Story by Derek Paiva
A surf break on Oahu’s North Shore. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) /Kirk Lee Aeder
Winter wave season is a real thing in Hawaii.
A time when large ocean storms moving across the Pacific hundreds of miles north of Hawaii send heightened swells toward the Hawaiian Islands’ north-facing shores, pounding reefs, bays and beaches with wave faces at times eclipsing 40 feet or more. The season also marks a precious handful of months when the pro girls and boys of surf from around the world converge on the famed surf spots of Oahu’s North Shore, trailed by international surf media, photographers and videographers, and resident and visitor observers all on a their own personal big-wave-watching quest.
Though referred to as “winter” wave season, Hawaii’s big wave season really kicks off in the heart of fall with the start of the contests of the annual Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. The 39-day, three-event professional surfing competition – celebrating its 33rd annual run this year – is one of the surf world’s most prestigious, crowning a combined overall winner and individual winners for each of its so-called “jewel” competitions – the Hawaiian Pro, World Cup of Surfing and Pipe Masters.
If you’re on Oahu in November or December, you can head out to watch the waves and the Triple Crown pros who ride them beginning with the first event, the Hawaiian Pro, whose holding period begins Nov. 12. Each of the Triple Crown’s three events maintains its own extended holding period, with competition only held on days with sustained wave heights deemed satisfactory by event officials.
Window sign in a Waialua business on the North Shore of Oahu. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Faris
Triple Crown pros have to compete in all three jewel events to qualify for the overall crown. The surfer who earns the most combined points over the trio of competitions wins the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing championship. Though the Triple Crown, in its past, offered a concurrent trio of contests crowning a women’s overall champion, its slate of qualifying surfers for contests are generally all male. In 2011, Hawaii-born two-time Association of Surfing Professionals women’s world champion Carissa Moore earned wildcard entries into two Triple Crown events, becoming the first, and still only, woman to compete.
The combined holding periods for all three 2015 Triple Crown of Surfing competitions spans Nov. 12 to Dec. 20. The best days to check out the contests are pretty obvious: if North Pacific storms are sending their most gargantuan waves to the Oahu’s North Shore, we recommend making the drive out there.
To be sure contests are on, visit the official Triple Crown of Surfing website first thing each morning during the holding period to find out the status of events and surf heights. If waves are going off, competition generally happens from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
All three Triple Crown events are free and open to the public. To get the best viewing spots on the beach – and, hopefully, miss the bulk of big wave fans sure to pack the highways to the North Shore – we recommend leaving Honolulu as early as possible, picking up breakfast or a take-out lunch in area surf town Haleiwa, then heading to the beach.
Below, we’ve compiled a few other things you should know about this year’s Triple Crown competition, its three jewel contests and more.
Surfing at Banzai Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) Kirk Lee Aeder
2015 Vans Triple Crown of Surfing
Defending 2014 Triple Crown of Surfing Champion: Julian Wilson (Australia)
Where: Haleiwa Alii Beach Park, Haleiwa, North Shore, Oahu
Holding period: Nov. 12 to 23
Event defending champion: Dusty Payne (Hawaii)
What to watch for if you go: According to the Triple Crown of Surfing website, Alii Beach Park “is a true test of a professional surfers ability to handle a multitude of conditions, all at the same break. … Waves (of over six feet) transform into powerful, punishing walls of water that race down the reef before closing out over the extremely shallow Toilet Bowl (surf break). … (The break) is famous for a strong rip (current) that keeps surfers paddling fervently just to stay in position for the waves.” Because Alii Beach Park is, for many Oahu-based pros, a “right of passage” spot where skills were honed and first competitions entered growing up, it offers “a home court advantage for local surfers looking to post a big result and gain precious momentum going into the next two events.”
World Cup of Surfing
Where: Sunset Beach, North Shore, Oahu
Holding period: Nov. 24 to Dec. 6
Event defending champion: Michael Bourez (Tahiti)
What to watch for if you go: Here, the Triple Crown of Surfing website’s description of the surf break gets dramatic, with good reason: “Without fail, year after year, Sunset (Beach) showcases the sheer force of Mother Nature, drawing in the Pacific Ocean’s energy from more than 1,000 miles away. … Competitors must commit to literal mountains of water as much as 30 feet high and 50 feet thick, covering a distance of more than 100 yards. … Covering such a large, fluid area, Sunset is notorious for closeout sets that wash through the contest area and pummel competitors caught inside. It snaps surfboards like toothpicks while delivering punishing wipeouts of severe consequence. When a surfer paddles out at Sunset for his heat, he is not competing against three other surfers, but against the very ocean itself.” Whoa.
Where: Banzai Pipeline (Ehukai Beach Park), North Shore, Oahu
Holding period: Dec. 8 to 20
Event defending champion: Julian Wilson (Australia)
What to watch for if you go: According to the Triple Crown website, “Known for its perfect, heaving top-to-bottom barrels and its close proximity to shore, not only is (Banzai Pipeline’s) the perfect wave for those willing to charge, but also for the spectators on the beach. … Pipeline is one of the most dangerous waves on the planet. The cause of danger, a shallow slab of reef with crevasses and coral heads, is also the reason for the barreling shape and immense power of the wave.” Pre-dating the Triple Crown by more than a decade, and one of the longest-running events in pro surfing, Pipe Masters’ longevity, danger and roster of champions have made it, arguably, the most prestigious jewel of the competition. As for the view from the beach, the Triple Crown website says, “the beach tremors as waves detonate on Pipeline’s extremely shallow reef and spectators can literally feel the energy of the ocean and the precarious tension as a surfer drops into one of Pipeline’s hollow, grinding lefts.”
For more information, event schedules and daily surf and contest status reports, visit the Triple Crown of Surfing website at www.vanstriplecrownofsurfing.com. Can’t be on Oahu to watch from the sand? On contest days, all three competitions are live streamed in their entirety on the Triple Crown website.
About Derek Paiva: Derek Paiva is an editor and writer on the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau account team at Anthology Marketing Group. A lifelong Hawaii resident, Derek has enjoyed careers in magazine and newspaper journalism, and was editor-in-chief of Hawaii Magazine from 2010 through 2015. He has traveled extensively throughout the Hawaiian Islands, written about them exhaustively, and is always looking forward to exploring and learning new things about his home islands. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.