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Surfing Hawaii: Surviving an El Nino winter

 “I look to my inside and see that I am alone. “This is it”, I tell myself and turn around to paddle. I push my chin into my board to get as much downward momentum as I can and paddle my heart out.  The swell gets steeper and steeper feeling the reef, still paddling as the wave picks me up . As I get to my feet it feels like I’m on the edge of a cliff, the bottom of the wave seems a mile away…”

The buoys are up, the air outside is still and I’m holding my breath (literally). It is supposed to be the biggest swell ever tomorrow – again?! This is the third time in a matter of weeks that we are expecting twenty feet at twenty-second swells, which translates to five storey high waves. This is ridiculous!

I’m tired, my body aches, I have had too much adrenaline in my system, but here I am, in Maui, doing breathing exercises in a futile attempt to calm my nerves and hopefully become light-headed enough to fall asleep.

I am sharing a room with my uncle (who is paying the bills) so I get the mattress on the floor at Mangolani Inn in Paia Town. My shoulder presses into the ground when I roll onto my side so I get up for another toilet break (it is important to hydrate the day before surfing big waves but drinking too much water has its downfalls).

I give my mom a call to tell her I love her and in rhetorical desperation, she asks “why?”, but in acknowledgement sends her prayers and well wishes.

We wake up at 5am, pack our gear into the car, load boards and chug down a cup of coffee and a smoothie that my uncle swears by – consisting of raw eggs, oats, banana and apple.

It’s still dark, but we can hear waves rumbling as we pass by Hokipa and Lanes, Maui’s famous windsurfing spots. We pass Maliko Gulch, the jet ski launch, and then the memorial site before turning left down the fine dusty road that leads to Pe’ahi, nicknamed “Jaws” by the legendary  Laird Hamilton and crew who pioneered tow surfing there fifteen years ago because of its immense power and size.

The first rays of light break through the valley illuminating the roaring waves that will make history.

The wave of a lifetime, flying through the bowl at Pe’ahi more intimately known as Jaws.

A light, crisp breeze flutters through the valley creating clean offshore conditions, perfect for surfing giant waves. Yet a nervous flood of butterflies shudders through my gut as I gear up slowly, ensuring I don’t forget anything.

I wax up my ten-foot surfboard, also called a “gun”, screw in my fins, tie on my leash, and don an inflatable life vest under a short wetsuit. I climb down the steep hillside into the valley and walk a short way through the forest toward the jump-off spot.  I know half the battle of surfing Jaws is paddling off the rocks.

A ten-foot-high shore break explodes onto the basalt boulders that line the shore. The trick is to time your jump so that you paddle out during a lull in the waves, any miscalculations could prove disastrous.  After watching the waves tentatively for about fifteen minutes I make my move and paddle my heart out.

I make it over the first wave and into the safety of the channel where I can take a breather to calm my nerves, before paddling into the line-up. It takes a lot of patience to catch a wave. The swells come in at incredible speeds before unloading onto the reef. Surfers have to be in a perfect position and be fully committed to catching a wave. A moment’s hesitation can lead to a terrifying wipe-out.

Jamie Mitchell tried to catch one more wave before sunset and gets caught inside one of the bigger sets of the day

Finally, I see a large set approaching from the horizon.  I look to my inside and see that I am alone. “This is it”, I tell myself and turn around to paddle. I push my chin into my board to get as much downward momentum as I can and paddle my heart out.  The swell gets steeper and steeper feeling the reef, still paddling as the wave picks me up.

As I get to my feet it feels like I’m on the edge of a cliff, the bottom of the wave seems a mile away. The offshore breeze catches my board as I weightlessly float down the face, compressing to keep a low centre of gravity as I reach the bottom. I arc my head up to see the lip towering precariously above me.

Using all my strength I muster a bottom turn and pull up into the bowl of the wave. Then sink my rail into the face and aim for the channel, absorbing the chops and bumps as I fly down the line.  

I can’t help but scream with ecstasy as I pull off the back of the wave, and hear my friends too are hooting and screaming with excitement. Once again, I sit in the channel and take a breather, this time, to process what has just happened.  “Surely the best wave of my life”, I think to myself as I paddle back out for another.

GavinShigesato_JamesLoweJaws(1-21-15)-25
Ultimate focus, looking up to see a long wall ahead and gigantic lip above

The month of January 2016 was the most incredible, adrenaline-filled and stressful month of my big wave surfing career. I have been surfing the big waves in Cape Town, namely Sunset Reef in Kommetjie and Dungeons in Hout Bay, for almost eight years. For big wave surfers, Hawaii is our Mecca and spending a winter season there at least once in a lifetime is mandatory.

This was my second journey to find and catch the ultimate wave. I trained solidly for three months which included functional training twice a week, running trails three to four times a week and surfing whenever there were waves. I ate as much protein as possible and starved myself of beer leading up to my departure from  Cape Town International Airport with an awkward and over-sized surfboard bag.

Physical and mental preparedness are essential for surviving mountainous surf. No matter what happens, the ability to remain calm can save your life. Panicking underwater will cause your heart rate to rise and uses up unnecessary amounts of oxygen.

Getting to Hawaii from South Africa is a death race, involving three flights (a couple of which are ten hours or more), separated by uncomfortable airport chairs and the short-lived reprieve of layovers to nurse swollen ankles.

I flew with Air France as it has the best surfboard policy and you can book straight through to Honolulu airport. This means that there is no extra hassle in changing airlines during your layovers which can become tricky, especially when you are travelling with surfboards.

Rock jumping at Spitting Cave. When the sea surges into the cave, the air inside is pressurised and explodes outward, picking up water droplets which cause the natural spitting effect.

A warm, tropical breeze greeted me as I walked through the courtyard in Honolulu airport after a tiring forty hour journey. You can put away your jeans and don a pair of board shorts that you’ll wear for the rest of winter.

An Israeli friend that I met last year picked me up from the airport and drove me to his home on the North Shore where I lived for the next four months.

The North Shore of Oahu is traditionally considered the pinnacle of big wave surfing, hosting famous surf spots such as the Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay and other large outer reef breaks on every corner.

Living and getting around on the North Shore is easy, which is why I chose it as my base. A bike path cuts through an arch of wildly growing trees and leads to all the best surf spots as well as the grocery store, which is all you really need on a surf trip.  Whilst living on Oahu, I was constantly checking charts for the opportunity to surf  Jaws. Located on the north shore of Maui, a thirty-minute hop overflight from Oahu, a river valley runs toward the ocean into a bay called Pe’ahi where the right swell can produce waves that, until recently, were thought to be too big to paddle into.

Over the past few years, the limits of big wave surfing have been pushed to such an extent that Jaws is now considered the premier paddle spot in the world for big wave surfers. The bay is surrounded by cliffs that make it perfect for spectators to get a taste of the action and to rub shoulders with the heroes that ride mountainous waves. The waves break with such explosive force and power that the echo causes a chill to run up your spine and the ground on which you stand to shake. An ancient lava flow carved out a deep channel alongside the reef allowing boats to safely sit in deeper water – an even greater spectacle.

All smiles and celebration after one of the biggest swells ridden at Jaws. Pictured are some South African surfers who have travelled to Hawaii with the same intention, that of riding the biggest wave!

This year, the weather patterns were not as they normally are. A warming of water in the central Pacific caused an El’Nino system, calming trade winds from Peru toward Asia, shifting high-pressure systems and jet streams over the Pacific and allowing storms generated north of Japan to move unhindered across the Pacific, hitting the Hawaiian islands with full force.

This translated into the best surf season in Hawaii since the previous El’Nino of similar force during the winter of 1997/1998. While Jaws normally lies dormant for most of the winter (with the exception of a few swells a year), I found myself frantically flying back and forth between the islands, wishing the waves would stop for a while. Every time I returned home, I would look at the forecast and the next swell would appear – bigger than the previous one! I ended up surfing Jaws ten times in January, making the trip to Maui a total of five times.

Gavin Shige - Screaming down the line at Jaws
Screaming down the line at Jaws

All the effort was worth it and, in retrospect, January was undoubtedly the best month of my life – despite how frantic all the inter-island travel was. I had caught the biggest waves of my life and had some very bad wipeouts that I was fortunately prepared for.  I still had another two months in Hawaii to surf, relax and spend time with the friends that I had made during my stay.

The people in Hawaii are really friendly and generous. On the whole, they are laid back and enjoy active lifestyles revolving around the mountain and the sea. Besides surfing, the North Shore has an abundance of activities such as hiking trails, which range from walking up a quiet stream in the forest to death-defying ridge hikes, diving with sharks (WITHOUT a cage), jumping out of an airplane at 13,000 feet (a height at which you can see the whole island) or just sit back with an ice cold coconut on the beach and watch the sunset.

The North Shore has everything.

When they told me Olomana Ridge hike could get tricky I didn’t think I would be scaling a rock wall with a death drop below.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:

  • Food is very expensive at grocery stores, especially fresh produce (tomatoes are $1,20/lbs). I tried to shop in bulk at Costco which is much cheaper, but it is a forty minute drive from the North shore.
  • Beer is more reasonable (kirin ishiban is $11 for 12 pack).
  • A meal at a food truck is not a bad idea ($10-$15, which is cheaper than buying food if you are alone).
  • Flight to Maui is around $80-$200 depending on the time of day (mornings and evenings are cheaper).
  • Accommodation can also be expensive. The local backpackers at Waimea Bay Charge $31/ night. If you find a room on AirBnB it will most likely cost upwards of $100/night. I rented a room in a friend’s house for $660/month, which was the cheapest option by far.
After four months in Hawaii, it was difficult to say goodbye to these housemates, who had become like family on the North Shore.

James Lowe

James Lowe is an adrenaline junkie at heart, always seeking for life's next thrill. Surfing is his real passion and has lead him all around South Africa and the Globe. He enjoys living the eternal winter spending half the year in South Africa and half the year in Hawaii in search of gigantic waves. James is also a geology graduate working in the expedition cruise industry where he presents geology lectures in some of the most remote places on the planet.

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