Every year, the world's best surfers flock to Oahu's North Shore for the sport's Triple Crown. The waves are phenomenal -- as long as the weather cooperates.
You're on Oahu's North Shore at the Banzai Pipeline, the most famous big wave on the world's most famous big wave surfing coastline. You set up not 50 yards from the wave's rising peak, so close you feel the shivers as its water wall shakes the shoreline.
On the bigger waves, the windows in the houses on the beach rattle as you watch lifeguards gun their wave-running machines to extract a downed surfer before the next wave hits and destroys them both. You might even collect a snapped surfboard half for a souvenir as it washes ashore.
26th annual Vans Triple Crown of Surfing
Where: On Oahu's North Shore, from Haleiwa to the tip of the island. From Honolulu or Waikiki, it's a one-hour drive
When: Wednesday to Dec. 20
Reef Hawaiian Pro: Wednesday to Nov. 23 at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park
O'Neill World Cup of Surfing: Nov. 24 to Dec. 6 at Sunset Beach
Billabong Pipeline Masters: Dec. 8 to 20 at Banzai Pipeline
Women's Reef Hawaiian Pro: Wednesday to Nov. 23, at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park
Roxy Pro: Nov. 24 to Dec. 6 at Sunset Beach
Billabong Pro: Dec. 8 to 20 at Maui's Honolua Bay
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"If you've never been to a surf competition in Hawaii, it's as if you took the space shuttle to the moon and got off into this very surreal experience," says noted big wave rider Dan Moore of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing contests that begin here this week.
"The waves exploding create this energy field in the air that illuminates the whole coast. And the intensity and level of athletic ability has climbed every year, which makes the surfing just phenomenal to watch."
The season for big wave surfing on the North Shore of Oahu begins in October every year and usually lasts till early March.
That's when thousands of surfers gather to prove themselves against the waves and against one another along the 8-mile stretch of coastline that runs from Haleiwa north to Turtle Bay, the North Shore's only resort.
In the heart of this season, beginning Wednesday and running to Dec. 20, the 260 best surfers on the planet will arrive to conclude their year-long professional world tour at the Triple Crown, a series of three men's and three women's surf contests at three North Shore locations. Think of it as the Super Bowl of surfing, with 20-foot-tall linebackers.
All are worthy and accessible spectator events. The first men's and women's contest is at Haleiwa, where the waves break medium-close to shore and are viewed from a bluff that offers a clear vantage.
The second men's and women's contest is at legendary Sunset Beach, where you'll want binoculars for the deep-water surf break.
But it's the third and final competition for the men at Pipeline (the third women's event is at Maui's Honolua Bay) that holds the most prestige and spectacle and unfolds a seashell's throw before you.
Without being in the water, Pipeline is "about as close up as you can get to huge waves anywhere on the planet," says Jodi Wilmott, spokesperson for the Triple Crown. "It's a spectator's dream," provided that the far-off storm patterns are cooperating.
"What people coming to watch the surf competitions need to keep in mind is that you're dealing with Mother Nature," Wilmott says. "Big waves are generated by big storms. We can't predict what day that storm is going to be."
To accommodate that, the Pipeline Masters and each Triple Crown event have a window of 12 to 13 days during which the contest director will select the best four or five to hold the event.
That spur-of-the-moment element might leave travelers uncertain. Wilmott advises those planning five to seven days in Hawaii to schedule their trip in the middle of the time frame. For example, the Pipeline Masters runs Dec. 8 to 20, "so I'd recommend you come between Dec. 11 and 17 if you want to be guaranteed to catch at least one day of great waves," she says.
A contest day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning at 7 a.m., a hotline keeps spectators posted on whether the event is on or not that day, (808) 596-7873.
"It might say there is no competition today because the waves are 30 feet and closing out on the North Shore. But for a spectator, that might not even matter because at 30 feet, they might want to come over just to see anyway," Wilmott says.
To avoid traffic and secure a good spot on a Triple Crown day, start out before 8 a.m. The North Shore has just one coast road of one lane each way, and on contest days traffic will start to back up by 10 or 11 a.m. But as a rule, even the worst traffic won't delay you more than 45 minutes.
Besides, "it's Hawaii. You just learn to go with it," says Moore, who has lived in the islands for 35 years. "And if you come later, there is going to be some turnover of people coming and going all the time."
The first parking option for the Pipeline Masters and Sunset Beach is along the roadside and that fills up fast. When it does, local residents open up their yards and charge $5 for parking. It's worth every penny; it'll be a short walk to the beach and the event itself is free.
Reily is a Times staff writer.