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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 17, 2002

Sea of surfers vies for space at mecca of big waves

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Filmmaker Bruce Brown's 1964 cult classic "Endless Summer" established the romantic appeal that would introduce a multitude of surfing enthusiasts to Oahu's North Shore, help spawn a worldwide surfing culture and prompt an annual November pilgrimage to the mecca of the big waves.

Lifeguard Lt. Pat Kelly, surveying the beach at Waimea, says, "...everybody's here doing a form of surfing for a different reason ... as far as the North Shore returning to the easygoing 'Endless Summer' days — ain't gonna happen."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Since then the yearly migration has exploded, altered the North Shore's laid-back rural lifestyle, and turned the once sleepy coastal community into a literal sea of surfers, constant surf squabbles and continual surf competitions.

The biggest contest of them all —ÊVan's Triple Crown of Surfing — swept in like a 40-foot wave last week, and even more bickering washed up with it.

Long-standing quarrels pit recreational surfers against competitive surfers, tow-in surfers versus traditional surfers, local surfers versus tourist surfers, amateurs versus pros and Hawaiian pros versus international pros.

If a filmmaker were to try to capture the mood of the North Shore today, the show might be titled "Endless Conflict."

The situation reached critical mass with last week's wrangling between the City and County of Honolulu and the World Bodyboard Championships, which had been held annually at the Banzai Pipeline since 1983.

Professional bodyboarders staged a protest outside City Hall on Tuesday over the city's refusal to issue a permit for the championships at Pipeline.

Later an agreement was reached that the men's competition could be held between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, during the same time period as the Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic.

The organizer of the men's bodyboarding championship, Robert Thomas, said Friday that the bodysurfing event needs only one day of competition and the bodyboarding championship can have the other days allowed under the permit.

Fans crowd the North Shore during a recent surfing competition.

Bernie Baker • Special to The Advertiser

But still unresolved are plans for the women's bodyboarding championship. Organizer Carol Phillips said she was waiting to find out if that contest could be held in March.

The men's and women's events had been in jeopardy of being canceled because the city hadn't issued the needed permits.

The permit difficulties stem from actions by a group of North Shore recreational surfers who threatened to sue the city for issuing more contest permits than its own rules allow.

Folks who have watched the surfing situation for years are not surprised.

"Everybody's got their own paradigm, their own reason for being in the ocean," said Lt. Pat Kelly, 50, who has been a North Shore lifeguard for more than two decades.

"We've got body surfing and bodyboarding. Nowadays we've got kite surfing, tow-in surfing, regular surfing and wind surfing. Everybody's here doing a form of surfing, and everybody's doing a form of surfing for a different reason."

Surf pioneers such as Peter Cole, George Downing, Ricky Grigg, Buzzy Trent and Fred Van Dyke are trying to preserve the quality of life on the North Shore as much as possible, Kelly said.

"I respect them for that. But as far as the North Shore returning to the easygoing 'Endless Summer' days — ain't gonna happen."

Of all the conflicts, the most pervasive seems to be the philosophical snit that exists between competitive surfers, who contend sporting contests feed the North Shore economy, and recreational surfers, who feel increasingly squeezed out.

"There are guys who would like to see surf contests here every week," said Randy Rarick, executive producer of the Triple Crown. "Others would just as soon see no more contests. Somewhere, there's got to be a balance."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Professional surfer Pancho Sullivan, for one, is not moved by those who say the waters are so crowded that there's no place for what's known as soul surfing.

"The bonus to living on the North Shore is that there's seven miles and more than 150 surf spots here," said Sullivan, who has spent his whole life there. "There are places all over out here where I can surf by myself anytime I want. All you've got to do is know what the swell direction is and, with the local knowledge, you can find uncrowded surf."

In the October issue of Surfer magazine, editor Sam George challenged the whole notion of what he deemed "the single most pervasive philosophy in the sport today": riding waves alone.

"For over 600 years we rode the waves together," wrote George. "We've only been riding alone — or at least trying to — for the past 50."

Fred Hemmings, who founded the Triple Crown competition 20 years ago, said the majority of North Shore conflicts, some of which have lasted decades, can be pinned on one culprit: Crowding.

"I remember when five or six guys in a wave line-up was a crowd,' said Hemmings. "Now, it's 50 or 60. Frankly, surfing is an incredibly finite resource."

Randy Rarick, executive producer of the Triple Crown, agrees. What it all gets down to, he said, is an enormous demand for a tiny supply of "this little seven-mile miracle we call the North Shore."

"That's the dilemma," said Rarick. "There are guys who would like to see surf contests here every week. Others would just as soon see no more contests. Somewhere, there's got to be a balance."

Surfing pioneer Peter Cole catches a big one in Waimea all for himself, circa 1967.

Photo by Bud Browne

And balance is all Gil Riviere says he wants. Riviere, president of Let's Surf Coalition — the group that forced the county to start obeying its own rules limiting North Shore surf contests — is on a mission to preserve and enhance public access and usage to North Shore surfing spots.

Like most everyone, Riviere acknowledges that the North Shore economy skyrockets during the surf season. But he says the North Shore contest mindset is skewed because it fails to acknowledge the main reason surfing fans from around the world flock to the North Shore.

Riviere says the engine that drives the North Shore economy is its world famous waves — not contests. He concedes that big international events such as the Triple Crown draw people and money.

"But if Auntie Em from Oklahoma is going to drive around the island, she's going to say, 'Where's the big waves?' She's not going to say, 'Oh, wow — Sunny Garcia is going against Kelly Slater.'

"I'm not asking that the contests go away. But if there were no more contests, people would still come to the North Shore. The argument that surf contests are this huge economic dynamo is really not well documented. I'd like to see the data."

Peter Cole, on Sunset Beach with friend Suzie Stewart, above, and carrying his board, below, surfed in commercial films before "Endless Summer" was made. "I'd say 90 percent of everyone who surfs here is polite," he said. "A few don't get it. But most are a bunch of good guys."

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

So would Steve Pezman, veteran surfing writer, former publisher of Surfer magazine and current publisher of The Surfer's Journal, who says there is no way to know how much money surfing contests actually bring to the North Shore.

"First of all, there is no data — the statistics don't exist," Pezman said.

"An interesting thing to do, and something that would be of use to the surfing community, would be to do a random North Shore survey of a thousand people asking them why they're there, how they rate the importance of this versus that."

Until that happens, Mark Want, communications director for the State Department of Business and Economic Development, says the recreational surfer versus competitive surfer debate probably won't be solved by cold hard facts.

"There is no available data on the impact of surf-related visitors," said Want, who added that the value competitions bring to the North Shore through international publicity that attracts everyone from movie makers to fashion designers is colossal even if it is tough to measure.

But Pezman — who calls O'ahu's North Shore "the Carnegie Hall of surfing" — insists the issue transcends money. "There are far more recreational surfers than there are professional competitive surfers," he said. "They're out there for their own personal experience."

"We share the same passion," said Suzie Stewart, 36, surfer, surf instructor and North Shore lifeguard. "It's the camaraderie."

James Turner, 29, "sub-head honcho" at Strong Current, a North Shore surf shop and museum, champions the values of those who started the North Shore surf phenomenon back in the early '60s. "Before there was cool there were these guys," said Turner. "These guys were real surfers."

Peter Cole vows to continue riding waves near his Sunset Beach house until he's 80.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

One of those guys is North Shore resident Peter Cole, who narrated and rode the big waves in commercial surf films made on the North Shore before "Endless Summer" ever lured a California surfer to O'ahu's northern coast. While Cole laments the progress and changes that have affected the North Shore since the day he showed up in 1958, he confesses that what made the North Shore most appealing all those years ago is still there.

"It's still rural and remote, the beaches are still gorgeous and the waves are big as ever," said Cole, who, at 72, no longer rides the huge waves at Waimea, but vows to continue riding those near his house at Sunset Beach until he's 80.

"I'd say 90 percent of everyone who surfs here is polite," Cole said. "A few don't get it. But most are a bunch of good guys."

Then, with a chuckle, he added, "And really, we old-timers have only ourselves to blame for starting the whole thing."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.