North Shore Surf Makes for Thrills and Spills in Hawaii

On Dec. 25 big wave legend Ken Bradshaw was on the phone. A northwest swell was storming in with wave faces exceeding 35 feet. Could I get to Waimea Beach ASAP, he wanted to know?
06/23/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

(Photo by Rowan Walker - courtesy of Jim Clash)

As a participatory journalist covering extreme adventure, I'm often at the behest of the weather. Sometimes it cooperates, sometimes it doesn't. One Christmas morning a few years back, mother nature gave me a present.

I'm not a surfer, but really big waves intrigue me. There is no guarantee when monster swells will visit Hawaii, but winter historically provides the best opportunity. I figured if I hung out for a few weeks on Oahu's famous North Shore, I'd have a shot at seeing some.

Sure enough, on Dec. 25 big wave legend Ken Bradshaw was on the phone. A northwest swell was storming in with wave faces exceeding 35 feet. Could I get to Waimea Beach ASAP, he wanted to know?

I was in Honolulu that day, but eagerly jumped into my rental car for the two-hour drive up. I was about to get a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with waves the size of houses - and with a bona fide surfing pro (Bradshaw once rode a wave face estimated at 85 feet).

When I arrived at Waimea, a Wave Runner (essentially a jet ski for two) was being gassed up to take us offshore to where the biggest swells were breaking. Bradshaw explained that to get a real sense of what he does for a living, we needed to meander around some monsters, at the same time watching surfers attempt to ride them.

As soon as I saw the 10-foot surf near shore, I was intimidated. Waves like that don't exist on New York or New Jersey beaches. Bradshaw laughed, admitting that while the shore waves looked formidable, what was waiting for us three-quarters of a mile out would make these seem tiny. But first we had to get out there through the rough chop.

Donning a tight wet suit and life jacket, I helped wrestle the 1,000-lb craft from the sand into the water, then jumped on the back. Right away, we were rocked as the heavy machine rode up, over, around and down the rough waves. I had no seat belt and was holding on solely via a strap in front of me.

Once through the chop, there was a respite. Swells come in groups every few minutes, and we were between sets. While drifting, I asked Bradshaw what to expect. He told me to hang on as if my life depended on it, but that if I did fall I should be prepared to hold my breath for at least 30 seconds. Waves this large tend to churn fallen surfers as if in a washing machine, eventually spitting them out. Once the water had had its way with me, Bradshaw assured, he'd be there to pick me up.

Suddenly a set of rolling swells became visible in the distance - silent, dark and ominous. In a flash, the first one was upon us. We rode up the side and over the mountain of water, then watched from behind as it broke. The back was fascinating to observe, like the v-roof of a house menacing the shore. At least 20 feet, Bradshaw screamed.

When we looked back to sea, the next swell was rolling toward us, darker and more massive. As it approached, it began to churn and froth - and the more it did, the more it jacked up. Bradshaw liked the looks of it because he pointed our craft into the largest part.

Just after we pulled in, he turned off the engine. I held my breath - and held on. The vertical drop was smooth, but when we hit bottom the ride got rough. Bradshaw refired the engine and I did all I could to keep my balance as we accelerated to 40 mph, zig-zagging to outrun the spitting wall of whitewater.

We pulled up the side lip and stopped. We had just "surfed" a 30-foot face with the machine, Bradshaw said. I was speechless - and impressed. He just smiled.

Next we motored over to two surfers bobbing in the water. One, Kala Alexander (see photo), frantically paddled into a 25-foot bomb and artistically rode the face. To this outsider, the display evoked a combination of reverence and terror.

After a few hours and back on shore, Bradshaw and I headed out for a drink with Rowan, the photographer. We talked about Bradshaw's "Big Wednesday" ride in 1998, and Garrett McNamara's more recent record ride of over 90 feet near Nazare, Portugal.

Like the two-hour marathon, is a 100-foot ride possible we wanted to know? Bradshaw thinks so. It's just being at the right spot in the right conditions. I told him if such conditions are predicted for the North Shore to please give me advance notice and I would fly back out.

I also added that I would prefer to watch from the safety of the shore.

Jim Clash, an adventure journalist, is author of "The Right Stuff: Interviews With Icons of the 1960s" (AskMen, 2012) and "Forbes To The Limits" (Wiley, 2003).