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How to get your surf on in Hawaii

Top surfers from around the world flock to Hawaii every year to ride the big waves, watched by thousands of spectators. Here’s a guide to catching all the main events, plus a look at some other popular water sport competitions.

Surfing was born in Hawaii and is deeply intertwined with its history and culture. If you dream of riding the waves, there’s no better place to watch the pros, then learn how to surf and truly connect with the ocean.


It was back in the 1950s that surfers began to ride the towering, powerful waves of Makaha on Oahu’s west shore and Waimea Bay on the North Shore. Big wave season now happens between November and February when large winter swells are generated on Hawaii’s north shores and spectators gather at viewer-friendly spots such as Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline.


Image HTA/Daeja Faris



The first international surfing contest in Hawaii was held in 1954 at Makaha on the west side of Oahu. The Makaha International Surfing Championship ran annually in November or December until 1971 and was dubbed the unofficial world championship.  


While Makaha introduced competitive surfing to the world with its primetime coverage in the early 1960s on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the shortboard revolution was just beginning to take hold. Surfers began looking toward the faster, hollower waves on Oahu’s North Shore. By 1970, tube riding became the new benchmark of high-performance surfing.


In 1971, former world champion surfer Fred Hemmings staged the first Pipe Masters event (originally called the Hawaiian Masters). All he had was a card table, 10 folding chairs, six surfers and $1,000 in prize money. Despite these humble beginnings, Hemmings realised the potential that the North Shore had to offer the sport of professional surfing and decided to create a series that would test surfers’ abilities at Pipeline and two other challenging, world-class waves.


Hemmings organised the first Triple Crown of Surfing in 1983, creating a separate professional title to set apart the three Hawaii events – the Pipe Masters, the World Cup of Surfing and the Hawaiian Pro – from the established international professional surfing circuit. The idea was to honour the best male surfer in Hawaii’s big and powerful waves, and that tradition continues today.  



You can watch amateur surfers on every island but some of the best competitions in the world are held on Oahu’s North Shore in November and December, including the biggest them of all, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (VTCS). If you’re planning to watch the pros in action during these events, be sure to get to the North Shore early because traffic can be heavy.


Now in its 34th year, VTCS continues a rich heritage of progression, high-performance and power surfing. It is a series where careers are made, reputations are forged and mistakes can have dire consequences. The prestigious VTCS title is a professional milestone, one that rivals that of world champion of the World Surf League.


This year, Vans Triple Crown of Surfing runs from mid-November to December 20. With the sport tracing its origins back to pre-contact Hawaii, it’s fitting that the North Shore of Oahu remains the Mecca of professional surfing to date. 


Image HTA/Mark Kushimi)


Other water sport competitions

Molokai to Oahu (August)

In 1996 the sport of paddleboarding was making a comeback. Once the domain of only the most hardcore of watermen and big wave riders in the 50’s and 60’s, the sport found a new set of acolytes on the North Shore of Oahu and in Honolulu at the Outrigger Canoe Club.


At that time Hawaii’s top paddler was Dawson Jones. After completing the 51-kilometre Catalina Classic from Manhattan Beach to the island of Catalina, Jones returned to Hawaii inspired to establish a race across the Ka’iwi Channel.


He called on his trusted training partners, Garrett Macamara and Mike Takahashi, to discuss the possibility of starting a paddleboard race between the islands of Molokai and Oahu. The men agreed Jones had hit on a great idea and a year later Molokai-2-Oahu was born.


Image HTA/Tor Johnson


Molokai Hoe (October)

Three Koa outrigger canoes were launched through the surf at Kawakiu Bay on Molokai’s west side in 1952. Powered by six paddlers, each of the canoes was bound for Oahu across more than 60 kilometres of ocean in the Ka’iwi Channel.


Eight hours and 55 minutes later, the Molokai canoe, Kukui O Lanikaula, landed on the beach at Waikiki in front of the Moana Hotel. Thus began the world’s most prestigious outrigger canoe race, the Molokai Hoe.


Since then more than 260 canoe clubs have participated in this annual test of strength, endurance and teamwork. Crews from all over the world have come to Hawaii to compete in this rugged event. Teams from California, Oregon, New York, Pennsylvania and other states have joined paddlers from Australia, New Zealand, England, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Tahiti and other Polynesian Islands.


The Molokai Hoe continues one of Hawaii’s most important cultural traditions and honours canoe paddlers everywhere. It is a test of physical and mental endurance, determination and teamwork, while battling nature’s extreme elements.


It has been claimed that the Ka’iwi Channel is one of the most treacherous spans of ocean in the world and the current record time for the difficult passage is just under five hours.


Written by: Traveltalk Magazine
Published: 16 January 2018

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