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Lessons Learned: 

Three Faces of Her Beauty

Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oahu

· Lessons Learned

I was drawn to Sunset Beach. I love everything about her. Especially her three faces, the names that I have for the different direction of her swells.

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That's BK, above, Barry Kana’iaupuni, “The man with the turn we’d all like to learn!” said Bruce Brown

Standing in front of Val’s Reef, looking to the right is the North Face: Sunset Point and Back Yards. 

Looking straight out is the Northwest Face: Val’s, and the tail end of a wave that breaks off the point and outside the peak where the North and West come together. 

Looking to the left is the West Face: The West peak, Kamieland, Monster Mush and Rocky Point.

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The North Face

The North Face is my favorite. The surf is good from two feet on up to full-size Sunset. It is long, with lines that march in to the point. The takeoff is mellow except at low tide when it’s small. Then, it sucks out and breaks into super shallow water literally right on the reef. Back in the day, you could always tell the new guys. They would paddle over and eat a very late lunch. I don’t remember anyone warning them. The two guys I surfed there with were really nice – Eddie Aikau and Rick Irons.

Eddie was just Eddie in those days, working as a guard at Waimea Bay. Rick Irons had a brother Phil who lived on Kauai. He was Bruce and Andy Irons’ dad. Eddie got really good really fast. He was a gentleman, always a dear friend to me and my wife, Elise and my son Reyn. Ricky was really a good guy too, taught me a lot about surfing the Point when it was big. He had a really nice style, very smooth. I remember we took off together on a 10- to 12-foot wave. One of first times I took off on a wave that big. I was in front and when I looked back and saw him and looked ahead at the barrel in front of us, I sort of panicked and proned out. He yelled in a nice way, “Hey, we could have made it!” To this day I don’t know if he was serious. But I learned how to surf that wave. If you timed it right you could turn at the top and shoot down the line and then drop down and turn off the bottom a bunch of times. I loved that wave.

Funny thing about Rick, we were really good friends -- in the water. We never socialized or saw each other on land. One day the surf was really good and Rick didn’t show. I remember being surprised. A few evenings later, after surfing the Point again without him, I showed up at soccer practice by the elementary school. As I got out of my car Rick came up to me and before I could ask him where he’d been he started talking in verse. Rick had had his conversion. He became a devout Christian.

I didn’t see him again till a few years ago at Jeff Johnson’s funeral. When he sat down and after we had updated our lives I told him how much I missed him surfing after that. He teared up as he remembered the exact date of our last time together at the elementary school. He thanked me for remembering his conversion, a very special time in his life. I was happy for him, but I had to tell him how much I missed him in the lineup -- first things first. It was hard for me to understand why he had to stop surfing. I was deep into my own process and for the most part I surfed with friends without crowds.

The Northwest Face

The Northwest is a step up in size and difficulty. It starts to break around six to eight feet. The Northwest takeoff is tricky because you have to get past the peak and make it through the West bowl at the end. In the spring, with perfect conditions, the wave is the most fun imaginable. It makes you feel like a genius. Take off in the peak and you get these long, hollow, makeable, beautiful waves.

In the winter it’s another story. Stormy conditions. The learning curve is steep and the wipeouts are not pleasant. But it was just right for Eddie. He would sit outside and charge the biggest waves. The Northwest peak could handle really large waves. I persevered and learned to surf it and avoid the gnarly wipeouts that were common and extremely challenging in preleash days.

The swim is invigorating and somewhat technical. You have to swim all out for the point to avoid getting sucked into the rip. I got fairly good at that and was able to avoid the rip. The other “to-be-avoided-at-all-cost” event was getting wiped out in the impact zone. I got held down a few times in smaller waves and one time I can remember coming up and the mountains behind Sunset were upside down. Not a good sign. The horror stories from the day involved guys getting held down for two waves. I remember several stories where guys were really charging until a serious wipeout took the fire out of their approach.

The guys I always liked to see surf the Northwest, along with Eddie, were MR (Mark Richards) and Charlie Walker. MR is such a great guy. So much humility and love for the sport and his place in it. He is a big guy who adapted really well to the evolution of short boards. If you looked out at the lineup he would be dominating the action -- swooping up from the bottom and doing these huge turns off the top. His style was perfect for the twin-fin which he is given credit for developing.

Charlie Walker was the kid that showed up with Kenny Bradshaw. Both became really good friends. They were a team in the early days. Two guys who showed up to make a life and living out of surfing Sunset. Charlie was the kid, probably still is, the kid who never grew up. He would paddle out right before dark, get a few great waves and then casually walk home. Fun-loving and gifted, I saw him go out and shred more than a few times when no one else did. He would be riding a board that looked too small with great style. So natural in the water, always having fun and catching the most waves.

The West Face

Now we’re talking “peak,” the steep wave that comes out of deep water pushing toward the Point. When it hits the reef, it jacks up into this straight up and down takeoff. The wave is really fast and powerful. I can still see BK doing his no paddle takeoff, driving down to the bottom and then doing this ridiculous laid out turn. His boards always had the thinnest and sharpest rails. He was and still is my favorite surfer to watch.

One time Elise and I were doing the EST training. The seminars were held in town. I would drive home from teaching at Punahou, catch a few waves at Sunset, and then drive back to town for the training. Luckily my parents lived in town so we were able to stay with them for the night. During one of these abbreviated surf sessions, I took off on the West peak behind Barry. He was amazed when he looked back and saw it was me. Not near as amazed as I was that I did it and made the wave. The seminar was encouraging me to let go and do it...whatever. I did it and it scared the hell out of me.

Another time I had a great session on the West peak with Jeff Hackman. It was about 10 feet and perfect conditions. Just the two of us out. I followed him as we got in complete sync with the waves. Jeff could really paddle and he was the best at being in the right place at the right time.

One thing about the West peak. The wipeout can be serious as the wave pushes sideways over the reef. Not a good place to be.

Lessons Learned

When I started surfing at Sunset Beach I was at ground zero. I had to learn about the danger, get in better shape and get the right equipment.

Danger: I quickly learned to be aware of the risks involved in each aspect of her three faces. I learned the right way to paddle out, to surf and to be safe. On more than one occasion I paddled in or didn’t go out.

Better shape: When I started surfing Sunset I weighed 195 lbs. At my best I weighed 168. I got in the best shape of my life. Swimming, running on the beach and eating a special diet.

Equipment: When I started surfing Sunset I had one board. My last year I had a 7’6”, 8’0”, 8’6” and 9’0”. All shaped by Tom Parrish, glassed by Steve Cranston. Having the right equipment is another way to be confident and stay safe.

This was 40-some years ago and I still have vivid memories and feelings of how much I loved surfing Sunset.