For Surfers, All Waves Lead to Hawaii
03-02-06 Julia Chaplin
SPENDING time on the North Shore of Oahu, just 30 miles from the urban sprawl of Honolulu, provides a crash course in the hang-10 lifestyle. Old surfboards serve as signposts for the driveways of wooden bungalows, the fronts of shops and the turnoff points for restaurants at this fabled surf Mecca. Even the barbecue delivery car has a surfboard strapped sideways on its roof as a makeshift billboard.
There is hardly a waiter, store clerk or bartender around who doesn't have a ripped physique, a sun-burned nose and flip-flops barely encasing scraped-up feet - all signs of the hard-core surfer. Out in the lineup, in the calm water just outside the break where throngs of surfers jockey to catch waves, it is not uncommon to see Hawaiian grandmothers longboarding among teenagers covered in tribal tattoos doing aerial maneuvers.
Pro surfers, especially those who grew up on the North Shore, rule the hierarchy. Local surf stars like Fred Patacchia, Pancho Sullivan, Jamie O'Brien and Megan Abubo, who was the stunt double for Michelle Rodriguez's character in the film "Blue Crush," can be spotted hauling groceries to their trucks at the parking lot at Foodland or at Haleiwa Joe's, the North Shore equivalent of the Ivy in Beverly Hills, where pros and potential sponsors dine, and contest victory celebrations are held. On a recent morning at Cafe Haleiwa, decorated like all restaurants here with old surf photos and paintings of giant barreling waves, Ms. Abubo, tanned and muscular, was fielding calls from producers for television programs and commercials looking for stunt doubles and pro surf specimens.
"The North Shore is a little like going back in time," Ms. Abubo said. "Even though the crowds have tripled in the last few years, people still hitchhike to get around, and there's a tightknit community. It's the best place in the world for a surfer to live."
The North Shore is now in a rather sticky situation of courting fame while trying to preserve an old-school, precrowd vibe. The throngs began to show up, boards under arms, soon after the release of "Blue Crush" four years ago. The Drew Barrymore-Adam Sandler film "50 First Dates," episodes of "Baywatch" and the WB reality series "Boarding House: North Shore" were all recently filmed here.
And the primetime hit "Lost" - its base camp in the tropical vegetation between Haleiwa, the historic town founded by missionaries in the 1800's on the southwest end of the North Shore, and Waimea Bay - has set scenes on dozens of the coconut-strewn sandy beaches and thick jungles here. (An amusing pastime for fans is to ferret out locations like the site of a plane crash scene, which was shot just to the left of a Y.M.C.A. camp on Farrington Highway.)
Yet, its Hollywood connections aside, the feeling at this seven-mile stretch of world-class surf breaks and rolling, grassy fields, is like that of a junior high, where the cool kids are surfers and the nerds are outsiders (especially tourists) who don't possess killer tans and/or deft surfing skills. "Even celebrities who come here, like Owen Wilson or Brian Grazer, get dropped in on in the lineup," said Leah Metz, a surfer and massage therapist, who was standing in a bikini scoping out the action at the Laniakea break with her friend Ms. Abubo on a recent mid-morning.
So far, the local community has succeeded, to a degree, in maintaining its surfing heritage. There are no high-rise condos, only one resort hotel and just a handful of small guesthouses. Residents recently stopped a developer's plan to construct a 55-store shopping mall, and the North Shore Community Land Trust, a collective that includes the pro surfer Kelly Slater and the musician Jack Johnson, has helped to raise $7 million to preserve a 200-acre parcel that overlooks Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline.
This is hardly the strip's first brush with fame. Hawaiian royalty braved the swells on impossibly long wooden surfboards hundreds of years ago, but it wasn't until the late 1930's that a few surf pioneers living in Honolulu began trekking over in search of bigger thrills. The area was rugged country sparsely populated by farmers and plantation workers, and the waves, which can charge upward of 20 feet in the winter months and once every few years to a heart-stopping 40 to 50 feet, were considered unridable death wishes. (In fact, one 17-year-old surfer, Dickie Cross, drowned in Waimea Bay's 35-foot surf in 1943, warding surfers off for more than a decade.)
All that changed in the late 1950's, when a group of California daredevils including Pat Curren, Mickey Muñoz and Greg Noll, the founder of Greg Noll Surfboards, known for barreling down giant faces in jailhouse-striped swimming trunks, dared to paddle out. They were youthful counterculture rebels living in rustic shacks on the beach, defying nature just for kicks, all with mischievous smiles and beers in hand. Their images, documented in surf magazines and movies, wowed the Gidget-fueled surf craze that was sweeping the nation, and the lineups have been clogged ever since. "Surfing wasn't about money back then," said Mark Cunningham, a retired North Shore lifeguard and renowned body surfer. "Surfers always lived cheaply and scraped by."
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