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Oahu readies for giant waves

Will Hoover  Dec 06, 2009

Surf was higher than usual on O'ahu's North Shore yesterday, but nobody was saying much about it.

Instead, most of the talk focused on 40- to 50-foot waves predicted for tomorrow and how a National Weather Service forecast indicating weather patterns in the Pacific resembled those in early December 1969.

Those patterns resulted in waves so mountainous that they swept away houses, boats, vehicles and even people over several days 40 years ago.

"This well could be the biggest surf in the past decade — and possibly the biggest since 1969," said Randy Rarick, executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing.

A big swell generated by a pair of extraordinarily powerful storms north by northwest of Hawai'i is expected to arrive tonight and produce waves of up to 40 feet by early tomorrow, with 50-foot sets on the outer reefs through Tuesday night, according to the weather service. The waves will remain above warning levels through Wednesday, it said.

That means the potential for dangerous waves that could threaten property and flood coastal roads as well as currents that are potential threats to even people standing on the beach. Emergency responders on all islands were urging caution and monitoring conditions.

If the big waves actually come to pass, they're certain to put on the kind of show that has made the North Shore famous worldwide.

But the spectacle of waves in this category is one thing. The peril they pose is something else.

"We are expecting an exceptionally large surf event," said weather service forecaster Jonathan Hoag. He described the surf headed for O'ahu as "almost unimaginably big — too big for surfing."

Some who have lived their lives in and around the famed waves of the North Shore had conclusions of their own, based on personal experience.

"I don't think it'll be as big as what we had in 1998," said veteran surfer Peter Cole, 79, who was predicting bunched-up and potentially hazardous waves tomorrow. "And it definitely won't be as big as 1969, in my opinion."

wait for tuesday
Rarick believes kona winds could cause choppy waters that are not conducive to surfing. But favorable winds and even higher surf on Tuesday might produce a moment to remember, he said.

Fabled surfer George Downing, director of the Waimea Bay big-wave surfing competition dedicated to the memory of Eddie Aikau, agreed with Rarick that surfing conditions could vastly improve by Tuesday. The Eddie Aikau competition — held only when wave faces hit 40 feet — would be on for either Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, he said.

"Yes, it will happen," said Downing. "I'm kind of leaning more toward Tuesday."

But Rarick wondered whether the Tuesday surf might be too oversized at Waimea for the Aikau event.

Invariably, such conversations were measured in comparison to the waves of the first four days of December 1969, which were, according to the weather service, the biggest waves on the North Shore in the past half-century.

Hoag, the weather service forecaster, was there in December, 40 years ago. The experience is burned into his memory.

"I was living on Sunset Beach in 1969 when it happened," recalled Hoag, 62. "There was serious damage — it was a serious matter. I've never seen anything that big that caused that kind of damage."

According to news accounts of the day, humongous waves pounded O'ahu's North Shore between Dec. 1 and Dec. 4. Nearly 2,000 people were evacuated, hundreds were left homeless, and entire houses were tossed from one side of the highway to the other.

Cole remembers, too. Like most of those who there, Cole talks about one particular wave that dwarfed anything seen on the North Shore before or since.

"I saw this massive, dark shadow," he said, recalling the evening near the Hale'iwa side of Waimea Bay. "I saw this white water go all the way through the parking lot and all the way to the highway.

"It was just massive."

Later, near Ke Iki, he said he saw two houses upside-down that had been washed to the opposite side of the road.

Antya Miller, executive director of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, recalled watching from a tree as a wave passed over her house.

"We lived on the beach at Laniakea, and the water receded, and you could see the crabs, and little fish flopping around and our dog went down and was chasing everything, and we were screaming at him. And then it started coming back up, and it kept coming and coming, and pretty soon we were running and grabbing limbs and climbing up the trees, and hanging on.

"And it went right over our roof."

Noted tow-in surfer Ken Bradshaw, who rode an 85-foot wave in the 1998 North Shore swell, said if the forecast holds — and he cautioned that it might not — the waves could be far more dangerous than those he conquered 11 years ago.

"This has the potential to be as tall as 1998, but because there will be shorter intervals between the waves, it's going to create a lot of chaos and a lot of disorganization," he said. "It will be really dangerous, compared to '98. If it happens, it will be a mess.

"But, we'll try to surf it."

Oahu readies for giant waves
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