave, most notably in the zone between Ke Iki and Sunset Beach, and especially at Pipeline.
The reason the seafloor is this way is largely because of fresh water. All along the North Shore fresh water is rushing underground and out to sea. You can see the main aquifers as you drive over those little bridges by Laniakea, Chun’s Reef, Waimea Bay, Rockpiles, and Sunset Beach. You can feel it when you put your feet in the shore at Chun’s. You can even see it bubbling up from the rocks at Sharks Cove if you snorkel on a calm summer day. This freshwater runoff cuts and shapes the reef, or rather, volcanic rock. Reef or coral cannot form where there is an abundance of freshwater. This is significant because over time, the coastal shelf has been carved down from the shoreline to the bottom of the seafloor, forming a perfect slope that the wave can ramp up, and accept the ocean's energy to the fullest.
This is why you can stand on the shoreline at Pipeline and watch a wave the size of a house barreling toward you, a mere fifty yards away. Had there been not as much freshwater runoff, the coastline might have formed upward and out towards the horizon, resembling that of Tahiti or Fiji, with barrier slabs of reef far offshore. Instead we have a front row seat to one of the most spectacular views in the surfing world. So much of the awe and allure of the North Shore is that intimacy, that closeness to danger that you can feel even when you stand and watch. It caught the world’s attention first in photos and in video, but to witness it up close is something else that is so special.
The northwesterly angle that the coastline of North Shore has is critical to how the waves break. We can see how just a slight variation in the swell direction will make some spots work and others not. For example, when certain swells are more from the northwest, Sunset Beach will be really good, and right next to it at Kammies will be almost flat. Vice versa, when the swell is more north, Kammies will be good, and Sunset will be small. The angle of the coastline is perfectly positioned to accept swells from the west-northwest to northwest. Even the way the coast is positioned seems to shelter the waves from many of the storms that pass over the island. The clouds and rain often stack up along the Ko’olau and Wai’anae mountain ranges then go out to sea by Kuilima to the north and Ka’ena to the west, missing much of the North Shore and creating this little bubble of fair weather.
This may not seem so special- after all, it’s a beach, so of course there’s sand, right? The sand on the North Shore, especially between Ke Iki and Sunset Beach, is heavy and coarse, like tiny pebbles rather than grains of sand. Had it been fine and silty, it would not move around like it does, revealing the reef beneath. It would also not sink to the bottom as fast, making the water murky, instead of the crystal clear water that we know and love. Most surfers know how much sand needs to move out of the way before Pipeline and other spots come alive. If the sand didn’t move around like it does, we might never have seen waves like Pipeline in all its glory.
That the sun moves parallel to the coast also may seem trivial, but it all adds to the magic of the North Shore. Because of this, we have the perfect studio lighting all day, instead of a harsh glare off of the water. The North Shore’s front-lit deep blues in the morning and backlit emerald greens of the evening were the settings for most of the surf films from the 70s 80s and 90s, and dreamy photos of the place were splashed all over surf magazines for decades. Surfers knew they could come to Hawai’i in the winter and photographers and videographers would be waiting from sunrise to sunset to capture and showcase their surfing talents. Surf brands began sending their surfers and photographers here to hole up for the winter and get work done, and still do to this day. It was a huge part of what brought surfing to the masses and inspired future generations.
When you look at all these little miracles it took to create such a surfer’s paradise, it’s easy to see how this little stretch of country on the North Shore has become the epicenter of the surfing world. It has set the stage for some of the most amazing moments in surfing’s history. From it have emerged heros like Eddie Aikau, champions like Derek Ho, legends like Andy Irons, and phenomenons like John John Florence, each generation inspiring the next to push the boundary further. Over the decades, the North Shore has given us so many jaw dropping moments that have captured our hearts and blown our minds. Those moments, where men and women challenge themselves against the sea, and seem to defy what is humanly possible, have been imprinted on the soul of surfing and seared into our memories forever.