Oahu is the Mecca of surfing. The Hawaiian island of Oahu produces some of the best, most well-known waves ever surfed. In winter, the surfing world focuses its attention on the North Shore of Oahu and renowned breaks like Pipeline, Sunset, and Waimea.
Oahu is the center of surfing in Hawaii, with waves year-round and surf spots dotted around the entire island. Waves on Oahu are world-class but potentially dangerous. The North Shore is the premier surf region of Oahu and is best during winter when massive swells arrive from the North Pacific.
Oahu has waves for surfers of all skill levels, but it’s vital to know when and where to surf if you want to find the type of waves you prefer. To maximize the enjoyment and minimize the risks of surfing on Oahu, let’s look more closely at this paradisaical surf destination.
Surfing On Oahu: What You Need To Know
Oahu has incredible natural beauty and waves throughout the year the island. The sheer number and quality of surf spots on Oahu are dizzying, but depending on the time of year, some areas have better waves and are more suited to beginners or advanced surfers.
Surfers usually divided the island into the windward side (the north and east shores), and the leeward side (the south and west shores).
In summer, the south shore receives the most swell, and in winter, the largest waves on Oahu break on the north shore. Oahu’s west and east shore have consistent waves throughout the year but they usually get bigger swells in winter.
Oahu has countless beach breaks for beginners and myriad reef breaks for intermediate to advanced surfers. The crowds can be heavy, and many spots have a local hierarchy in force, so it’s crucial to show full respect to the local surfers, especially when the waves get good.
Surfing in Oahu can be hazardous due to the powerful waves and currents and the shallow, sharp reefs. Though Oahu has highly experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled lifeguards, surfers always need to use caution and common sense when entering the water (or even when just standing on the beach).
Sharks also pose a potential danger when surfing on Oahu, especially near river mouths. However, the danger posed by sharks is generally insignificant compared with the waves themselves, which are generally the most dangerous aspect of surfing on Oahu.
The water is always warm on Oahu, so baggies are sufficient for most of the year. In winter, the water temperatures drop slightly lower. At this time of year, many surfers bring out their spring suits.
When Is The Best Time To Surf On Oahu?
Traditional Hawaiian culture and modern climatology divide Hawaii’s climate into two seasons: a cooler, wetter winter season from November to April, and a warmer, drier summer season from May to September. The traditional Hawaiian name for winter is HOO-ILO, and summer is known as KAU (the fruitful season)
Solid north and northwest swells from the North Pacific start to hit Oahu in September, reaching their peak in size and consistency from December to February. Winter is the best season for the north shore, and most surf spots regularly get double-overhead. The west shore also receives mammoth swells in winter.
The prevailing wind during winter blows from the south and southwest. The northeasterly trade winds also blow occasionally at this time of year. Average air temperatures in the HOO-ILO season are around 80F, and water temperatures hover around 76F.
In summer, most swell on Oahu comes from winter storms in the southern hemisphere. During this time of year, surf spots on the south shore turn on, while the north shore is small to flat and almost unrecognizable from its winter incarnation.
Many surf spots on Oahu’s east and west shores also get south swells in the summer. However, the prevailing northeast winds often create messy wave conditions on the east shore. In summer, these trade winds blow between 80 and 95% of the time.
The summer season is slightly warmer than the winter season. The average air temperature is 88F, and the average temperature of the water is a balmy 81F.
Where To Surf On Oahu
There are waves around the entire island of Oahu. On the south shore, there are many fun and beginner-friendly waves, especially in summer. The west and east shores have waves throughout the year, but the waves are often rough and windy.
The north shore is the mythic arena of surfing. Some of the best waves on the planet are concentrated on this short stretch of Oahu’s coastline.
It’s impossible to do justice to all the surf spots on Oahu in a short article, so here is a short overview of some of the most famous breaks on this unparalleled wave paradise. Let’s start on the north shore.
Haleiwa is a high-performance reef break on the western end of Oahu’s north shore. It works best on northeast swells. The ideal wind direction for Haleiwa is southeast, but it also has good waves when the more prevalent northeast trade winds are blowing.
Haleiwa has rippable lefts and rights when the swell is two to four-foot. Once the swell gets six feet and bigger, Haleiwa becomes a world-class, super-fast, long right, with hollow barrel sections. The currents at Haleiwa are as powerful as the waves, making this a surf spot for advanced surfers only.
Waimea Bay is a legendary right-hand point where the roots of modern big wave surfing were established in the 1950s. In summer, Waimea Bay is mostly calm and flat, but during northwest winter swells, gigantic waves break along the point and into the shore-break, providing some of the most dramatic surf action on earth.
Waimea breaks over a lava rock shelf at the top of the point. The take-off is intensely steep and fast, and the ride involves surviving the drop and then outrunning the mountainous whitewater into the channel. Waimea shore-break is an equally heavy wave that requires exceptional expertise to negotiate.
Pipeline And Backdoor
Pipeline is about 2 miles east of Waimea. This left-hand wave is probably the most famous and dangerous surf spot in Hawaii and breaks over notoriously shallow lava and coral reef. Pipeline is an intense, gaping barrel that works best on west-northwest swells and east-southeast winds and is strictly for advanced surfers.
Backdoor is the right at Pipeline reef. It offers world-class barrels that get increasingly shallow and hollow as the wave gets closer to the beach. Backdoor prefers northwest swells because this swell direction causes the waves to peak more than swells arriving from the west-north-west.
Backdoor and Pipeline get ridiculously crowded when the waves are firing. Local surfers dominate here, and must be respected at all times. Pipeline and Backdoor break right in front of Ehukai Beach, making this a perfect arena to watch the jaw-dropping action.
A few hundred yards east along the beach is a super consistent, high-performance reef break called Rocky Point. Lefts and rights run off a flat, curved reef, with fast, highly rippable walls and short barrel sections.
Rocky Point works best in the three to six-foot range on NW swells and SE winds.
Velzyland is another consistent, rippable surf spot about a mile down the beach to the east of Rocky Point. The waves at this famed surf spot break over a shallow reef, with peaky bowling lefts and rights and fast walls.
Velzyland works best between two to five-foot and prefers northwest swells and southeast winds. The local hierarchy is heavily enforced in the line-up at Velzyland, and visiting surfers shouldn’t expect to get set waves.
Now let’s look at some spots on the east shore, starting with Kalama Beach, a fun beach break in the small town of Kailua.
This surf spot is less crowded than popular spots on the north and south shore. The waves at Kalama Beach are beginner-friendly on most days. The beach also has ride-able waves on any tide. Kalama Beach works on NE swells and SW winds. It can get wild and messy when the trade winds are blowing.
Makapu’u Beach Park is roughly seven miles south of Kalama Beach, near the scenic southeastern tip of Oahu island. There are two main surf spots at Makapu’u.
The prime spot is a well-known right-hand, reef-bottomed point that breaks along the rocky shoreline of Makapu’u Point. This point break works best when the waves are four to eight-foot and swell is coming from the east-southeast. Conditions at Makapu’u are cleanest when the winds are blowing from the west or south-west.
The beach break at Makapu’u is called Suicides. It’s an exposed right-hand beach break that can be super-fun on smaller days. Suicides can be more suited to intermediate surfers when the swell gets larger.
Moving from the east shore to the south shore, you’ll find Waikiki Beach. This world-famous beach break is in the Hawaiian capital city of Honolulu. Breaking in front of a palm and hotel-lined beach, Waikiki is a long, gentle wave and a longboarders’ paradise.
There are several breaks at Waikiki Beach. Canoes is on the west side of the beach. This zone is the most beginner-friendly at Waikiki, with gentle waves ideal for learning to surf.
Queens is just east of Canoes and breaks slightly further out. The waves at Queens are ideal for high-performance long-boarding.
On the outside of Waikiki Beach is Pops, another excellent long-boarding wave that breaks over a reef on the western side of the beach.
Waikiki has ride-able waves throughout the year but works best on south swells in summer. Offshore winds at Waikiki are from the northeast.
Ala Moana Bowl
Ala Moana Bowl is a famous left-hand surf spot in front of the Kewalo Basin Harbor, less than a mile west of Waikiki. The waves at Ala Moana are heavy, wedging barrels that break over a shallow reef ledge and end in the deepwater channel that leads into the harbor.
Ala Moana Bowl is consistent and is surfable in most conditions. However, this south shore surf spot is at its best on southeast swells and northerly winds, with waves between four and six-foot in size.
Ala Moana Bowl is an intense surf break for experienced surfers only. There is also a strict hierarchy in the line-up, with local surfers dominating the small take-off zone, leaving little room for non-locals to score the sets. Ala Moana is an excellent place to watch epic surf action on bigger-sized days.
Moving from the south shore to the west shore, there are several superb, relatively uncrowded surf spots for beginners and advanced surfers alike. Let’s start our brief tour of the west shore at Tracks, a surf spot at Tracks Beach Park, nestled in the lush valley of Nanakuli.
Tracks is at an exposed beach, and the waves are powerful and rippable, with some hollow barrels when it’s offshore. The outside section breaks over a reef and is mainly a right-hand wave. The inside section is a beach break with rights and lefts.
This surf spot has a large swell window, so it gets lots of swell throughout the year. The waves are Tracks work best on west swells with light northeast winds that arrive frequently during the winter season.
Because Tracks is an uncrowded, open-ocean beach break, it is important to be extra cautious about sharks, especially if the water is murky.
Makaha is an exposed right-hand point break about seven miles west along the coast from Tracks. It’s located at the idyllic Makaha Beach Park and is one of the best, most consistent places to surf on Oahu’s west shore.
The inside section and shore-break of Makaha have fun waves on smaller swells, but beginners should exercise caution because the waves and currents are powerful, even on a small swell. On big days, Makaha is reserved exclusively for advanced surfers.
The Point is the prime spot for surfing in Makaha. It breaks near the top of the headland and has long, fast walls with the occasional hollow barrel on offshore days. The quality and consistency of Makaha mean that the line-up can get crowded, and competition for waves can be fierce.
Makaha has waves throughout the year but the conditions are usually best in winter, when Makaha Bay receives northwest swells and northeast winds.
Kaena Point is a surf spot in the Kaena State Park, at the westernmost tip of Oahu’s west shore. This is an isolated and undeveloped part of the island that is defined by rugged mountains and unspoiled beaches. The surf spot is an exposed right-hand point that breaks over a shallow reef in front of a rocky shoreline.
Kaena Point is a heavy surf spot with big, hollow barrels. Only advanced surfers should consider paddling out here. The isolation of this area means that the line-up at Kaena Point doesn’t get crowded, but it also adds to the potential risks of surfing here.
Kaena Point works best in the six to eight-foot range (and upwards). The largest and cleanest waves are produced in the winter months when Kaena Point receives west-northwest swells and northeast or east-northeast winds.
Logistics For Surfing On Oahu
Here is some important practical information about getting to Oahu and traveling around the island.
Getting to Oahu
Honolulu is the gateway to Oahu and the rest of the Hawaiian islands. Most surfers fly to Honolulu Airport and make their way to their destination from there.
Getting To The Surf Spots
If you’re staying and surfing in one particular area, you’ll probably have several surf spots within walking distance to choose from. However, if you want to explore the diversity of surf spots and the beauty of the island, you’ll need to rent a car to get around.
Oahu has excellent roads, so driving around the island is relatively easy. You can get to most places on Oahu by using one of the four main highways: H-201, H-1, H-2, and H-3.
Oahu has ample options for accommodation to suit most budgets, from beachfront hotels and holiday rentals to bed-and-breakfast establishments and backpacker hostels.
Being in Hawaii, Oahu is a relatively expensive surf destination. On Oahu, tourists spend an average of about USD260 per day for accommodation, food, and transport. Nevertheless, Oahu is still the least expensive of the Hawaiian islands and thus the most affordable for the average visiting surfer.
Oahu is a surfing paradise with some of the best waves on earth. There is an excess of excellent beach breaks for beginners and a wealth of world-class reef and point breaks for the most advanced and adventurous surfers.
Oahu is a surf destination that every surfer should try to visit at least once in their life.