NORTH SHORE OF OAHU, Hawaii — The landlord of my oceanfront rental on the North Shore of Oahu called a couple of days after I checked in. How was my flight? Did I like the cottage? Oh, and she had a favor to ask.
"Could you take all the lawn furniture to the back of the house and tie it to something?" she said sweetly. "I wouldn't want it to get swept away."
As a longtime visitor to the North Shore in the winter, I had seen surf wondrously big and disappointingly small. But December 2009 would be different. A massive storm plowing 7,000 miles across the Pacific was throwing off waves the size of four-story apartment buildings. It would climax with what Surfer magazine dubbed "The Day of the Decade."
When I pulled into the little cottage just west of Waimea Bay, the wooden staircase down to the beach had been pulled up and strapped to a tree. A 10-by-3-foot chunk of the neatly mowed front lawn had been cleaved off by surging waves the night before and lay on the yellow sand beach four feet below.
There was little time to consider the proximity of the ocean to my living quarters at the moment. I had to head to Sunset Beach, where I caught the three Gudauskas brothers of San Clemente, Calif. —Patrick, Tanner and Dane — facing off in a single heat at the O'Neill World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach. It was the first time three brothers had surfed against each other in a major competition. Ever. Tanner won in waves that topped 20 feet.
"It's a washing machine out there," Tanner said, exuberant but exhausted. "It's crazy insane. You look behind you and it's like the Himalayan mountains are coming down on you."
Surfers on the North Shore live for big waves, but these sets were almost too much. Waves raced up the steep slope of the beach to undermine the photo tower and at one point surged into the tent where surfers were getting their preheat massages. Water splashed across the sidewalk and pooled on Kamehameha Highway.
"This is the biggest, most dangerous surf I've ever sent contestants into," said Randy Rarick, the longtime contest director. "Any bigger and Sunset would be closed out. We couldn't surf at all."
The surf stayed large into the weekend, with Australian Joel Parkinson winning the contest Sunday.
There's a short lull between the Sunset Beach contest and the next regularly scheduled surf event, the Pipeline Masters contest at Banzai Pipeline. The off days are some of my favorite times. I get up late, drive down to Ted's Bakery to see if there are any butter buns left (nope) and grab whatever's left, along with a large cup of Kona blend coffee, to go. Then back along the "Kam Highway" to wander around the Surf n Sea shop in Haleiwa. By afternoon, I'm back at the cottage for sunset with mai tais and Maui-style ribs on the barbecue. It's a studied sloth that fits the pace of the North Shore.
November and December on the North Shore are like an annual surf industry convention, only the executives are often in T-shirts and boardshorts, sporting three days of stubble. Between heats, surfwear photographers on the beach shoot surfers (make sure to wear all your sponsor's gear) and pose with bikini models for next year's ads. Surfers and sponsors do business over breakfast at Cafe Haleiwa or dinner at Haleiwa Joe's.
It was late Sunday afternoon that the call came from the landlord. So with some help, I tied up a bench, table, lawn chairs, a kayak and some other gear to the backside of the house, farthest from the surf.
Night fell and outside the windows, it was pitch black. I couldn't see the ocean, but I could smell the salty mist drifting in from the shore break. Most of all I could hear the waves. Boom. Swoosh. Boom. Swoosh. Breaking on the sand, then the water rushing back out.
I was used to that. I had heard waves in the darkness for more than two decades of trips. But this was different. With each unseen crash of surf, the house vibrated with force of water on land. I turned on the TV and flipped through the local newscasts, with the anchors in aloha shirts talking in grave tones about the coming storm. Just before midnight, there was a knock on the door.
"It's Jamie, sorry it's so late, but I saw the light on."
Jamie DeMatoff lived in a small studio apartment on the same property as the cottage. Among a variety of ventures, he ran a wave forecasting service, High Surf Warning.
"51001 is over 20 feet — you might think about packing up your car and moving it closer to the highway or even the other side," he said.
Jamie had given me a tutorial the day before on how to tell if things were going to go from big to bad on the North Shore. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Buoy 51001 sits in the Pacific 170 miles northwest of Kauai. It's part of a tsunami warning system put in place after a killer tidal wave hit Hilo in 1960. But the signals from the buoy also tell surfers what's coming. Jamie had been watching it for days as the measurements went to 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 feet. It was now 20 feet there. Though there was considerable wiggle room, that roughly translated into waves up to 40 feet hitting the North Shore 10 hours later.
I packed up clothes but not the computer or photo equipment — nothing valuable since the North Shore has its share of car thefts — and moved the car to higher ground. At Jamie's suggestion, I closed all the window ventilation louvers on the ocean side of the house and when I went to bed, shut the door of my bedroom. That way any rogue wave wouldn't wash through the windows or even bust through the glass. I went to bed, trying to avoid tsunamis in my dreams.
I hadn't left the cottage that night because of "The Eddie."
The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau is the top paddle-in big wave contest in the world. It's held each winter at Waimea Bay from December to February, but only if waves top 25 feet. In the 25 years since it started, The Eddie had gone off seven times, the last in 2004. It's a revered contest that almost never happens. When it does happen, the highway on the North Shore becomes gridlock. If you are not already there, it's next to impossible to get in.
Aikau was a top surfer and the first official lifeguard on the North Shore. He lost his life in 1978 trying to paddle a surfboard to summon help for a disabled, traditional Hawaiian canoe. The rest of the crew was rescued. Aikau was never seen again.
Surfers gathered in early December for the opening ceremony at Waimea Bay featuring many of the 30 or so invitees, who took part in traditional Hawaiian blessings and a barbecue. Leis and mementos are laid out on the memorial to Aikau in the park.
After the opening ceremony is held, everybody usually goes home — back to California or Australia or South America — to wait for the call that usually doesn't come.
This year, with an eye on the storm, nobody left Oahu.
Dec. 7. Pearl Harbor Day. Gray skies. Gray ocean. Sweaters, not bikinis, at the beach. Some sets of waves topped 30 feet. But the swirling, slamming, whitewater-filled surf left few spots for a rider to get up on a board and ride a wave. Organizers huddled. Waimea was too big for the contest.
That didn't stop dozens of surfers with boards more than 9 feet long called "guns" (what old-timers called "rhino-chasers") from getting out in the water.
Veteran Australian surfer Tom Carroll decided to try his luck in the bumpy surf and ended up snapping his left ankle in an ugly wipeout. He was packed in an ambulance and taken to a hospital.
"We've got broken boards and broken bodies today," said Beau Hodge, a contest announcer. "We've got the size, but not the perfect conditions that Eddie would want."
Don Bigelow, a surf shop owner from Orange, Calif., had flown in when he heard the surf was big.
"I've been surfing for 33 years and I've never seen Waimea this big," Bigelow said.
The word went out: Return tomorrow at 7 a.m. Back at the cottage, rain splattered on the windows. I stopped by Jamie's studio and knocked on the door to get an update on "that buoy." It was dropping, he said, though not by much. But chances of the nightmare scenario of surf that would surge across the highway were lessening. The weather report called for clearing skies. I slept with the louvers and bedroom door open, letting the trade winds cool the humid indoors.
By the time the purple of the sunrise turned to white light, the roads to Waimea Bay were clogged with cars, stretching back 5 miles toward Haleiwa. Local surfers and Honolulu tourists crawled through traffic. The voices along the horseshoe-shaped bay included Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Chinese.
I had come before dawn, paying $10 to park at the Catholic church on top of the hill above the bay. The skies and water were a brilliant blue. The stormy skies were gone, but the huge waves remained. From the church courtyard, the lines of sets stretched off like folds in a sheet, all the way to the horizon.
At 7 a.m., George Downing, the 79-year-old director of the contest, gave the green light. The Eddie was a go. Word spread through the crowd on the beach, up both sides of the highway and onto the high bluffs. Here was the greatest, rarest big wave surf contest in the world, and if you could get there and find a place to park, it cost nothing. No premium box seats. No valet parking. Just grab some beach or part of the rail on the highway.
Kelly Slater set the tone for the day, riding a huge wave early on, disappearing into the whitewater before shooting out, his fist pumped in the air. Judges scored it a 98. Veteran Hawaiian surfer Sunny Garcia scored a 95-point wave. The crowd would cheer at each takeoff and gasp and groan when a wave engulfed a surfer, some falling end over end down the wave face before being hammered by the break. Jetskis swooped in to help boardless surfers, while a lifeguard helicopter hovered nearby.
Slater seemed to have the contest wrapped before Greg Long of San Clemente picked a massive wave late in the contest and plummeted down over the lip and down the face. Long appeared for a long moment to be engulfed by the wave as he dipped out of sight at the bottom. But when the whitewater cleared, Long had cut to the side and dodged a pounding.
"That was guts and glory right there," shouted one of the announcers.
Long scored a 100 and moved past Slater to the top of the leader board. The first-place payday of $55,000 was great, but the real payoff was winning a title held by only eight surfers in the world. Winner of The Eddie.
"It's such a magical day. It's really a dream come true," Long said
The contest over, it was time to pack up the cottage and head down to Waikiki and the calm waters of the southern end of Oahu. Picking my way through the traffic, I passed DeMatoff, who has a silk screening side business. He was on the side of the road holding up a white shirt.
"I survived the Great Swell of 2009," the shirts read. I bought a few, then turned left at Haleiwa and headed up over the island toward the skyscrapers of Honolulu, promising to come back for 2010. It would almost be a new decade and there could be another "day."
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: The North Shore of Oahu is about 27 miles from Honolulu International Airport, via H-1 west and H-2 north. Just past Schofield Barracks army base, the road becomes Kamehameha Highway, which goes into Haleiwa, the western gateway of the surfing area. The drive takes about 45 minutes. The famous beaches are scattered over 12 miles between Haleiwa and the Turtle Bay Resort near Kahuku.
WHERE TO STAY: The cottage where I stayed last year has become a private residence and is no longer for rent. My two favorite rentals are Sunset Beach House, a four-bedroom A-frame with Polynesian decor about 100 yards from the Banzai Pipeline (Rates from $650 per night, www.sunsetbeachhouse.com or 800-454-0443) and three-bedroom Blue Lagoon near the Leftovers surf break (Rates from $300 per night, www.bluelagoonhawaii.com). I've booked rentals twice through Hawaiian Beach Travel (hawaiibeachtravel.com or 808-782-1700). Also check listings at www.sterman.com and www.vrbo.com. Most rental prices do not include tax, cleaning fees and booking charges (if you use an agency). Make sure to get a full accounting of costs and pay by credit card to avoid fraud.
Ke Iki Beach Bungalows, at 59-579 Ke Iki Road, are fun and funky. www.keikibeach.com or 866-638-8229. From $145 per night. Discounts for weekly stays.
Turtle Bay Resort. The only luxury hotel on the North Shore. 57-091 Kamehameha Highway, www.turtlebayresort.com or 808-293-6000. Rates from $247 per night.
WHERE TO EAT:
Haleiwa Joe's: A former Chart House on Haleiwa Harbor has a surf-themed dining room. Great fresh fish and a fun bar. 66-011 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa, 808-637-8005
Cafe Haleiwa: A favorite breakfast spot for surfers and their fans. 66-460Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa. 808-637-5516.
Ted's Bakery: Surfers' favorite near Sunset Beach. Breakfast pastries and plate lunches. There are a few tables and a bench out front, though most take their food back to the beach. 59-024 Kamehameha Highway. 808-638-8207.
Kua Aina: This legendary burger shack has outposts in Tokyo and is a favorite of President Obama when he visits his home state. 66-160 Kamehameha Highway. 808-637-6067.
Shave ice: Matsumoto's is the Hertz and Aoki's the Avis of the famous Hawaiian variation on the snow cone. Matsumoto's: 66-087 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa, 808-637-4827. Aoki's: 66-117 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa. 808-637-7017.
Giovanni's Shrimp Truck: Located on the side of the highway in the old sugar mill town of Kahuku, where the Windward Coast gives way to the North Shore. The shrimp from the nearby "farm" are cooked three ways. The straightforward grilled shrimp is a little bland for my taste. I go for the most popular, the garlic shrimp. There's a sister truck in Haleiwa. 83 Kamehameha Highway, Kahuku.
MUSEUM: The small North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum tells the local surfing story. 66-250 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa. www.captainrick.com/surf(underscore)museum.htm.
More vacation information: Oahu Visitors Bureau: 877-525-6248, www.visit-oahu.com.
The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing involves three men's and three women's contests:
Stop 1: Haleiwa Alii Beach Park
Men's Reef Hawaiian Pro, Women's Cholo's Hawaiian Pro
Nov. 12-23, to be held on the best five days of surf during the period.
Stop 2: Sunset Beach
Men's O'Neill World Cup of Surfing, Women's Gidget Pro
Holding period: Nov. 24-Dec. 6, to be held on the best five days of surf during the period.
Stop 3: Banzai Pipeline
Men's Billabong Pipe Masters, Vans Women's Duel for the Jewel
Holding period: Dec. 8-20, held on the best three days of surf during the period.
More information: www.vanstriplecrownofsurfing.com
Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau
Holding period: Dec. 1-Feb. 28. Waves must exceed 25 feet in Waimea Bay for the contest to be held. Opening ceremony: Dec. 2, 2:30 p.m. More information: www.quiksilver.com