Photographing professional big wave surfers at a major competition and meeting a surfing legend was not what I had in mind for my first trip to Hawaii, but therein lies the beauty of this trip. I headed over to see my friend Richard, an extreme sports photographer/photojournalist, in Oahu, Hawaii. It was early December and I needed a major break from the weather and work in Houston.
So many people love Hawaii, yet I never had the desire to go, preferring a Caribbean beach instead. After finding a non-stop round-trip flight on Continental for $350 to Honolulu, typical for this time of year I later found out, it was a no-brainer. Besides, I hadn't seen Richard in four years after meeting him in South Beach (that's a whole other story). Richard's a Hawaii native with a free spirit so I was super excited!
I could count on an adventure, no typical tourist spots and hotels, but I really had no clue what the trip would entail and I preferred it that way. No plans, just going with the flow. I didn't realize, though, how much I would be immersed in the surfing world of Hawaii. I came knowing nothing and left with a newfound respect and admiration for the sport.
I arrived in Honolulu to be picked up by Emily, Richard's co-worker's fiancée (get that?). Richard was filming The Triple Crown of Surfing Competition at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu and couldn't come. So, my new friend Emily and I drove for 45 minutes into the country by jeep catching up. She had been in Hawaii for several days and explained that The Triple Crown is the biggest surfing competition in the world with three separate events on different beaches, Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park, Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach. And we're not talking just any kind of waves that are surfed here - we're talking big waves - waves that can reach fifty feet in height. The timing of my arrival was unknowingly perfect. I missed the first two events, but would be able to see the last event at Sunset Beach and the ultimate winner crowned.
Sure enough, as we pulled into the North Shore area, the tiny coastal road is swarming with surfers- surfers walking with their boards, cars with surfboards on top, and if someone didn't have a surfboard, you can bet they still surfed or at least looked the part. We stopped at a beach house one-half mile from the competition.
The house was rented by a production company and was busy with staff filming, editing footage, and writers keeping an online update of the events. Come to find out, Richard was filming footage for a documentary on the Triple Crown for an extreme sports channel. Whoa! There I was, Kimberly, Richard's friend from Texas (as I came to be known), standing on the back patio watching a big wave competition.
Like a little girl blissfully ignorant of the magnitude the Triple Crown represented, I skipped down the trail to the beach. As I strolled along headed towards the competition, it slowly dawned on me that most surfers would kill to be in my shoes! I was in awe, mesmerized by the waves, the surfers, and the crowd of on-lookers who had traveled crazy distances to be here.
It was wonderful to spot Richard up in his stand filming. After he finished work, we headed to a tiny, local grocery store to grab some food and wine. Apparently, the motto at this grocery store was 'No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem' because bikinis, board shorts and bare feet with the occasional pair of flip-flops were the customer attire. Having grown up being a water baby, I felt right at home.
The next few days Richard worked, but this gave me plenty of opportunity to just relax solo during the mornings and afternoons. I walked a mile down the beach from Sunset to the other big surfing break, the Banzai Pipeline. Pipeline has been called the world's deadliest wave because the waves are huge and they break on a shallow reef with sharp lava rocks underneath. In fact, the day I arrived, a surfer had gone out and never came back. This was no joke and the make-shift memorial of flowers reminded me of the danger these surfers risk to catch that perfect wave.
Of course, I also took in plenty of sun at Sunset Beach while watching the professional surfers do what they do best. Big wave surfing is much more complicated than I realized. Jet-skis usually take the surfers out to the break and release them while the water rescue patrol is constantly monitoring the surfers just outside of the break. These were some pretty gnarly waves and I was stoked! Like my new surfing vocab? It's fun to use when I get the chance.
One day Richard got to film the competition from the back patio of the beach house. This allowed us to hang out more and Richard asked me to pick up his camera and shoot some photos for him. A new interest in surfing photography was born. I learned how to watch the sets come in (waves come in sets of sometimes three or four at a time with downtime in between) and I learned how to wait for the surfer to do an awesome move or ride the barrel (or hollow part of the wave) for that ideal photo.
Richard even let me stand behind his TV camera and though I didn't film anything, I pretended! The last day of the competition, I felt like a good surfing photographer and caught the winners as they walked onto shore and were lifted up by the crowd. I thought the end of the competition meant the end of my surfing experiences in Hawaii as Richard and I packed up to stay at a quaint, little beach cottage his friend owned in Waimanalo - I was wrong.
New York, London, Paris, Waimanalo... states my new refrigerator magnet. This place has one of the best beaches I've ever been to. I consider myself a beach connoisseur, and this beach has a calm, British Virgin Island Caribbean feel. The complete opposite of the raging waves on the North Shore in the winter months.
The small town of Waimanalo is on Oahu's east side and is populated with mostly locals. It's not a town with money or friendly faces, let's just say, but the beach cottages are alongside a safe and isolated street of fancy houses - in fact, for fun trivia knowledge, one is owned by the lead singer of Metallica.
Our stay at the Waimanalo Beach Cottages would be our base camp for the remainder of the trip. If you are looking to experience Oahu at a non-touristy, low key, but clean and comfortable place- this is it. Sunrise picture taking was a favorite for us as we awoke, grabbed our coffee, and headed down the little dirt path to the shore. This uncrowded crescent moon-shaped beach with jutting mountains on one side and islands off in the distance is idyllic if you're a beach lover.
While driving around one afternoon, Richard gets a call from a friend who happens to be the wife of surfing legend, Joey Cabell. She asked him to photograph his 70th birthday party later that week. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on Joey Cabell's couch drinking Mai Tais and hanging out with a bunch of Hawaiian legends. Is this for real? Richard pointed out several people, including the guy that invented those popular Hawaiian flowered, buttoned down shirts. I also had the honor of meeting Joey Cabell, whom I had never heard of before, but come to find out he was a revolutionary professional surfer in his time. I strolled around his home looking at old surfing photographs hanging on the wall, eating catered food, sipping on tasty tropical drinks, and dancing to the local Hawaiian band in the backyard. There are times in a person's life when everything comes together for a moment that could never have been dreamed of or planned- this was one of those moments and I was breathing it all in.
Of course, I had the itch to try surfing by the end of my trip. Richard took me to White Plains Beach to start since the waves are smaller there. White Plains is by no means a gorgeous beach. It is located near a military base and so consists of military men and family. However, it is perfect for the beginner surfer. I paddled out and with determination I actually rode several waves on a longboard (a beginner's best friend). I loved it- the thrill of coasting a wave with the wind rushing through my hair was amazing! It's definitely a workout as you had to keep paddling around the break and fight the tide to maintain a good spot to catch a wave, but it's worth it. I couldn't believe I was a little surfer girl now - at the age of 31.
Back at my 9 to 5 in Texas, my mind often wonders to those moments when I felt truly free. Whether captivated by the fearlessness of big wave surfers, peacefully relaxing on the white sandy beaches of Sunset and Waimanalo, photographing mind-blowing sunrises, meeting a surfing legend, or riding my first wave - this was living life.
I may not be able to practice surfing as much as I want living in Houston, but once you ride a wave, you never forget the feeling. I only surfed for two days in Hawaii, but I can still feel that rush, and the memories I have spur me on towards my return!