Triple Crown season on Oahu is ground zero for professional surfing—which is exactly why you don’t go to the North Shore in November or December. But come New Years, most of the circus has left town, while the waves have just started showing up for the party.
January in Hawaii is the start of the peoples' season—if the people are underground hell chargers who want to test themselves against the world’s most consistent heavy water venues.
Long-period north and northwest swells pulse through on a regular basis, sculpted by the predominant ENE tradewinds, which are side/offshore for most of the waves peppering the stretch of coast between Turtle Bay and Kaena Point. Whether you are looking for high-performance heaven, a big wave bonanza, or the barrel of your life, Oahu in January is the place to find it.
Considered by many to be the most rippable wave on the North Shore, Rocky Point is a shred-fest as long as the waves are below double-overhead, with the easterly trades polishing both the left and right into hollow canvases.
And don’t worry if the wind clocks around to the northeast—that’s prime time air wind at Rocky Lefts, one of the most puntable bowls in Hawaii.
Mikala and Daniel Jones grew up a stone’s throw from the water at Rocky Point, and the guest list at their house in 1990s and 2000s was a who’s who of cutting-edge surf talent. Today, their backyard still hosts front-row seats to the best and most consistent show on the North Shore—even when the pros have all left town.
The best pair of barrels in Hawaii, and possibly the most famous peak in the world, Pipeline and Backdoor are just a half mile west of Rocky Point, and are the uncontested proving ground for would-be tube masters.
The left at Pipeline loves a big west swells, and grinds into a narrow channel, while Backdoor’s righthander is a bit more of a gamble that regularly churns “wave of your life” fodder when the swell goes more northerly.
The tradewinds are offshore for the most part, so as long as there is swell and the sand is off the reef, Pipe and Backdoor are arguably the best and most challenging barrel in the world—just ask John John Florence, who grew up on the wave, and is quickly becoming one of the best barrel riders of all time.
Half a mile in the opposite direction from Rocky Point (do you see why they call it the seven-mile miracle?) lies Sunset Beach, the ultimate training ground for those looking to work their way into the XL+ realm.
Technically a righthand reef point, Sunset actually has a number of sections that work at different sizes. The inside section at Val’s Reef is rippable up to the head-high range, when the wave shifts out to The Point, a rippable if somewhat hard-to-decipher righthander that runs the reef.
Once the swell goes into the double-overhead range, the wave moves to Middles and the infamous Inside Bowl, which is essentially a fickle, often-closed-out, slabby barrel with a deceptively welcoming entry.
Then, as he swell gets even bigger, the West Bowl starts to show, scaring the bejeezus out of would-be paddlers who get caught inside. Middles and the West Bowl handle up to around the 25- to 30-foot face mark, although by that size the lineup is usually pretty chaotic and difficult to navigate.
Sunset is infamous for being one of the most difficult waves to figure out (and one of the few places Kelly Slater hasn’t won a major event), so unless you are Michael Ho you will probably never master the deep-water lineup.
But it’s a great stepping stone to Waimea and the outer reefs, and the go-to spot when the trades are ripping and the swell is in that weird, in-between, 15- to 25-foot face size where just about everywhere else is maxed out, but the outer reefs aren’t quite flexing yet.
The Bay has been a classic since long before the Beach Boys immortalized (and mispronounced) it in Surfin’ USA. The break is an iconic staple of Hawaiian surfing, the original big wave spot, and perhaps one of the most easily accessible heavy water breaks in existence.
But don’t let the idyllic setting fool you—Waimea is not for the faint of heart. Lots of people will paddle out to Pinballs (the inside righthander by the rocks) and tell you they’ve surfed The Bay, but until the waves get big enough to hit the ledge, it isn’t real Waimea.
Once the swell goes properly XXL—25 feet and bigger on the face—Waimea turns into a lurchy, slabby drop-to-shoulder that gets taller and thicker as the swell builds until The Bay closes out at around 50-to-60 foot on the face.
Wind isn’t really a huge factor, so The Bay tends to handle most XXL swells. And for those who enjoy a good body whomp, the shorebreak is a great place to bodysurf and bodyboard.
“The Eddie” was an uber-prestigious big wave contest that ran for three decades (whenever the waves went consistently 35+ feet on the face), memorializing Eddie Aikau, one of Oahu’s greatest and best-loved lifeguards, and perhaps The Bay’s most legendary aficionado.
Although the contest was nixed in 2017/18 due to lack of sponsorship, Waimea is still the most-surfed spot on the North Shore when the swell hits advisory level, overrun by big wave heroes and aspiring chargers looking to tap into Eddie’s mystique and the adrenaline rush that comes with acing the drop at Hawaii’s most infamous big wave.
Cover shot by Trevor Carlson