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Has Mainstream Surfing Outgrown The North Shore?

The Triple Crown begins in earnest this week (today, actually), but is the annual pilgrimage to Hawaii an antiquated vestige of bygone eras of radness? Is there a point to sleeping on a centipede-infested futon for two months?

Has mainstream surfing finally outgrown the North Shore?

Since the fabled Swell of ’69, to Eddie at the Bay, to the Curren cutback, to the Wolf Pak’s regulating rule, for half a century surfers have been challenging the North Shore in every manner imaginable.

It is, bar none, the most ridden, documented and celebrated lava shelf in the world. It’s gone through periods of innocence, indulgence, psychedelic experimentation, violent localism and oh-so much more. On its sands, we’ve crowned world champions and mourned the loss of heroes. The North Shore is to surfing what Yosemite’s Camp 4 is to free climbers, a place where the line between reality and legend become wholly blurred. 

But has mainstream surfing outgrown the North Shore? Let’s start with the WSL’s bid to start the CT season in Hawaii rather than end it. What does that mean for the prestige and luster of the Pipe Masters and Triple Crown? Since the dawn of surfing’s competitive age, the North Shore’s been the end-of-the-year proving ground. Like anything involving the WSL, or surfing in general it seems, the matter is complicated.

For one, the issue of local surfers competing in the annual contests is already a hot-button subject. It has been for years, but in the last week, Da Hui rekindled the fire, calling out the WSL on Instagram and hosting a rally at Velzyland to discuss the situation.

“We Have The TALENT To Take On the World's BEST SURFERS! And win!!! This is our 'Āina, our Kai, our Sport and we plan to keep it that way!” reads their post.

With plans to shift the tour schedule towards a South Pacific finish, and a primetime World Championship Indonesian specialty event, what does that mean for the North Shore’s winter season? Is it diminutive to the North Shore season, hosting a no-doubt dramatic WSL season opener, but not enjoying the champagne showers that have rained down on Pipe for ages.

But the issue’s hardly limited to what happens in a jersey.

In recent years, bigger waves have been discovered around the world, throwing a bit of shade on the once mythic Bay and Oahu’s myriad outer reefs. Places like Mavs, Nazare and Jaws have all eroded the North Shore’s reputation as the go-to spot for those looking to make a name for themselves.

And speaking of hellmen, where have they all gone? The characters that once made the North Shore such a rich tapestry of human eccentricity fade into the mists of time. Guys like Alec “Ace” Coole, Marvin Foster, Ronnie Burns, and of course, Todd Chesser, all added their own uniqueness to the local North Shore scene. Those are hard shoes to fill, even for cool cats like Mark Healey or Makua Rothman. The North Shore’s always been at its best when it’s been a crossroads of humanity.

And when it comes to wave quality, Pipe is obviously its own beast, but are the other spots really all that “world-class”? Consider that with developments in forecasting spots like P-Pass in Micronesia and the Tuamotus in French Polynesia have become viable alternatives. Both locations take the same north swells that light up the Bay and Sunset, and they’ve got a lot more exotic mojo going for them. Off The Wall is nothing more than a glorified, over photographed close-out. Archy’s still the only one to be able to lay down a proper turn out there, and when the swell starts pulsing the close-outs just grow more ominous. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the sweeping current at Rocky Point. Mason Ho can have it.

Gone are the days when surfers could scrape some change together and post up in a rickety, old A-frame for the winter. Kammie’s Market’s been bulldozed. Velzyland’s a gated community. Today it’s all multi-million dollar homes on Ke Nui. As the North Shore has grown more and more gentrified, the local folks that gave the community its character have sought residence in other parts of the island or moved out of the islands all together. That’s not to say it’s lost its soul, but money always seems to create issues and as the Seven Mile Miracle’s (for surfers) become the hippest place to winter the costs have soared.

All that being said, nostalgia’s a powerful commodity. Coconut cream pies from Ted’s bakery, cruising the Ke Nui bike path, playful sessions at the Ehukai sandbar, Sunset when it’s six-foot, body whomping the Waimea shorebreak, the North Shore is a damn fine place to be a surfer. The warm water alone justifies the plane ticket. The recent proliferation of food trucks has brought more affordable dining options. And haoles aren’t nearly as likely to be punched out as they once were (which is can be either a good or bad thing depending on your perception). 

For most of us, the waves are as challenging as they were back in the in exploratory days of the early ‘50s. Surfboards may have evolved, but the power of the surf on the North Shore remains unequalled pretty much anywhere else on Earth. Swells travel so fast and hit the island out of such deep water, that even the best surfers on the most modern equipment remain challenged. Put it like this, there’s a reason Kelly Slater and John John Florence are neighbors. So even though P-Pass and the Tuamotus are rad and exotic, even though Keramas is more rippable than Rocky Point, they’re still NOT the North Shore.

I don’t know if surfing really “needs” the North Shore anymore, but tradition is important. North Shore will forever be surfing’s mecca, a mythic land for the passionate pilgrims. Does the birthplace of the sport deserve special treatment because of our shared history? The subject is rife with debate, but 60 years down the track since Pat Curren christened his Meade Hall, the North Shore is still a hell of a lot more interesting than Lemoore.

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