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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 19, 2003

North Shore's surf supremacy questioned

 •  Maps: Surfing's other hot spots

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

The North Shore's longstanding lock on the title of world's supreme surf spot is being challenged, most recently on Page 418 of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing," a 744-page, authoritative volume released last month:

Waimea Bay, shown here, and other North Shore surfing destinations must compete with other locations that are gaining favor among top surfers.

Advertiser library photo • 1998

"Dungeons in South Africa, along with Maverick's and Todos Santos on the North American West Coast, have broken up the North Shore's big-wave monopoly, while Indonesia with its perfect waves has to a large degree replaced the North Shore as the ultimate surf destination."

Encyclopedia author and former pro surfer Matt Warshaw of San Francisco is quick to add that the North Shore's stature in wave lore is secure and undeniable. But, like others in the industry, he asserts that superlatives such as "most dangerous," "most extreme" or "biggest" no longer apply.

"It's totally true," said Randy Rarick, executive producer of the prestigious Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, which will start today at Hale'iwa Ali'i Beach, conditions permitting. "Maverick's blew away the notion that Hawai'i was the only location with the big waves. In Indonesia, during its prime surfing season from May through October, the surfing conditions are more ideal, more consistent, they have fewer storms and they don't get the chop and the wind.

"Let's put it this way: It has taken some of the luster off the North Shore."

The North Shore risks losing more than its luster. The surfing mecca, which stretches 7 miles from Hale'iwa to Sunset Beach and encompasses such legendary surf spots as Waimea and Pipeline, could be elbowed out as a major competitive wave destination by other locations.

"What happened is that we have been living off our brand identity of Hawai'i as the place to surf without reinvesting in our resources, infrastructure or marketing," said Mike Markrich, an economic consultant who has surveyed the effects of wave-riding events on the North Shore. He estimates that $7 million to $8 million is brought into the community during the six weeks of the Triple Crown of Surfing.

"A natural market advantage doesn't last forever if you don't take care of things."

Manuel Menendez, executive director of the Honolulu Office of Economic Development, was more blunt.

"The surfing industry has been stolen from Hawai'i by California, by places like Huntington Beach, and by places like Australia," he said. "We lost it because we have never placed surfing as a priority industry. We used to have an envious position, but there are a lot of competitive places now that attract surfing visitors from all over the world."

The first attack on the North Shore's reputation as the No. 1 surf destination can be traced to Bruce Brown's 1964 classic "Endless Summer." Although still expressing reverence for North Shore spots, the film showed there were other places around the world to catch waves.

Warshaw said the movie launched a million adventures to find the perfect wave, but most of those trips led nowhere because wave forecasting at the time was so unreliable.

"Up to even 15 years ago, the forecasting was pitiful," he said. "What's changed is that the surf forecasting has become so good that we all know where to go and when to do it."

Menendez said the city and the state must make the sort of commitment that competing locations around the world devote to surfing.

"We go to the Biarritz Surf Festival in France, and all the hotels are full and it's a big thing," said Ralph Goto, administrator for Honolulu's Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. "And Hawaiians who show up are treated like deities.

"The point is, you travel halfway around the world to find what you think should be here. There's nothing in Hawai'i that compares to it. I'm not sure anyone even knows how to do it here."

Jodi Young, Triple Crown media director, said the Biarritz festival attracts 200,000-plus visitors, far more folks than the North Shore, with one major hotel, could accommodate under present circumstances.

Still, she said the North Shore hasn't come close to exploiting the festival potential that it does have the ability to handle.

At the same time, Young said she understands the frustrations of North Shore residents who insist that surfing already has transformed the sleepy, rural community of Hale'iwa into an overcrowded mass of confusion during the winter months.

It has been estimated that the population of the North Shore expands from 18,000 to 40,000 or more during the six weeks of the Triple Crown series. On a big-surf contest day, as many as 5,000 people may be drawn to the beach.

"I might have a vested interest because surfing is part of my livelihood," she said. "But I understand how the crowds are a major frustration. As a North Shore resident, I hate the traffic, too.

There's crowding in the water as well as on shore.

"Another thing that has taken the luster off the North Shore, unfortunately, is that after 40 years as mecca, it's too crowded," Warshaw said. "And it's not just crowded the way Malibu is crowded. It's crowded with a really aggressive type of surfer."

According to Menendez, instead of adding to the mounting congestion at such prime North Shore sites as Waimea, Sunset Beach and Pipeline, a well-managed surfing industry in Hawai'i could take the pressure off the area by promoting other surf spots.

"All beaches are not all the same for all events," he said. "There are amateur events that are appropriate at certain beaches, beginner events that are best at other beaches and professional events that are appropriate at still other beaches.

"We have to look at all the surfing events and see if there are ways to more appropriately bring some of them to other areas of the island."

Waikiki, the Wai'anae Coast and the Windward shore all offer unique surfing opportunities that aren't being utilized or promoted, Menendez said.

To surfers like Stephen Gould, curator of the North Shore Surf & Cultural Museum, there will never be a surfing destination that can top what's in his own back yard.

"The North Shore is like the Cliff Notes of surf spots — it's condensed, good surfing places of every kind. I'm not saying there aren't bigger or better waves elsewhere, but there isn't anywhere else you can find so many different kinds of great waves in such a confined location."

Added Rarick, "Sure, Tahiti has gnarlier waves, and there are more perfect waves in Indonesia. But Pipeline is still the wave that all other extreme waves are measured by."

Warshaw agreed, and said it's important to keep the issue of the ultimate surfing destination in perspective.

"Hawai'i is plainly the cradle of surfing civilization," he said. "This is where it started. This is where it took on so many aspects of its character. That will never change.

"And if the measurement is consistency, most good waves per mile, access, and a lot of different reckonings, then the North Shore is still the finest surf zone in the world."

Reach Will Hoover at 525-8038 or whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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