Stabbed with a red hot poke bowl (or, your five minute guide to Hawaii!)
Poke bowls are hot, listicles are not, so let's play along here: the following ain't a list but the ingredients to a Hawaiian entree. In this case they're served up by someone with a few seasons under his belt but a decade-plus lapse since the last visit. Comparisons are part of the flavour.
Surfing is still the centre of the cultural universe in Hawaii. As Australian surfing success wanes on the World Tour it's become clear that while Oz has a beach culture it's not necessarily a surf culture. Board riding is prone to the whims of fashion, big with Baby Boomers, women, and adult learners, while kids flag it unless driven by zealous surfing Dads.
But in Hawaii? Surfing is just done. From tots to pops. It's bound so tightly to their culture that it's free of affectation or fad. Head down to Keiki and watch the next John John, aged just two, fearlessly skimboard into a double overhead shorebreak while Mom and Pop watch on with indifference. Nothing could be more normal.
Like helping to tie shoelaces, Brad Gerlach does up the legrope on an impish John John
My deal in Hawaiian waters was always the same: stay silent, speak only when spoken to, and surf well. For fifty years the locals have seen tourists try every single strategy to ingratiate themselves and score more waves. I figured quiet commitment went further than any salutation ever could.
However, this trip I travelled with guys so amiable they simply couldn't do anything but front up and say g'day. It was like travelling with Mick Dundee through New York City. To play it evasive would be an egregious affront to nature - much better to go with the flow and serve it sunny side up.
The response from locals always went one of two ways: reciprocated smiles, or a subtle shift down the pecking order when our blowin credentials were betrayed. But even I, a notable non-smiler, reckoned the latter was worth it for the occasional kindred link of the former.
Every winter, Hawaiians have their coastline invaded by the hordes and they largely take it in good spirit. Whatever approach you take - cool or cordial - just remember to always defer to the crew who live and work there.
Last time I visited Hawaii it was a towtalitarian state. Big wave boards were 5'10 and weighed 25 kilos. Skis buzzed between the outer reefs on big days. Everything was XXL by PWC, OK?
Since then the purists have risen up and the noble pursuit of paddle surfing has again taken prominence - though this time it's safety first. Skis don't whip people in but run safety. Floatation vests aren't rare, they're everywhere. And not just inflation vests but foam floatation numbers that put Schwarzengger-like pecs on even the most pigeon-chested punter. I wore one a few times and can vouch for the suit of armour appeal but fortunately its lifetime warranty - interpret that however you will - was never truly tested.
"You want to get mah-sive?"
I'm not talking 28.57 litres versus 29.10 - the excruciating debate of volume as a dimension. But rather the immutable fact of Hawaiian boards and their requisite size. You wanna ride a big swell in Hawaii? Tack at least a foot onto your boards, preferably two. Probably best you whack an inch of thickness in also.
Unless you're into double digits on the QS you won't need anything under 7'0" at big Sunset, and even then you'll be outpaddled by the ten-oh tankers steaming in from the shipping lanes. Better you rise up and join them. None of this will make sense until you experence the insignificance of an XL Hawaiian swell. Trust me, go big.
Nowhere in surfing is the rush of progress more apparent than big wave board design. Haleiwa is still a fantastic place to go and tyre kick a quiver, but rather than the spear-like, flip-tip rockets of the past, what's now lined up in rows are thick-railed, forward-weighted missiles. Everything is geared toward early entry, which makes complete sense for big waves. Like MP said of his rocker shape - "It's like cheating, man" - you gotta wonder why water-pushing curves prevailed for as long as they did.
Big wave board design will likely keep moving forward, but for now take your time to marvel at these state-of-the-art creations and imagine the fantastic voyages they'll take.
North Shore weapons stockpile
When each ride has more consequence it stands to reason that surfers invest more into their big wave boards. Not just coin, though they do cost more, but thought, energy, and damnit, even love. A connection is forged that just doesn't apply to your average six-one dragonfly slayer. Big boards are your ticket to fulfillment, the reason you're over here in the first place, so when a good one goes down - and it invariably will - it's like a death in the family.
Deal with it in whatever way seems appropriate: dress in black, mourn for ten days, wail like a Middle Eastern widow. The only upside is it provides an excuse to think and talk even more about board design, an opportunity that should never ever be missed.
Gone too young - the author grieves
There's Leonardo running down the path at Rocky Point, John John pulling in at Logs, Michael Ho shopping at Foodland, Nathan Florence too, Owl Chapman is talking shit in the Sunset carpark, while Healey is scarfing tacos, and there's Sarlo stroking a nine foot Bushman into Puena Point.
By dint of its history and size, no other surf zone on Earth comes close to the North Shore's celeb-to-pleb ratio. It's a kick for students of our history and starstruck groms alike.
They say mainland cities are cleaning the streets by giving their homeless one way tickets to Hawaii. And why not take it up? If you're gonna sleep rough you may as well do it in paradise, so Hawaii's homeless situation has risen sharply. The best and worst of America has always been on show and this growing underclass represents the latter. It's confronting to see, especially for Australians with ready access to the safety net of welfare. Just don't mention the Aborigines...
You'll either recoil at the hyper-processed sugar-bound fare sold in Foodland or run around like a kid in a candy shop - which is actually where you are. It's a struggle to find food that doesn't taste like something from an Easter Show sample bag, even muesli or granola gives you an instant buzz. Buy wisely, think bananas, eggs, and sausages, or just eat poke bowls (pronounced pokey, thank me later) and fish tacos from the grill wagons.
The abundance of cheap and ready Mexican only highlights how badly Australians get scorched for cuisine that's little more than beans, corn, and chicken. Then again, good luck buying a a banh mai or laksa on the North Shore.
And the bean juice? It's guaranteed to make a coffee snob out of you. Order it black, they cant stuff that up. Unless that is, you get handed a cup of anemic percolated dishwater.
Who cares about Michelin stars when you've got this?
Just cos it's two foot out front doesn't mean it's not six foot down the road. Hawaii has no continental shelf to attenuate and order approaching swells. The dramatic seamounts face into one of the most active ocean basins on Earth and the result is a coastline that can startle. Flag that two foot day at your own peril, then kick yourself when the neighbour slips a dripping gun from his pick-up while raving wide-eyed about Sunset. He may be talking it up, but then again.
If you get a swell you think is too big to handle, consider paddling out anyway. Watch it from the side where you'll see some outlandish stuff go down, things that are largely invisible or unappreciated from shore: Lips that pitch horizontally, surfers with 1000-yard stares, wipeouts that'll make even a sadist wince.
Commonsense says this option only applies to Pipe or Waimea, dont do it at Sunset where you'll be flirting between the rip and the West Peak and one of them will ultimately claim you.
Alternatively, take flippers out at Pipe and duck the last section. Feel it pitch. Get the back of your head in the photographers line of sight. Smile when they yell. Then, when lumps of coral start to rain down head to Keiki for a body womp but watch out for two-year-old John John.
Just be in the water...within reason of course.
It's Hawaii, every overstated boiler-plate of a cliche is true, from the postcard sun setting over Kaena Point, to rusty pickups slung with guns, to the damn swaying coconut palms. There's been songs sung, stories written, T-shirts printed. It's even, miraculously enough, an exact seven miles from Velzyland to Haleiwa.
Nothing here has escaped attention and comment, but don't let that lessen the impact for you, because real life is better than any postcard and even the most adept writer falls short when describing the primal terror of oxygen deprivation and the thrill of breathing it again.
A view worth holding your breath for
The pay off
Application is everything. Spend some months training, give forethought to boards while learning about Hawaiian lineups and you're almost guaranteed a session that transcends all measure of normality. I'm talking a session full of airfare waves - every ride equivalent to the cost - where strands of your surfing life connect: the experience you've gathered, the fitness you've earned, your acquired knowledge and how you apply it through considered risk.
And when that happens there are few better feelings on Earth.
Massive mahalo to Brett Davis, Pastor Larry, and the wise counsel of froffers