6th Dec 2017 - Escape
A Surfer’s Pilgrimage
Hawaii is a place synonymous with surfing, and is the source of and inspiration for the waterman lifestyle. The best season for surf is during the winter months, which is just when our good friend Mr. George Stoy has made his annual pilgrimage in recent years. A true gentleman surfer, we caught up with George to learn more about what it’s like as a surfer to visit the place where it all began.
A trip to Hawaii is a pilgrimage for many surfers. What is it that makes these islands, and the North Shore of Oahu in particular, so important?
If you stop any non-surfer on the street and ask them what they know about surfing, most will default to Hawaii. The natural beauty, rich history and culture, tropical water and variety of waves make the islands a well-established mecca for surfers.
The North Shore of Oahu, also known as the seven-mile miracle, has the highest density of world class waves on the planet. With such size, quality, power, consistency and variety of waves in so small an area, the North Shore of Oahu is unlike anywhere else and its title as 'the proving grounds' is well founded.
Whilst there is evidence of other ancient wave riding cultures around the world, the direct lineage to British surfing from Hawaii makes it the cultural and historical point of origin for us - and the majority of surfers globally.
Do you get a sense of history surfing these iconic breaks?
I'm not sure if it's a generational thing, but for me growing up most of the first images and films of surfing I saw featured Hawaii. Therefore the islands and the Waikiki and Diamond Head backdrop on the south coast of Oahu was, from an early age, synonymous with surfing.
It's definitely surreal surfing waves that you've seen in surf films and magazines so often and the experience, especially on the North Shore, can be intense. The sense of history and desire to honour the place and its heritage and natural beauty is definitely a part of it. However there's so much to take in - learning new waves, how they break and how the line-ups work - that the focus this takes, adjusting to the size and power in the waves and trying to get the right board under your feet, for me left little room in the moment to be too romantic about it all. Once you find your place and start building your wave count you start to be able to relax and enjoy it, but there is always an intensity and focus - particularly at certain breaks. The ride of your life is on just the other side of fear, but then so is the beating of your life, so you have to ease yourself into it.
How did you first come to visit Hawaii?
My parents honeymooned in Hawaii and Japan and I remember wanting to go there as a kid when they showed me their old photos and the cine film from their trip. This desire to visit just kept growing as I became more and more obsessed with surfing and travel.
I almost went in my twenties but was persuaded by friends in New Zealand to head to Fiji instead. I'd been thinking about it over the last ten years. In reality though, I was pretty intimidated by the prospect of the waves and the whole scene on the North Shore.
The catalyst was having friends who live between Cornwall and Hawaii invite us over. Their experience living there and their love and enthusiasm for the island made it suddenly feel way more accessible and achievable. Each winter is an exciting adventure, and the first winter was really special and I will be eternally indebted to their generosity and guidance as I set about learning the waves and line-ups, and being shown the island and its incredible history and culture.
What is the North Shore of Oahu like for a visiting surfer?
I guess everyone's experience is different depending on his or her motive for visiting. There's definitely an element of being a bit star struck when you first stand watching places like Pipeline, Sunset and Waimea breaking. The first major thing that I realised was that to ride waves like Sunset at any kind of size, you need the right equipment. My first winter I struggled getting the right board under me and snapped the two boards that I had with me in two surfs - so it was definitely a baptism of fire! The second year I had a board that I had picked up secondhand the year before, which was great for smaller sunset, a sunset gun made for me by local legend Owl Chapman, and a 9’6” gun which I borrowed to get to grips with Waimea. Some of the world’s top surfboard shapers are based on the island so if you want a board to get you into proper North Shore juice there's all the experience and craftsmanship you'll ever need.
The best way to explore the North Shore from Waimea to Velzyland is by bike using the North Shore bike path. There are a few places where you can hire beach cruiser bikes, and some of them have surfboard racks which makes life easier. The North Shore lifeguards are the best in the business and always prefer to give advice and guidance than have to fish people out.
I guess the advice for a first time visitor is to go gently, spend time watching the waves, respect the ocean and the other surfers and arrive ready to learn a lot. There are also amazing hiking trails with incredible views, some of which take a high tolerance for excitement and head for heights!
What does a typical day there look like?
There's no such thing.
If you could suggest a book to read whilst visiting Hawaii, what would it be and why?
Audrey Sutherland - 'Paddling North'
This book is a beautiful account of Sutherland’s summer-long solo kayaking trip along the south coast of Alaska aged 60. The story of her life and adventures living and raising a family in Hawaii are humbling, and her independence and no-nonsense attitude is refreshing and inspiring.
William Finnegan - Barbarian Days.
A brilliantly written (and Pulitzer Prize winning) adventure memoir, that explores the obsession to master surfing and how life moulds around it.
Heathcote Williams - Whale Nation.
One of the highlights in Hawaii is spotting whales cruising past on the horizon exhaling water high into the sky. I first heard the actor Tim McInnerny read extracts from Whale Nation at Port Eliot Festival and was hooked. 'A majestic and astonishing masterpiece that forces us all to rethink our place in the universe as well as to celebrate the beauty, strength and nobility of the whale.'
Having a network of local friends, can you share an insight into their lives and relationships with the ocean?
One of the loveliest things to experience is just how powerful their connection with the ocean and the surrounding countryside is. Most of the friends that I've made on Oahu moved there for the surf, or earn/have earned their living either directly or indirectly from the ocean or surfing. Their lives, whilst full and diverse in many ways, are linked intrinsically to the ocean. It's definitely an outdoorsy, active way of life there. The local school, Sunset Elementary, is directly opposite the Ehukai beach park and the North Shore Junior Lifeguard programme runs as an essential part of the local kids’ ocean skills and knowledge development. It's a small and tight knit community whose pillars are family, community and a love of the ocean and environment.
The islands have rich ancient and modern histories. I love hanging out with the people that I've become friends with and exploring the island with them and hearing their anecdotes.
Apart from surfing the North Shore what are your top 5 things to do on Oahu?
Hike some trails
Visit Waikiki and pay your respects to the Duke. Ride a wave at Queens/Canoes and enjoy a beachside cocktail as the sun goes down.
The Bishops Museum is the best place to immerse oneself in Hawaiian history and culture.
Drive the coastal road from Haleiwa to Honolulu via Kailua.
There's some great food to enjoy on the island. Locally, the Pupukea Grill food truck is a staple (the avocado salad - mmmm). Down the road in Haleiwa the best burgers are found at Kua'Aina Burger. Cafe Haleiwa and Haleiwa Joes are institutions and the Beetbox does great healthy veggie dishes. Our stand-out food experience is at Ed Kenny's 'Town' restaurant in Honolulu.
I'd like to thank my adopted Hawaii family and all of their friends who opened their homes, shared their waves, surfboards and food, and always make us feel so welcome. You are the reason we have such a clear understanding of Aloha. Mahalo.
Mahalo to you, George!
George wears the Blighty Boardshort in Japanese Gul, indigo.