The Art of Riding a Wave on Oahu

From surfing, canoe paddling to kite boarding, visitors take to Oahu’s legendary surf

Pipeline, Sunset, Cliffs, Queens, Pops. Surfing is so ingrained in Oahu’s culture that there are almost as many names for surf breaks around the island as there are names for streets. From the world-class waves on the North Shore to the gentle breaks in Waikiki, Oahu surfers of all ages, expertise, and styles are lured into the water. There’s more than one way to ride a wave too, whether it’s ripping on a shortboard, cruising atop a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), or gliding through the water like a dolphin with no board at all, as in the case of body surfing. 

Surf Spots on Oahu

In the winter on the North Shore when wave heights can surge to 40-feet, the world’s best surfers test their courage and skill in the massive surf. Yet, even bystanders on the beach can share this thrill, watching the surfers drop into the massive waves like mere specks against the walls of water. In the summer, the action shifts to the rolling swells of the South Shore. While not as large as the winter waves on the North Shore, the southern coast still offers enough variety to engage both the experienced and the novice. The South Shore also provides a perfect playground to the increasingly popular SUP, a larger and thicker board than a typical surfboard, with a paddle used for propulsion.

The Windward Coast, aptly named for the constant onshore winds, offers an opportunity for completely different types of surfing – windsurfing, kite surfing and wake boarding. Windsurfing utilizes a sail attached to a surfboard, enabling the surfer to use the power of the wind, much like a sailboat. It’s a similar technique for kite surfing, in which the surfer on a board holds onto a kite that harnesses the power of the wind, allowing the rider to glide across open water. In wakeboarding, a hybrid of water skiing and snowboarding, wake boarders strapped to a board are pulled by a boat. 

History

Ancient Hawaiians practiced surfing to maintain their strength and agility. Olo and Alaia are two of the traditional Hawaiian surfboards, and are the first two types surfboards ever built. Olo boards were long and narrow, and used to surf gently sloping waves like those on Waikiki Beach. Alaia boards were short and thin, used to surf faster-breaking waves. Surfing was almost entirely wiped out in the 1800s when the missionaries arrived in Hawaii and discouraged the sport. In the early 20th century it experienced a revival, in part because of a young teenager by the name of Duke Kahanamoku. An Olympic swimming champion, Hollywood actor, Hawaiian folk hero and pioneer of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku and his friends kept the sport alive and promoted surfing and the spirit of aloha worldwide. In this day and age local heroes like John John Florence and Carissa Moore are perpetuating the importance of Hawaii in the sport of surfing. These legends are making waves by representing the birthplace of surfing through worldwide surf competitions including the 2021 summer Olympic Games.

Surf Etiquette

All sports have certain rules that players abide by, and failure to do so can be seen as cheating or result in a foul. Surfing is no different. Even in recreational settings there are a set of unwritten rules that are meant to keep things orderly and safe in the ocean. A good saying to keep in mind is “when in doubt, don’t go out,” and always heed the ocean safety signs posted on the beach. In general, it’s good for all beginners to be observant of their surroundings both in and out of the ocean, especially to avoid collisions with other surfers nearby. The main rule to remember is not to “drop in” on other surfers. If multiple surfers are paddling for the same wave, the person who is closest to the “peak,” or the breaking part of the wave, has priority and all others must yield to avoid “dropping in” on the surfer with priority. A drop in can also result when a surfer paddles and catches a wave that another surfer is already riding.

Lessons

To experience the many styles of surfing Oahu offers, check out a few of these places: 

Aloha Beach Services, located on the beach fronting the Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort offers surfing lessons, catamaran rides and outrigger canoe paddling.
(808) 922-3111 or alohabeachservices.com

Founded by professional surfer and big wave rider, Tony Moniz, Moniz Family Surf offers group and private surf and SUP lessons conveniently located in Waikiki. The school also offers canoe surfing and board rentals.
(808) 931-6262 or monizfamilysurf.com

The experts at Hans Hedemann Surf School strive to make surfing an exciting, memorable, fun, and successful experience. With several locations on Oahu, including Waikiki and the North Shore, Hans Hedemann makes lessons easily accessible for surf students.
(808) 924-7778 or hhsurf.com

Hawaiian Watersports offers personalized lessons and tours in surfing, SUP, kayaking, windsurfing and kite surfing. Locations include Kailua and Waikiki.
(808) 262-5483 or hawaiianwatersports.com

Yellow surf school buses, part of the Ohana Surf Project fleet, whisk people from their Waikiki hotels to the beach, where knowledgeable instructors offer surfing, SUP and body surfing lessons.
(808) 599-7873 or ohanasurfproject.com   

Visitors can sign up for surf or SUP lessons at Waikiki Beach Activities in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort. Located in the area traditionally known as Kalia, this famed stretch of Waikiki was once the location of Duke Kahanamoku’s home and many of his usual surf spots.
(888) 904-4088, ext. 1 or waikikibeachactivities.com

Operating since 1955, Waikiki Beach Services perpetuates and honors the legacy of the original beach boys: a group of expert watermen who introduced visitors to the Hawaiian arts of surfing and canoe surfing in Waikiki. The stand fronting the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki offer daily surf and SUP lessons, as well as outrigger canoe rides.
(808) 388-1510 or waikikibeachservices.com

Surfing Competitions 

Duke’s OceanFest (August)
Duke’s OceanFest, a weeklong festival, features a variety of exciting water sports competitions including longboard surfing, surf polo, swimming, standup paddling and other events that pay tribute to the local waterman. The festivities culminate with the Duke Kahanamoku Statue lei draping ceremony on the anniversary of his birthday. dukesoceanfest.com

Billabong Pipe Masters (December)
For the first time in its storied history, the Billabong Pipe Masters will be the kickoff event for the Men’s World Surf League 2021 season. The world’s best surfers will compete at the world’s most iconic surf spot. worldsurfleague.com

Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (December-January)
For the past 35 years, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing (VTCS) has been one of the top surfing events in the world. This year, the competition returns to Hawai‘i as a specialty sanctioned digital competition following the Pipe Masters. For the first time, the contest is open to anyone, with the best waves submitted for Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipe crowning the VTCS Champions for both Men and Women. triplecrownofsurfing.com

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