A Surfer’s First-Hand Experience Surfing The North Shore of Oahu
Surf spots have reputations. Waves might be referred to as a “mellow longboard wave” or a “heavy beach break”. Often times the confidence that we bring with us to a new location is based on what others have told us. What about the notoriously challenging surf spots such as The North Shore of Oahu? Should you stay out of the water out of respect for the power of the ocean and your own ability level? Or should you push your comfort zone and expand yourself?
We’ve written a lot on Still Stoked about how to know if conditions are above your skill level or facing fears in the water. The following is a first-hand account about one of those experiences from our good friend Jane Mold who learned to surf at middle age. After being told by someone close to her that she couldn’t surf the North Shore of Oahu, she was determined to find a way!
Surfing the North Shore of Oahu
He told me I “can’t”
“You have no business surfing the North Shore. There’s no way you can do it!” That was what my ex-boyfriend told me when the first winter swell kicked in, the year I lived on Oahu. I was a reasonably strong surfer and had surfed all over the world, but his words stopped me in my tracks as I headed out the door with a board in hand. Was it true? Was the North Shore too much for me? I was just going to have to find out, wasn’t I?
Maybe he was right?
Humility was my first lesson that winter. I paddled out at Laniakea during the first big swell and only got one takeoff, several long hold-downs, and a paddle in of shame after I floundered around a bit in the impact zone. It was so much bigger than it had looked from the road! The board I’d taken out was all wrong, my lung power had to improve, and the power of this wave was like nothing else I’d surfed. There is so much strength in the swells that roll in, unstopped for many miles until they hit the reefs and jack up and throw that water…apparently on me!
The next day it was too big. This time I spent longer watching, and when I suspected it was too big for me, I listened to that voice in my head. I had to be very clear on my own limits and not push them here, of all places. There was no making it happen, taking on the ocean, or any of those crazy ideas. The ocean would win every time without a thought for me.
The limits others tell you exist are only the limits they have imposed on themselves.
Although that first swell kicked my butt, I spent that fall learning not only how to surf a North Shore wave, but how to have fun surfing it. Now, most likely you are a bit like me. You are not on the WSL tour and don’t surf 8 foot plus regularly. I’m a strong and competent surfer who can read the ocean, but it’s a rare day that I am hunting down overhead barrels! What I learned during that fall was to paddle out in humility, just asking for, say, three waves. Please just send a few nice ones my way?
Making little bits of progress while learning respect
Knowing what wave I would be working with was important. Waves looked smaller from the shore as often the reefs were a bit of a distance out there. Was the North Shore of Oahu forecast I checked giving me Hawaiian size or California… that is, was it measuring the face-size (Californian) or back-size of the wave (Hawaiian). A six-foot wave is fun, but a 6-foot Hawaiian wave is something to think twice about.
The learning process was the reward
When the swell dropped a little, I found a new spot out of the way and paddled out on a day of crystal-clear water and nice A-frames. Those A-frames were still pretty steep and powerful, but this time I sat off on the shoulder a bit and got some rides. Just sitting out there waiting for sets on a glassy morning with the mountains in the background and the occasional turtle was so worth it. This spot is one I think of often as my peaceful go-to place when I’m in the midst of traffic or some other place I’d rather not be.
I started hiking up hills a few days a week to help my fitness. Hiking up the trail at the top of Pupuke a was worth it just for the peace, the sound of the wind through the trees, and the amazing sheer vertical drops of the hill where landslides had even taken parts of the road with them. Here was a place on Oahu where tourists didn’t come, where you sensed the spirits of the ancestors and understood the Hawaiian’s love of their land.
Dealing with crowded agro lineups
That winter, I didn’t paddle out in any spots featured on the WSL tour. When the waves were good, these spots were so crowded, mostly with strong, fit men, 25 years younger than me. This was no arena to learn in. I was more likely to be a danger in the lineup than get the wave of the set.
So, I spent time learning the other spots of the North Shore of Oahu that aren’t talked about much. Now I’m not going to mention them because you have to do your own research. But trust me, there are plenty of spots that you can surf in a nice swell with 5 to 10 people taking turns in an organized lineup. Spending time learning a spot pays off. And in that winter, for all the surfing I did there, I never had a single conflict with anyone in the water. None. Looking back, it is hard even for me to believe what a positive vibe I experienced, but it was true.
When you know your ability, paddle out in humility, and respect your fellow Hawaiian surfers, the Aloha that you get is like nowhere else in the world.
More than just learning a new spot
Learning to surf on the North Shore involved much more than just learning about the surf spots. Getting the right surfboards was another important lesson. Boards that worked in California or even on the South Shore of Oahu did not work here. I needed narrower and less floaty boards. There is a reason that you see that sort of shape for sale on the North Shore. Those fun fat fishes? Right out. Longboards…doubtful. Although I eventually learned to longboard a couple of spots on smaller days, really it was a struggle. One day a younger guy I often surfed with on the South Shore regaled me with his story of longboarding Chuns Reef a couple of days earlier. It had not gone well for him and involved a broken board and personal humiliation. It was both funny and heartwarming for me to hear that this guy, who was a far more talented longboarder than I, had had his butt handed to him thoroughly. No, I needed smaller narrower boards. There is a reason there are so many of those boards on the North Shore!
One morning a friend and I paddled out at Haleiwa beach. It was bigger, crowded, and we each got a few waves but it was hard work and pushing our personal limits. “You know,” she said in the middle of the session, “Back in So Cal this would be one of those days when there would be just 3 or 4 guys out all under the age of 25 and everyone else on the beach talking about it and discussing the old days when they would have gone.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “But here we just paddle out!” And that was a wonderful moment when I realized my limits had already moved to a higher level. Without thinking about it, I had raised the bar for myself by working at my skills
When it all comes together, hard works turns into simple fun!
And then later in the season, one day I found myself out there just having fun. It was a well-overhead day and I was out there feeling calm, confident, and even a little excited as the waves came to me. I was paddling into them, not away from them. Taking off on long walls looking for my next move, no longer worrying about the wave slamming me. A good swell when surfing the North Shore of Oahu is just so magical as you sit with clear water under you waiting for your next wave, watching the fish underneath. The richness of this experience is something I’ll hold in my mind and heart for the rest of my life. The shoreline with a few houses and whitewater highlighting them, the mountain behind, and a wave coming towards you.
Change “I Can’t” to “I Can’t YET”
So next time someone tells you you can’t do anything, just add a “yet” onto the end. I just haven’t done it yet… With strength, humility, knowledge, and work, you can get it done. The limits others tell you exist, are only the limits they have imposed on themselves.