A travel guide to swimming / bodysurfing / bodyboarding at Hawai'i's Makapu'u and Sandy Beach Parks
Two of most dangerous / beloved beaches on O’ahu, Hawai’i – a must see.
It’s safe to say, most beaches in Hawai’i are beautiful, but two, in particular, Sandy Beach Park and Makapu’u Beach Park, are both legendary and notorious, depending if you are a novice swimmer or an able bodysurfer / body boarder. If you are on O’ahu, and have the opportunity to visit these beaches and witness the class of wave riding that occurs here, you are in for a spectacle.
While Hawaii’s board surfing legacy is well-known, it’s passion for shore break wave riding, in the form of bodysurfing or body boarding is a local secret, shared by young and old alike.
Why here? Because these two beaches have steep underwater approaches with a shallow break zone, they are suited mainly for soft boards or bodysurfing, as a surfboard might snap in the shallow water, or pose a hazard to the rider. However, it is precisely these types of breaks offer some of the most spectacular wave riding to be seen anywhere in the USA.
Hawaiian shore break: heaven and hell
Due to the steepness and size of these rollers, rescues often occur when someone over estimates their ability. However on the flip side, for those who appreciate the ancient sport of He’e nalu (Hawaiian - wave riding) these two beaches present the ultimate in shore break waves. While race tracks and ski runs can be created or modified by man to create a certain thrill, massive shore break beaches for the most part (except for the Wedge in Newport Beach, CA) formed only by nature.
While more legendary surf breaks for board surfing exist in Hawaii, like Ehukai (Banzai Pipeline) and Sunset Beach, these are quite intimidating and fairly inaccessible to the casual swimmer. Sandy’s and Makapu’u, generate more rescues as they lull tourists (or even locals) unfamiliar to the surf to debilitating injuries or death by following a sirens’ song that goes something like… “Maybe bodysurfing here isn’t that difficult”.
Whether a rider or not, if you are lucky enough to visit these beaches, you will be in awe of the local riders who seem to cheat disaster (most of the time), as they enjoy some spectacular rides on these brutally thick, yet graceful waves. While it looks easy, these riders call on extensive knowledge of the area and familiarity with their own abilities, when they take off on each wave.
Sandy Beach, Hawaii – The King and the President
Situated at the base of Koko Crater, in Eastern O’ahu; Sandy Beach Beach Park is to bodysurfing—and body boarding—like St. Andrews is to golf…hallowed ground. ‘The King of shorebreak beaches’, Sandy Beach Park is truly spectacular, even on medium-sized days. ‘Sandy’s’, as it is affectionately called, has recently acquired official ‘Presidential Beach Break’ status, (probably the first such claim for any beach).
Such is the allure of this heavenly sand-spit, that even President Obama isn’t immune to its charms. Having been raised in O’ahu as a “Sandy’s Crew’ member when younger, even now, when he is in Hawaii nei, he still dares to risk the very real possibility of injury, for the sheer thrill of riding America’s best, shore break wave.
How it works
At Sandy Beach in the summer, deep-water swells, generated by powerful, winter storms formed deep in the South Pacific basin, travel quickly along the ocean floor until they reach this ski jump-like rise, they call the beach. As these swells hit this steep slope, they pitch / throw with varying degrees of violence. Forming either a ‘tube’ shaped like an ‘O’ or—to the dismay (or delight) of those in the water—a sideways ‘U’, they inject the ecstatic wave rider (or misfortunate, novice swimmer), into a massive, bus-size barrel churning around them like a horizontal waterspout.
The rider’s rush
After enjoying a 10-15 ft. sheer drop, then a quick right (or left) turn and then the hypnotic visuals of that huge barrel for 5, 10, or 15 seconds of ‘blue-room time’, the prudent bodysurfer / boarder will pull out of the back side of the wave after it breaks, resisting the waves tendency to pull them back into the shore break.
‘Grommet’ (novice) riders may fall prey to the worst-case scenario, the classic “going over the ‘falls’” or, following the breaking waves crest as it crashes into the shallow water, breaking legs, arms or neck.
A hidden danger
Sometimes people who don’t even plan going in the water can drown. How? On these beaches, the inclined sand leading down to the water is often steep. Unsuspecting waders, only wishing to test the water, can be back-flipped by the retreating surf’s drag (undertow), and be quickly transported directly to the break zone, often with tragic results.
How to handle a big wave about to break on you
Ok, so what to do in the case of a massive wave that is about to come crashing down on top of you? Go under—not over, or through—a big wave. For very big waves crashing in shallow water, one need go lie flat on (or very close), to the bottom until they feel the wave pass over then push up quickly to get to the surface, get air, and prepare for the next one(s).
The view from Sandy Beach
On a lighter note, ‘Sandy’s’ has one of the most beautiful views in the Islands, with the island of Moloka’I, and even a distant Mau’I, sometimes visible across the Ka’iwi Channel. Adding to these intense visuals, the H?lona Blow Hole, a natural lava tube nearby, redirects the same, deep-water swells and funnels them upward, into an airborne blast of mist with a deep, groaning sound. Hawaiian legend credits these noises to a mo’o or giant lizard, trapped below the surface.
Going to Makapu’u, the other world-class shore break around the point
Makapu’u Beach, the yin to Sandys’, yang, is close by: a 5 minute drive. Like Sandy’s, the view from Makapu’u is nothing short of breathtaking. As you descend from the crest that slopes down from the easternmost point of O’ahu (and its lighthouse) and drive northwest, you imbibe a spectacular panorama. Panning right from the 2,000ft., vertically-fluted, Ko’olau Mountains, the lush, green valley cities of Kailua and Kaneohe appear and then, further right, an arid Rabbit Island and Makapu’u come into view.
Makapu’u Beach is serious business. Here, northern swells this time, are funneled, though not just upwards, but also inwards, as the beach itself is funnel-shaped. The waves here come at you deeper and slower than at Sandy’s but still wield a crushing power.
Don’t be caught under the ‘ax’ on a good size wave here, as it they can be powerful enough to knock even a veteran boarder silly; novices are much less resistant to this sort of indiscriminate pounding. What’s more difficult here for swimmers than at Sandy’s, especially those not in top shape (or tired, or intoxicated); is the long break zone. One need paddle further out to get in position (and consequently to get out in a set.) and this longer paddle out can quickly fatigue someone not in stellar shape.
Since this riding-in, paddling-out, existence is an aerobic—mixed with anaerobic—workout (anaerobic, when you’re holding your breath!), it’s not a good time to realize you are out of shape when you are out here.
A saving grace at these, and most beaches on O’ahu, are the dedicated and hard-working people of the Honolulu City and County Lifeguards: they are among the world’s finest. If you find yourself in trouble, just raise your hand, and they know you need assistance.
Basic common sense rules
• Don’t ever swim at these beaches unless you really, really, really know what you are doing.
• Always wear fins if you do go in, preferably with fin leashes.
• Don’t fight rip current or undertow… go with it, or swim parallel, in the case of rip currents.
• Go under, and then up, on big waves that pose a threat to you.
• Don’t swim drunk, tired, or alone.
• Don’t forget your sunscreen
It’s ok just to come watch
Just because you don’t know how to surf these types of waves, don’t let it keep you from witnessing a very unique sport, that has survived centuries of relative obscurity to become ‘cool’.
The relationship between rider and wave at these beaches is one of the most intimate man/nature interactions in sports. The added thrill of risking life and death is thrown in for good measure. Without a doubt, bodysurfing and body boarding are sports that have few arenas better than these two beaches.