The first time you see Waimea Bay on a flat and sunny day, the beauty of the place literally floors you. It is stunning, a tranquil azure bay with jump rocks, sun-worshippers, kids playing around in the shorebreak with a relaxed and casual vibe about.
It is hard to connect the frightful lore surrounding this hallowed place, to the serene beauty of the bay and environs.
Surfers like Donnie Soloman and Dickie Cross have died while surfing at Waimea Bay, Alec Cooke went missing never to be found and others have been seriously injured at the formidable break. It is a traditional big wave spot, no skis allowed.
The preparation for a session at Waimea differs from person-to-person, but for me it consisted of finding the longest board I could find under the house, cleaning the old wax job and putting a fresh coat on.
I polished the underside, I carefully checked the fins, and I scrutinised my big wave leash. I chose my boardies carefully – fairly tight-fitting, with a drawstring – and a stock standard rash vest. No inflatable vest. Finishing off with a quick comb of the fresh and sticky warm water wax, I was ready to conquer the world, but first The Bay.
The paddle out at Waimea is fairly uneventful, as long as you negotiate the shorebreak correctly. It is a somewhat tricky little shore-pound, but most surfers who are competent enough to be attempting a surf at Waimea should have no problem in dealing with the entry. It is powerful, and it does smash down. Should you blow it, you’ll be in view of everyone at the beach, and might possibly get a friendly mention from the lifeguard on duty on his or her loudhailer, which is fairly ignominious.
Once beyond the shorebreak, it’s a straightforward paddle out to the backline as long as there are no close-out sets. For a wave to close out The Bay it needs to be in excess of 40ft in height, just in case you were wondering.
Witnessing the ocean go black and watching a close-out set unload on a group of surfers, from the safety of the house on the point, is still one of the scariest things I have ever experienced in surfing.
The wave itself looks fairly benign on first approach on this small sunshiny day, with soft shoulders wrapping along the nearly right-angled point.
Surfers ride the shoulders, and there are old Hawaiian guys out there catching a few on their giant blades. One of them looks just like Duke Kahanamoku. There are women out there, also scraping into a few edges, and there are also a few of the younger crew – all Hawaiian – having a go on what looks like decidedly small boards for the exercise. Still, waves being ridden, people smiling, warm water, sun shining. What could go wrong?
It’s actually very difficult to catch a wave, any wave, out there, and extremely tough to find one for yourself
It’s actually very difficult to catch a wave, any wave, out there, and extremely tough to find one for yourself. On a small day, there is a little swarm on it, as the waves are, to be honest, closer to entry-level size for Waimea. No ‘Unridden Realm’ today, no ‘Superbowl Saturday’ swell on the horizon, and no need for someone like Ken Bradshaw to do three laps of The Bay in a superhuman attempt to make landfall.
The ride however, is not quite what you would think on a small day like this. Firstly, when Waimea starts to break it also starts to barrel a bit. The lip throws in the take-off zone, and if you’re going to paddle into that zone, you need to show some serious commitment if you want a chance to get one. Secondly, if your board isn’t tuned for Waimea, there’s a good chance you’re going to bungle your drop. Catch an edge on a board that has too much of an edge, and you’re tracking, falling and going under water, possibly quite deep. Thirdly, if you don’t have a little bit of big wave nous, then you’re most likely going to try and turn too early, instead of riding the avalanche out. This information I gained from watching.
After paddling for two set waves on the peak I realised that I was pretty feckless in the face of such peril. It wasn’t really about the size, or the drop, which didn't look very nice, but more about the other surfers in the line-up paddling furiously alongside me for every wave that I had selected for myself, as the biggest dissuasion.
Instead I paddled to the general safety of the shoulder, waited for a soft one, shoulder-hopped and dropped-in on someone, and rode my only wave all the way through to the shorebreak and to subsequent escape.
It might not have been a hard-charging life-altering big wave experience, but it was one to be ticked off the list. When it comes to scary waves around the world, I have my own list (it sounds like bucket).