FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
A surfer at Haleiwa's Alii Beach is seen through the legs of spectators on the beach. Every winter, when the first ocean swells of the season roll in, thousands of local residents, tourists and surfers from around the globe make their way to the North Shore.
Big waves swell N. Shore economy
Residents learn to cope with the seasonal influx of traffic and people
Since opening a pizzeria on Oahu's North Shore four years ago, Jerry Coffman has relied on the big waves to keep his business afloat.
They never fail.
After losing money half of the year, the owner of Sunset Pizza gets busy every winter when the first ocean swells of the season roll in along the island's north coast, attracting thousands of local residents, tourists and surfers from around the globe.
"It's pretty radical," said Coffman, 39, who experiences a sixfold increase in business with the thousands who pack the beaches to watch professional and amateur surfers brave the monster waves. "They park their cars all along the sides of the street, so they have to see us."
Sunny Hawaii, rarely hit by bad weather itself, benefits from storms in the Northern Hemisphere that push massive swells toward this 7-mile stretch of coastline, considered to be the world's best for the sport. The perfectly shaped, giant waves attract professionals and thrill-seekers to compete and surf to cheering throngs along the shore.
"The waves are amazing, and they break in such a short stretch of coast," said pro surfer Russell Winter, who is from Newquay, England, and is here trying to qualify for next year's World Championship Tour. "There are not that many places that have that."
When the first surf contest was held on the North Shore more than three decades ago, about 50 people sat on the beach as surfers tamed dangerous waves exploding a few feet above sharp coral reef. Now, on any given day, an estimated 2,500 people line the beach during a series of three contests known as the Triple Crown of Surfing, whose participants represent 21 countries.
It's a "tradition," said CJ Hobgood, a top-ranked surfer from Satellite Beach, Fla. "The place breeds good surfing," said Hobgood, who won surfing's only world title here in 2001. "It almost feels weird if you are not here."
Last year's final day of competition at the Banzai Pipeline in December drew a record 11,000 people, said Randy Rarick, who directs the prestigious series and has been managing contests here for 30 years. "It has grown tremendously," Rarick said.
The contests generated an estimated $7.8 million in 2003 alone. Sponsor investment in the three events has grown from less than $100,000 in 1986 to more than $1.2 million in 2003.
But the events and the traffic they bring annoy some residents by closing popular surf breaks and increasing trash on beaches. Fights between local and visiting surfers are common, and in 2003 a resident prevented contest officials from setting up a tower with scaffolding by threatening to file a lawsuit.
Longtime North Shore resident Peter Cole said there are days when up to 100 surfers gather in one single break, compared with a maximum of about 30 when he moved here in the 1960s.
"We like it when it's not so crowded. It's kind of a zoo," said Cole, a legendary surfer from Santa Monica, Calif. "But everybody acts pretty well."
Rarick said contest officials are concerned about the tensions they create. Four years ago, to reduce some of the crowd and meet the demand of a growing industry, they set up an Internet site to provide live video feed of all contests.
"We actually don't want big crowds because we don't have enough facilities, so we are encouraging this," Rarick said. "During the weekdays we have a much higher Web usage because the guys got their computers at work."
Kathleen Pahinui, chairwoman of the North Shore neighborhood board, said residents have grown used to the temporary chaos in their community, and many welcome the crowds.
"It happens every year so everyone anticipates it," said the 15-year Waialua resident. "We love it. We don't love the traffic that comes with it, but everyone goes with the flow."