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The island of Oahu is home to a handful of the most famous and iconic surf breaks in the world. The Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach, Makaha, Ala Moana Bowls, and Queen’s Beach are among the most photographed and recognizable breaks anywhere. However, I grew up along the shores of southeast Oahu, a region home to many world-class waves and relatively free of the savage crowds that are to be expected by anyone paddling out to Oahu’s more glamorous surf spots.
At the risk of divulging secrets of the southeast Oahu surf-state, I offer a cursory guide to some of the high-quality surf spots that the average visitor will never see or surf without a learned local to get them out there. It is important to note that these spots are accessible by beach parks or public right-of-way, but all are without lifeguards and involve a formidable paddle-out. And the paddle in always takes longer, so be advised. Also be advised that the locals at these spots will be surprised to see anyone they haven’t seen before. Tread lightly, and with maximum respect if you are lucky enough to be out at one of these hidden gems.
On the backside of Diamond Head, on a nubby peninsula encrusted with million-dollar homes, is Blackpoint. Like most of the spots on Oahu’s southeast coast, it’s fickle, requiring a fairly precise combination of wind, swell, and tide to truly shine. And as with most spots along the coast, the locals are neighborhood kids, young and old.
Heading east along Kalanianaole Highway from the end of H-1 Freeway, Wailupe Beach Park is the first public beach to find. Modestly appointed with limited parking and a slightly medieval public latrine, Wailupe’s is a predominant left break, with inside sections called “Bones” and “Lefts” for reasons that will be obvious even to first timers. The break is accessible via a 15-minute paddle through a man-made small craft channel notorious for its turbid water and general sharkiness.
Another 1.5 miles down the coast toward Koko Head and Hanauma Bay is Kawaikui Beach Park. Directly out from the park on the right and left are “Secrets” and “Toes,” respectively. Both offer quality right and left peaks, and due to their exposure to prevailing trade winds, both are among the most consistent on Oahu. But both are long paddles with no lifeguards other than the surfers already there when you arrive, so “be nice” is a good personal policy at these spots and at the public picnic facilities available.
The next public access beach along the coast is known as “Snipes” because it doesn’t have an official name; just a sign that says “beach access.” It’s not a typical Hawaii postcard kind of beach. It’s a break in a fence at the end of Niu Valley Stream, along a culvert with mostly stagnant, brackish water of dubious quality. It may not be pretty, but another long and often challenging paddle-out could be rewarded with hollow and almost impossibly fast and generally empty waves.
The next public beach is Kuliouou Beach Park. With public restrooms, benches, and plenty of room to spread out a barbeque the park features one of the heavier, dangerous waves on the southeast Oahu coast. “Tuna Bowls” is a harrowingly shallow reef break with only a hint of a channel that becomes nonexistent when the swell is up. Certainly an “experts-only” break, Tuna Bowls is fickle, manic, brutally powerful, and sometimes among the best waves anywhere in the world. It is not for the timid. Many inexperienced surfers find themselves unable to even reach the break.
At the southeastern-most end of Maunalua Bay is Portlock Point, home to China Walls. Accessible through a maze of residential streets with stucco mansions and beach palazzos, this is certainly one of the most dangerous public access beaches on Oahu. There is no beach, really, just a lava rock shelf that drops precipitously into the ocean. China Walls is a long, deep water left break that is capable of holding the biggest swells that arrive on Oahu’s south shore. On big days, locals will be out on big wave boards, praying not to be caught inside when a rogue 10-15 foot set marches through the lineup. China Walls is an experts only surf spot.
The importance of safety and situational awareness at surf spots along this quiet coast cannot be overstated. Because there are no lifeguards at any of the locations discussed here, personal safety is a decidedly personal responsibility. And while locals at these spots may shoot puzzled looks at newcomers, honoring the social contract and observing the unwritten rules of the local surf spot will likely provide visiting surfers with memorable waves and the chance to make new friends. And once you have a friend in the lineup, you’re a local.