North Shore Stories: What Goes On Under The Waves

Dec 20, 2019

John John Florence of Hale‘iwa will join fellow Hawai‘i surfer Carissa Moore on the U.S. Olympic Surfing team.  That was decided Thursday during the Pipe Masters at ‘Ehukai Beach.  Events continue today on the North Shore.  We found out more about what goes on under the waves, with a leading authority on O‘ahu’s beaches.

John R. K. Clark is part Hawaiian, born and raised on O'ahu. Life long surfer, he was a body guard at Sandy Beach two years, then joined the Honolulu Fire Department. Clark retired as a deputy fire chief after 33 years. He collected stories about the beaches and ocean throughout his tenure at HFD, and has written ten books, including the essential Beaches of Hawai'i series.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

John Clark started his career as a lifeguard at Sandy Beach, then spent 33 years around O‘ahu with the Fire Department. He’s written ten books about Hawai‘i’s beaches and ocean lore, including Beaches of O‘ahu.

We made our way out along the shady, inviting right arm of the Harbor in Hale‘iwa.

“Right now we can see the entire district of Waialua,” said Clark. “From Waimea where the white tower is all the way to Ka‘ena Point. Here at Puaena point we’re right in the middle of the district of Waialua.”

Hale‘iwa is where the fabled Seven Mile Miracle begins. The greatest concentration of world-class surf breaks on the planet are located between Hale‘iwa and Sunset Beach.

“Every single one is an individual ocean park if you want to look at it that way. They’re all different because of the bottom contour, the land contour.”

What about ‘Ehukai beach where they do the Pipe Masters? What is that break like?

“At Pipeline, there’s nothing between the North Pacific and the beach at Pipeline except a very shallow reef,” says Clark, “So you get these 10 to 15 foot waves just coming out of the deep blue and they hit this super shallow reef, and just jump. When they jump, they form this pipeline-like barrel, this tube.  That’s what makes that break so dangerous, it’s a super vertical, super steep, super challenging wave, but at the same time, surfers consider it one of the best rides in the world.”

Respected body surfer, Marcus Biju, died at ‘Ehukai a year ago January, bringing the death toll at Pipeline to around a dozen. Surfers only started regularly challenging these waves after Tom Blake invented the surfboard fin in 1934, and subsequent innovations in the 60’s to 80’s led to the virtuoso style of surfing today.

The surf booms for viewers on the beach, because the break is practically right in your lap.

Clark says the reef at Sunset is deeper, more gradual, and extends much further out---so waves there break a quarter mile or more off shore when it’s big, then roll into a shallow reef.

“The Pipeline is a steeper, challenging fast ride, the ride at Sunset is also big and challenging but it’s a much longer ride.”

There’s one more surf meet still pending, the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Challenge at Waimea Bay, a point break.

“The ride there is much shorter because you’re just trying to take off on this monstrous peak, trying to get down the face of the wave so you can make a turn and just aim for the channel in the middle of the bay.”

The Eddy has only been held nine times since it started in 1984---- last time in 2016. Waves have to be consistently 30-40 feet, and the holding period runs through February next year. If it goes, the Eddie will welcome four women into the main lineup in 2020, a first. And Local sponsors are making it happen this time out.

Then, get ready for Surfing at Tokyo 2020. John John Florence qualified for the first US Olympic Surfing team yesterday at Pipeline. He’ll join will join Kolohe Andino, Caroline Marks and Carissa Moore as Team USA.                

Unlike surf league events, Hawai‘i does not get to be its own country on this one. But we’ll be well represented.

If you have not seen any of the rides, including at Peahi, Maui this season, you’re simply missing out.