The Overwhelming North Shore

Sunset Beach. Photo: Bill Cleary
Woody Brown
Rabbit Kekai. Photo: Clarence Maki

Froiseth, Kelly, and a few others also began making day trips out to the North Shore, after hearing stories from visiting California surfers Whitey Harrison and Tarzan Smith about a powerful reef break near Haleiwa Town. The North Shore was about the same distance from Waikiki as Makaha, but much easier to get to: drive straight across the island on the well-paved Kamehameha Highway, through the cane fields and past the tent rows at Schofield Barracks, then bear right, about one mile inland, just past the big gray smokestack at the Waialua Sugar Mill.

The North Shore was a different world compared to Makaha. Everything about the West Side was isolated, including Makaha, and settlements were strung out along a coastal road that eventually funneled down to nothing. The North Shore formed a corridor between two plantation towns, Haleiwa and Kahuku. It was rural, but not empty; family farms took up many of the one-acre lots on the inland side of Kam Highway, and a handful of modest wood-frame cottages were scattered along the beachfront, most of them owned by the Honolulu gentry and used as weekend retreats.

The two surfing environments were different as well. As terrifying a big-wave break as Makaha could become at times, its location—in the lee of Keana Point, Oahu’s fang-shaped western corner—was actually protected from much of the year’s biggest surf and heaviest weather. The North Shore squared up directly against both incoming waves and storms, which meant bigger waves, mixed-swell combinations, plenty of rain (nearly double the amount that fell on the West Side), and stronger, less predictable winds. A vast network of reefs began at the water’s edge and moved seaward in an irregular progression for up to a mile offshore. The seven-mile North Shore wave zone that began at Haleiwa was denser and more complex than any other like-sized area in the world, with breaks often shingled one on top of the other. It was overwhelming, particularly in the early years. A handful of locals surfers rode Haleiwa in the 1920s and early 1930s, but only the small nearshore waves. When they paddled out on a bigger day in 1938, Whitey Harrison and Tarzan Smith were rewarded with nothing more than a good long watery beating. Wally Froiseth and the hot curlers, driving out to the North Shore not long afterward, were right to think of the North Shore as a surfing wilderness.

Sunset Beach quickly revealed itself as the North Shore’s most consistent break. Like Makaha, Sunset is a right-breaking wave with a variety of component parts. Unlike Makaha, it takes shape as a wedge, not a wall; it has alternating steep and flat sections and a takeoff area that ranges fifty yards in any direction from wave to wave. Makaha Point Surf breaks with force equal to that of Sunset. But Sunset is a more complicated spot, and harder to ride.

Premodern Hawaiians called the break Paumalu (a 1910s land speculator named it Sunset Beach), and it was famous across the island chain. A handsome wave-hunting prince from Kauai, according to a popular myth, traveled to Oahu to try Paumalu, and there he met and fell in love with the Bird Maiden, who invited him into her cave on a hillside above the break. A few months later, upon leaving the water at Paumalu, the prince accepted a kiss and a flower lei from a beautiful admirer who’d been watching from the beach, and thus broke his vow of fidelity to the Bird Maiden. Vengeance came quickly; the prince only made it halfway up the hillside before the Bird Maiden turned him to stone.

Sunset was the first North Shore wave Wally Froiseth, Fran Heath, and the rest of the hot curl gang rode. They liked it well enough, and were awed by the sheer number of breaks along the North Shore. Makaha, though, remained their favorite surf-travel destination. Chasing bigger waves was a thrill, but it was also time-consuming and intense; by focusing more on one break—Makaha—instead of roaming the coast from Haleiwa to Sunset, the whole operation was a bit more grounded. The North Shore became their second choice; a place to check when the West Side surf was too small.

Small but crucial changes were made to the hot curl design during the late 1930s and early 1940s, always with an eye toward improving the board’s grip on the wave face. Most of the work was on the hull, near the tail: a V-shaped bottom was tried and rejected, as water churned back on itself as it moved across the V’s spine, which threw the board into a drift. As Froiseth described it, the real aim was “calculated drag”—where water essentially vacuumed onto the board’s tail as it flowed past. On later versions, the hot curl’s tail section became more U-shaped, with a gently rounded planing surface through the middle. Width, length, and thickness all came down, as the hot curl surfers discovered that less volume allowed the board to knife deeper into the wave face, especially at higher speeds.

Surfers rode waves differently on the new boards, aiming to lock onto an angle parallel to the curl and shoot across until the wave backed down (“trimming,” as it would later be called). Angling translated directly into more speed, and each new hot curl design change was like adding another top-end gear to a car. Riding style changed too. Tricks were out. No more headstands or backward-riding. Good surfers still rode from the center of the board with their feet close together, touching if possible, like the older plank riders did, but the new flourish was to arch the back while in mid-trim, as if a basic upright stance just couldn’t be maintained in the face of such heavy acceleration. When the wave slowed up, the hot curler shuffled back a foot or so, stomped the tail, and made a pivoting direction change—nothing too sharp—then quickly shuffled forward to get the board planning again.

Not all the changes targeted heavy surf. At Queen’s in Waikiki, beachboy Rabbit Kekai would get into trim, then arch with teenage insolence as the curl spilled over his knees and waist; near the end of a ride, just to put a little flare into his pullout, he’d stutter-step to the front of his board, crouch down, bury the nose and lean bodily into the wave face, throwing the tail out and around like a huge wooden scythe. Paddling back out, he’d smile and yell “society turn” whenever he saw an older surfer guiding a plank through a slow, deliberate change of direction. Small but well-muscled, Kekai was more aggressive than anyone with the hand-plane and sanding blocks; he eventually pared his favorite hot curl down to a thinned-out 7 feet 6 inches—in calm water, a bigger surfer could stand on Kekai’s board and pin it to the bottom.

Kekai was an early addition to the Makaha crew, joining Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and Fran Heath. Another newcomer was Woody Brown, a society-born New Yorker and record-holding glider pilot who sailed for Honolulu in 1940, at age twenty-eight, grief-stricken after his wife died in childbirth. He bought a bike and rode aimlessly around Oahu, staying with whoever would take him in; he also returned to surfing, something he’d picked up four years earlier, while living in San Diego County. The first friend he made in Hawaii was Wally Froiseth. Brown had built his own gliders, and rightly believed that much of what he knew about aerodynamics might be applied to surfboards, so he jumped right into the ongoing hot curl revolution. Froiseth and the others thought Brown was a bit of an odd duck—he was older, widowed, agnostic, vegetarian—but he was smart and enthusiastic, and just as ready as they were to paddle into big surf. Brown rode Makaha like he was born there, and it wasn’t long before his sleek boards were getting noticed as well.

And so it went for the Empty Lot Boys and their hot curl converts, into the fall of 1941. They lived at a nearly surreal remove from the rest of the world, both geographically and psychologically. Jobs were still hard to come by in Honolulu. The war in Europe raged on. Japan was carving up Southeast Asia. None of that seemed to matter. The winter wave season had just arrived, and Hawaii’s surfing vanguard spent the first three weeks in December riding Makaha, or making plans to do so, and talking a lot about who had a faster board, Froiseth or Brown. These were the important things.

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The North Shore squared up directly against both incoming waves and storms, which meant bigger waves, plenty of rain, stronger winds. A vast network of reefs began at the water’s edge and moved seaward in an irregular progression for up to a mile offshore, with breaks often shingled one on top of the other. It was overwhelming, particularly in the early years.