Searching for big waves on Oahu’s north shore

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By Sarah Sekula, Special for USA TODAY // photos by World Surf League

OAHU — In the summertime, the waves on Oahu’s North Shore are gentle enough for the everyday surfer. In the winter, however, it’s a completely different story. That’s when daredevils from around the world travel here to conquer monster waves. And tourists come to take it all in.

On this particular summer day, it’s a bit overcast and there are no waves in sight, so I meet up with pro surfer Joel Centeio to talk surfing.

“Right around October through April we have some of the most consistent big waves,” he says. “It can range from 2 feet to 40 feet.”

“To ride a big wave, it’s the best feeling,” he explains with a wide grin. “It’s a lot of adrenaline. Kind of like riding a mini roller coaster.”

As a lifelong surfer, Centeio spends much of his time in the water and holds a slew of titles. The biggest surfing event of the year, he says, is The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which is held in November and December. Fans can watch three of the most prestigious competitions in the world during this popular event. The first one is held in Haleiwa, the second one is  at Sunset Beach and the third is at Banzai Pipeline.

It comes as no surprise that the North Shore is known as the 7-Mile Miracle for surfers. They are so many waves in such a small area. It starts with Haleiwa, which is a little laid-back town with restaurants and shopping. As you head up the coast, there are plenty of other spots. Then you reach Waimea, which is the grandaddy of them all, where the Eddie Aikau event is held.

“That’s where you get the surfers catching 40-footers,” he says. “Part of what makes the North Shore so special is that it’s good for expert surfers and there are spots for beginners, too,” he says. “There’s all types of waves for everybody.”

“Banzai Pipeline is one of the scariest waves in the world,” he says. “The cool thing about that wave is that it comes in and breaks close to the beach. It’s known for its power.”

In other words, The Pipeline Masters is the Super Bowl of surfing. “It’s like you’re on the 50-yard line, and it’s the craziest wave. Tons of people are on the beach and you’ve got the world’s best surfers. It’s pretty insane to see.”

Needless to say, the power of the waves is so intense, that injuries are common. “Wiping out when the waves are big can be very scary,” he explains. “You are mostly worried about coming up for air because the big waves can hold you down for a little while. A Pipeline wipeout is especially intense because the wave is breaking over a shallow reef. Guys have died out at Pipleine because they hit their heads on the bottom, and they get knocked out.”

Despite the dangers, Centeio says surfing will always be a huge part of his life and Oahu will always be home.

“Right in front of my house on Haleiwa there are turtles on the beach, there’s great snorkeling, horseback riding; there’s so much to do. Oahu is the most populated Hawaiian island, and obviously you’ve got the big city, but on the North Shore it’s a totally different vibe. It’s the country and there are no huge buildings, the pace is even slower and it’s so laid back. To me, is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

If you go:

Tips: When the Triple Crown comes around there is plenty of traffic on the two-lane highway, so it’s good to get to the event early and get your spot on the beach.

Where to stay: Just across the street from the famous North Shore beaches is the Courtyard Oahu North Shore. Down the street is the famous Turtle Bay Resort.

What to do: Learn to surf at Hans Hedemann Surf School. They will take you to an area with friendly waves perfect for beginners.

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