Sunset Beach: the moment you catch this wave, you know your life could change | Photo: ASP/Cestari

Sunset Beach is one of the most famous big wave surfing spots on the North Shore of Oahu. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, it was considered the ultimate test and the most important surf beach in the world.

Originally titled "Paumalu" - meaning "taken secretly" - Sunset Beach was the name given to the area in 1919 by a real estate developer hoping to sell weekend getaway homes to wealthy Honolulu residents. 

The surf break offers a dangerous lava-rock reef and at least six wave peaks:

  • Val's Reef;
  • The Bowl;
  • West Peak;
  • Sunset Point;
  • The North Wall;
  • Backyards;

Home to the Duke Kahanamoku Classic, Sunset Beach will pump perfect deep ocean waves with west-to-northeast swells coming from the North Pacific.

The spot is located only a mile east of the Banzai Pipeline.

Trade winds will be an advantage and a disadvantage at the same, as the offshore breeze will make paddling for a wave a difficult task.

Add shifting peaks, heavy lips, and currents, and the game level gets an extra star.

Lorrin Harrison, Gene Smith, and John Kelly were the first wave riders of modern Sunset Beach. In 1939, they rode big wave faces in finless boards.

Jeff Hakman, the co-founder of Quiksilver America, has earned the title of "Mr. Sunset" after collecting three Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championships.

Being in the right spot and at the right time is one of many secrets hidden in the Sunset Beach wave.

The good thing is you might ride the best and longest wave of your life right here. Or get pounded by the well-known, heavy lip.

Joel Parkinson, (3) Michael Ho (3), Hans Hedemann (2), Ian Cairns (2), Jake Patterson (2), Mark Richards (2), Sunny Garcia (2), and Tom Carroll (2) have claimed the highest number of titles in the history of the World Cup of Surfing, held since 1975, at Sunset Beach.

Sunset Beach, Oahu: one of the most challenging waves on the planet | Photo: WSL

The Mechanics of Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach has its tricks and hides multiple secrets behind the famous Hawaiian wave.

Surfline founder and surf forecaster Sean Collins investigated the various combinations offered by the spot on big wave surfing days and in small surf sessions.

The variables at stake are numerous, including:

  • Heavy moving water currents;
  • A large and multiple-peak arena field;
  • Specific local geology and its massive reef;
  • The favorable NW swell;
  • The light east-southeast wind;
  • The surfer's attitude;

"I've watched the best at Sunset since the inception of the pro tour," Randy Rarick, the legendary Vans Triple Crown of Surfing Executive Director, once said.

"I still contend that you're not a complete surfer until you've hoisted the World Cup. Not even Kelly Slater's pulled that off."

Pancho Sullivan is one of a dedicated breed of surfers who is committed to the break.

While he can put on a great show at Off The Wall, Pipe, or Rocky Point, his heavyweight build, lead-footed power, and love of a challenge have naturally aligned him with Sunset.

"I think that's why we all surf - that excitement of the unknown. Sunset delivers on all levels. It is a tough wave," expressed Sullivan.

In the early 1990s, the Momentum Generation packed their narrow boards and headed a mile west, taking most of the cameras and focus with them.

Subsequently, only a handful have come close to conquering Sunset Beach in the years since.

The World Cup of Surfing is one of the only major events on the Championship Tour (CT) that 11-time world champ Kelly Slater has not written his name on.

"Few breaks in the world put a greater demand on a surfer's fitness, as well as his strategic and tactical know-how, and even the world's best often leave the water in boiling frustration," notes Matt Warshaw, author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

"But the classic Sunset ride is long and exhilarating, as the wave whorls and explodes, then flattens and tilts back up, sometimes running through four or five distinct stages as it moves across the reef."

Sunset Beach, North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii | ID and X-Ray

Best Tide: Any
Best Swell Direction: Northwest
Best Wave Size: 6-10 Feet
Left/Right: Mostly Right-Hander
Bottom: Reef/Coral and Sand
Quiver: Longboards, Shortboards, and Guns
Level of Experience: Intermediate and Advanced
Best Season: Fall and Winter
Crowded: Yes
Hazards: Reef/Coral, Rip Currents, Crowd, Localism, Shore Break, Jellyfish
Access: 24/7
Water Quality: Clean

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