When new kit arrives along with one of the biggest kiteable swells in recent Hawaiian history, there are going to be fireworks. Moona Whyte, Keahi de Aboitiz and James Boulding give us their angles on taking on one of the heaviest swells any of them had ever encountered.
PHOTOS: James Boulding
Our weekend on Oahu was packed with kiting action. We hustled down to my home spot early the first day to get some nice morning light. The wind wasn’t super strong but I was excited to try out the Drifters for the first time. It was a great way to start the morning, seeing my new kite in the sky with the beautiful Waianae mountain range as its backdrop. We got some fun little warm up waves, and then headed in to catch the incoming swell at Backyards.
We had two cars packed full of kites, boards, and camera equipment as we took the 30 minute drive along the coast from one side of the North Shore to the other. We could see small waves peeling at each surf break we passed, and by the time we got to the beach, the wind had filled in and the swell was rising. I was excited and nervous all at the same time, as I usually am pumping up at Backyards. The waves are clean but powerful and the reef is shallow. The wind is slightly offshore and gusty at best. What better way to test new gear than to go out in challenging conditions, right?
We scored fun waves all afternoon, all to ourselves, and were feeling content with the good wind we were blessed with and the footage that Anders and James captured. But I could see Mokes from the beach at Backyards, and the clear skies over the mountains were taunting me. I could see the potential for good wind, and the west swell direction pretty much guaranteed some solid, peeling waves. As always when I kite anywhere besides my home spot, the FOMO was kicking in.
The boys agreed to pack up and head back down the coast for one more evening session, and as we pulled into the beach park the kiters were already packing up after a long day of wind and waves. Keahi and I pumped up as fast as we could, as they all told us how good the conditions had been. As we hit the water, it was clear that the swell was still building and the sets were almost too big for the reef to handle. The ocean was messy from all the white water and Keahi and I were the last ones out as the swell was pumping and we traded waves until the sun went down.
The next morning it was clear that the swell was maxing. Reports from Mokes confirmed that it was too big and washing out. I decided I wouldn’t be kiting that day, but Keahi was frothing to get out in some XL waves. We drove around the North Shore scouting potential kitable waves but decided that Backyards would be the best bet again, as it was holding its size and we could see whitecaps on the outside. Keahi nervously gathered his gear as the photographers readied their cameras. The wind was questionable, but it always is there and if anyone is able to read it, it’s Keahi.
With a kiss goodbye, I left him at the beach to drive up the hill for an overhead view of the lineup. Anders guided me via text message to the spot from where he had filmed Keahi a couple years ago. I took out my own camera and sat on the roof of the car, trying to position myself between the houses and power lines to get a clear shot of the waves. Occasionally I spotted a yellow kite through the trees, and Keahi pulling out of giant waves. I remembered the fact that he wasn’t wearing his emergency floatation vest that we had forgotten at home, but brushed it off and tried to trust in his waterman instincts to survive the session. As Keahi searched for barrels, I tried to get reports from the beach but everyone was glued to their cameras, without a second to check their phones. Finally I saw his kite make its way back to shore and could let out a sigh of relief.
Once again Keahi had pushed the limits of kiting and gave the new kites the real test of strength and performance they could only get on Oahu.
Walking into the Cabrinha kites HQ in Maui this winter, it was clear that there was a buzz in the air around the new Drifter kite, the R&D guys were feverishly tying up loose ends (not literally) and fine tuning mm’s on bridles and arriving back into the office with sand in every orifice you can imagine, each sporting huge grins from ear-to-ear. The great thing with being in the Hawaiian islands is the abundance of swell throughout the winter months, making their jobs very enviable.
With the product shoot just around the corner, we now embarked upon a ‘waiting period’ for good swell to load up and shoot. With the first signs of something solid lurking our way we exchanged calls with Keahi de Aboitiz and Moona Whyte about heading over to Oahu to see if we could score the goods. Although adjacent islands in the Hawaiian chain, they both receive different conditions. The trade winds in Maui blow cross-shore along the North Shore, whereas in Oahu this trade wind is more offshore. This is one reason why Maui is often the more famous destination for wind sports. Oahu gets battered by the winter north swells and it can be a ferocious place, even for the surfing elite.
With a solid forecast approaching, myself and Anders Krüger, Cabrinha’s video mastermind, packed all our camera gear, loaded board bags full of fresh new kites and boards and hopped on a flight over to Oahu to hook up with the others. Falling asleep the first night, all I could hear was the gentle lap of water on the shore’s edge. It’s always a gamble following swells, although forecasting has come a long way and swells can be tracked way in advance, actually knowing the exact ferocity and personality of a swell is not always obvious. I really hoped we wouldn’t be let down. And waking up it was clear the swell hadn’t arrived so we headed to Mokes to jump in and get things started.
As soon as a few decent sized sets rolled through it was clear the swell was starting to arrive and – quite thankfully on my water-based part – we washed in over the reef and swam back to shore to pack up and hit the road to Backyards. Both these spots are vastly different; right before the turn to Backyards you follow a 200m straight of road past the famous ‘Sunset’ break. It’s a famous Hawaiian wave, steeped in heritage, that can hold huge swells. It joins up to Backyards by a stunningly scary section that you certainly don’t want to find yourself in on a big day.
It’s an awe-inspiring coastline. Stood on the beach, I spent my time transfixed on the water. Looking out to sea, Keahi and Moona made gusty, flukey, cross offshore winds look pretty straightforward as they drifted down longhouse-sized walls of water. It was clear the part of the wave that might barrel was always at the last part of the break, which was also the point where the wind virtually stopped, so a game of risk vs. reward was in effect. In the lulls, there wasn’t much to do apart from gently body drag offshore and hope it would fill back in. Looking at the scenario through the lens doesn’t always do situations justice… A picture freezes an instant in time that your thoughts romanticize over, and it feels like there are endless perspectives to decide what to do in that frozen moment, how to surf it and enjoy it but snap to reality and everything just happens the opposite. Reaction times are miniscule and those split second decisions are the difference between being in a very uncomfortable situation or riding back out, cursing the fact you didn’t pull in committed. Through my 500mm, I could see these emotions etched onto the faces of the guys and the ups and downs of the session felt like I was sharing them even though I remained dry on shore. As a couple of bomb sets marched through the Sunset lineup, looking out to the left I was glad the guys had the added use of their kites to get them as far out the back as possible and wait for them to roll on through. The lifeguard skis had started pulling surfers out and a few others had been washed in to the shoreline where they lay gathering their breathe. In this situation, that reliance on one’s equipment and own ability becomes paramount.
Keahi de Aboitiz
It actually took a little convincing in the beginning, but I was stoked when the guys pulled the trigger and decided to fly over to Oahu to shoot some content for the 2018 lineup. The gear had just arrived on Maui and with one of the best looking swells of the winter forecast, I pleaded my case and convinced the guys to come over to document it before the official shoot started on Maui a few days later. When you personally make the call, it’s always stressful to know if it will be worth it, but I felt it was a risk worth taking. For anyone that’s kited Backyards, what you’d know is no matter the forecast, it’s always going to be a gamble and you never really know what will happen until the day. It’s one of those places that seems to have a mind of its own and you need to be there waiting and hoping, but when it all comes together it’s one of the best waves in the world.
Super west swells on Oahu can be pretty interesting really. Some waves like the direction and some don’t, but for the two main kite spots here on Oahu, that’s exactly what you want. The biggest thing that comes into play though is actually Kauai. Once the swell direction goes beyond a certain point it starts becoming shadowed and what you end up with is a dramatic size difference from one end of the North Shore to the other. With the wind starting to come up early, the plan was to try and bag some water shots down the coast before heading up to Backyards as the swell started building.
With some shots in the bag and some decent sets starting to show, we figured it was time to change venues and rush up the coast for round two. Arriving at Backyards, it was clear the swell was actually already here. Due to the swell angle, what we found out was our first session was actually suffering from the swell shadow while ‘yards was feeling the full brunt of the swell. Walking down the beach, the first thing I saw was a solid eight foot set clearing the lineup. The last remaining surfers were relegated to the beach and it was on… I decided to keep that first set quiet from Moona as she pumped up and she joined us for a few bombs before the swell started to jack even more and it was time for her to call it a day.
In fact, it was almost too big. What we thought would be the day of days actually turned out to be a pretty difficult session. Within an hour, the swell had jacked to solid 10-12 foot sets and it became a real game of cat and mouse. Once it gets to that size, it starts washing through from the second and third reef outside and, although there were still some absolute gems, finding them was not an easy task. As per normal the wind could be called gusty at best. 25-30 knot gusts followed by 12 knot lulls on the inside is generally what you’re greeted with as you kick out on the inside and see sets stacking to the horizon. The funny thing is that none of this seems to matter anymore when you find that perfect one. It took some hunting and after a few good poundings I managed to find that one. A perfect ‘yards barrel… And with that, the pressure was gone. I backed it up with a few fun ones and with that I felt like we could already go home happy. We’d nailed some good shots and even if we left now, we’d already got what we came for. With the swell continuing to jack even more, it seemed it was time to call it a day. Or so we thought…
As it turned out, because of the direction, what we thought would be a washing through mess down the coast was still very much in control so we made the dash back down in order to make use of the last couple hours of light. With the west direction it was solid, but only half the size of ‘yards with perfect, rippable walls coming through. After our last session, it was actually a nice and welcome change. Clean wind, perfect waves and a perfect way to finish the day, banking some more good content. We’d earned ourselves a few beers and with that we were feeling pretty content.
After making the rounds on day two, it was clear the swell was maxing and most spots were out of control. Despite that, arriving at ‘yards, I watched as one of the most perfect waves I’ve ever seen there rifled down the reef and spat its guts out. It was then followed by a 12 foot cleanup set, leaving the lineup a white churning mess but that first one was enough to get me motivated. The wind had turned a little and although it was more offshore there were some whitecaps on the outside so I knew I had to try. One thing I’ve learnt about myself over the years is that I’d rather go out and fail than go home wondering ‘what if’ if I blew it. It was a lonely session but it was the right decision as, although I had to once again pay my dues with a couple solid poundings, I’d found a couple more gems to make it all worthwhile. We’d got the goods and now it was time to pack up and head to Maui for the rest of the shoot. It didn’t come easy but sometimes that’s what makes those sessions even more appealing and some of those waves go down as some of the most memorable I’ve ever had!
This article originally appeared in TheKiteMag #21. To subscribe, go here.