Looking at classic surf films, I can only imagine how secluded and isolated the North Shore must have been back in the proverbial day. For such a legendary surf destination, the Country is still surprisingly undeveloped. Unless you choose to stay at the massive Turtle Bay Resort, you need to either rent a house or know somebody – those are your only options. That’s what makes it so special. A visit to the North Shore either involves a key or a key card, and they are each very different experiences – one is like having a backstage laminate around your neck, the other is simply a wrinkled ticket that gets you general admission.
I’ve always felt a wave of mild depression whenever I see a pack of tourists waddle off a bus at Sunset Point. There’s something about their pre-packaged group experience that makes me feel sorry for them. Perhaps most of them don’t know any better, or maybe they simply enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of a bored chaperone while traveling en-masse. Nonetheless, I’ve always made a point of staying somewhere close to the immediate vicinity of Pipeline. A few years ago, I literally slept in the closet of a team house for two weeks in order to maintain my close proximity to the North Shore’s Ground Zero. Priorities.
This year, I stepped it up and was fortunate enough to snag a cozy studio rental on Shane Beschen’s family compound. The Beschen family are legendary not just for their accomplished surfing, but for their exceptional kindness. They have a skate ramp and a trampoline on the property that is always bustling with young shredders from around the island. I immediately inherited a cadre of prominently known and remarkably friendly neighbors including the Pyzels, the Ballards and the Jones family. The RVCA team and The Inertia crew were also directly across the street. I reveled in the fact that I spent my mornings drinking coffee with North Shore players instead of in a pastel-colored lobby fraternizing with chunky mid-westerners in aloha shirts.
From my studio, it was a two minute walk across Kam Highway to Rocky Point. On any given day, I could find a revolving door of the renowned hanging out in my little zone. The surf circus was in town and the entire industry was crammed into a one mile stretch of beach. If the surf was firing, all I had to do was sit on the beach and the characters would come to me. Rocky Rights was the like a watering hole, and eventually all of the animals would come there for a drink. On one hot and balmy day, Danny Fuller, his wife Tori, and their ridiculously gorgeous daughter took a respite from the madness of the Pipe contest and came down for a swim. The family splashed and played inside the calm and protected reef, but eventually the blaring Pacific sun wore heavy on their jovial little grom. Tori improvised an invigorating method to cool down their daughter, and I learned that an ice-cold Silver Bullet can be a refreshing, multi-purpose asset that spans generations.
Alex Knost was on fire this year. He clearly rocks a unique personal style and he definitely did not quietly blend in. There were some not-so-silent grumblings about the cut of his jib from a few of the “baggy shorts, slippers and 5’10” thruster” locals. The North Shore can be a paradoxically conservative place despite its serene atmospherics and the veneer of laid-back Aloha spirit. The “H” word was bandied about quite often this year – mainland hipsters with skinny jeans and retro boards were often a topic of conversation.
Perhaps some random kook rolling up from Venice or wherever with Alex’s look wouldn’t have survived the hazing. But Alex is a phenomenally gifted surfer with an abundance of panache in his bag of tricks. Watching him get barrel after barrel, pulling off graceful laybacks, and doing man-sized turns on his leash-less single-fin at overhead Rockies eventually silenced many of the critics and gained him respect. Liquid poetry. Rockies is geared toward AC/DC maneuvers, but Alex rode it like Coltraine…all with a smile on his face. A class act and true style-master.
If he wasn’t surfing, Christian Fletcher could rarely be spotted without his juggling apparatus. He told me that juggling repairs the grey matter in the brain and keeps the mind active. Nobody juggles on the North Shore. If juggling ever becomes a certifiable “thing,” Christian can certainly take credit for being at the forefront of the trend. It’s yet to be determined whether his passion for keeping multiple objects suspended in the air will be as culturally seminal as his influence was on the thrusting of surfboards in the air, but nonetheless, he’s committed and he’s definitely first to market.
The items found on a North Shore porch are always a good indicator of what to expect inside the house. Look for evidence. An abundance of sandy slippers is usually a good sign. Check the status of the ice chest and inspect how many empty beer boxes are present. Beware of multiple bags of crusty paper plates with flies already on them – that means you missed the food, you’re late to the party, and everyone has had an ample head start on the drinking. You don’t want to find yourself alone at the party when the beer runs out and The Boys start taking their shirts off. 11pm is the Hawaiian midnight…and nothing good happens after midnight.
Bill and Cara Ballard are wonderfully warm and gracious hosts. Whenever I’d drop by their house, I could always count on a stimulating cast of characters and a festive atmosphere replete with cold drinks and impeccably curated tunes. The Ballards have a rather eclectic record collection. Bill never fails to pluck a choice gem from the crates and toss it on the turntable at just the right moment. Like a consummate gentleman, he often invites other guests to choose a track and play it for the party. There are a lot of factors to contend with when choosing a song. Sure, it’s your big chance at bat and you’re eager to put your personal stamp on the vibe. But you also have to play to the crowd and the context. In this case, the context was a group of merry revelers looking for a chance to put their drinks down and get loose. Perhaps you can’t judge a book by it’s cover – but you can definitely surmise that an album titled “Killer on the Rampage” featuring Eddie Grant in tight red shorts and sneakers juxtaposed quixotically near a random Caribbean tide pool will undoubtedly contain a choice musical nugget or two, ironically or not. Chris Coté went with his gut instinct and dropped the needle. It did not disappoint.
Meanwhile, Mark Healy was holding court at the table. Cara had recently busted out some high school prom photos of Mark and they were in full reminiscing mode. Stories of limousines, karaoke, and favorite Honolulu dive bars were being discussed. Greg Long sat down with a fresh drink, just as our illustrious host switched up the jams. The opening bars of “Don’t Change” by INXS blared through the hi-fi. The kitchen table erupted in nods of approval and nostalgia. Over my right shoulder, I spotted Chris dancing like Michael Hutchins while John Pyzel handcrafted me a vodka tonic in a mason jar. After several hours and countless more classic North Shore stories, the impromptu soiree finally wound down. As I left, I could hear the comforting pops & cracks of vintage Steely Dan vinyl wafting through the moist ocean air. I wandered across Kam Highway content with the knowledge that I couldn’t have chosen a better group of people on the North Shore to spend the evening with.