A North Shore recollection to match the winter of 2009
By Jim Kempton
Some surf historians consider 2009’s winter the biggest and best surf in many years—some say since the epic winter of 1969, 40 years before. For those of us who were lucky to have seen it, 2009’s Northern Pacific put on a display that most young surfers had never seen in their lifetime: massive unworldly Pe’ahe on Maui, maxed out Waimea Bay, mountainous Himalayas and 25’ Sunset peaks on Oahu. Thinking about the winter of 2009 took me back to my first surf trip to the Islands.
At 18, I secretly sneaked off to Hawaii during Christmas break without telling my parents. I joined a band of surf brothers on our first big adventure.
For the first few nights on the North Shore we slept on the beach at Rocky Point—until the mosquito bites covered our bodies. Luckily we found one of the dilapidated Cane houses to rent that had just been dumped in the cleared area across from the famous surf break Velzyland. There were only two homes on V’land’s beach side then, and a narrow jungle path led from Kamehameha Highway to the sand.
In preparation for out trip, we had bought used boards from the Surfboards Hawaii shop in Encinitas (where I worked rubbing rails after school).
In those years Surfboard Hawaii was located in the other half of the building where La Paloma Theater still stands. We had watched filmmaker George Greenough’s handheld over-the-shoulder water camera angles of inside-the-tube footage for the first time that summer. We wanted to experience real tube-riding, Island style; even if we didn’t have any idea of what Hawaiian wave power could deliver.
Surf luminary Billy Hamilton, who was shaping at Surfboards Hawaii at the time, told me that our 5-foot, 10-inch square-tailed V-bottom stubs were not going to work at Sunset. When a legend gives you a tip, you take his word for it.
We didn’t have any money but we packed enough peanut butter and jelly in our backpacks to last the Christmas break – and were outraged at paying 85 cents for a loaf of bread at Kammies Market (it was about 25 cents at home). Thankfully, in those days, the airlines brought your boards for free.
When the surf finally got small enough, we ventured out at Sunset. Or at least we thought it was small enough. When we got outside, the wave-faces were 12 to 15 feet. We watched big wave hero Hawaiian Barry Kanaiaupuni drop into these bombs while we huddled in the channel. When we dared get close enough we recognized other legends riding too: Reno Abellira, Randy Rarick, Sam Hawk and Tiger Espere. Watching them ride these waves, we swore they must be from a different planet.
It was the first time I’d ever seen really big—no, really big waves. It was an unforgettable season; one I haven’t seen since—until 3 years ago—in the winter of 2009. And yep, you guessed it—that first trip I took was the winter of ‘69.
Jim Kempton was the Editor and then Publisher of Surfer Magazine in the age just before the meteor hit that killed the dinosaurs. For the record, he remembers catching hell from Mom and Dad upon his return, but the accuracy of his memory cannot be confirmed or relied upon.