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Oahu's North Shore Scene

Coliena Rentmeester Gearing up for a day of surfing in Oahu.

Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

One of the North Shore's leading postmodern mythologists, Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, happens to own a tastefully opulent spread on Sunset Beach, but he enjoys the fray of local street life. "The tone of the North Shore is still very sixties and not commercialized, which makes the town very seductive," he says. "We have one hotel, one supermarket, and one Starbucks—and that's it. But this is the epicenter of surfing on the planet." With partner Ron Howard as director, Grazer produced The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind, and Apollo 13; a detour into the let's-go-surfing-now genre, Blue Crush, brought him to the North Shore of Oahu. Grazer hired such hometown surfers as Megan Abubo for stunt-double work, took surfing lessons himself, and used some of the more atmospheric legends—Kai Garcia and a massive fixture of a man named Hawaiian—for the punch of reality. "Kai is one of the most physically tough guys I've ever met," Grazer says, "and his society, the surfing world of the North Shore, is stratified in a way that is just so male: it's purely about the power of your body—not guns like South Central, but all that testosterone can be scary. I'm only connected because I used these guys in the movie." On the North Shore, true watermen are honored—even by Hollywood moguls—with the reverence accorded to samurai warriors.

The sport of Hawaiian kings has evolved into a multibillion-dollar global phenomenon. Naturally, monolithic corporations are also chasing the youthquake edge of surfing, that mystical yet eminently marketable chimera of sun, fun, freedom, and unemployment. Like hired gunslingers, young North Shore surfers—many of whom were taught the sport by their hippie-dippie parents—will say they ride for Roxy or some other outfit. The teen icons of surf world, who can make a quarter-million dollars a year, are compelled by contract to be walking billboards of surf leisure clothes, though they barely process the sixties notion of selling out.

Some North Shore locals claim that tourists hijack street signs that point to the more fabled surf turf, which might be why Banzai Pipeline, a surf-movie staple and the fountainhead of North Shore mythology, is not marked: it's just off Ehukai Beach Park, across Kam Highway from Sunset Beach Elementary School. During the season, Quiksilver, Billabong, and the like spend a fortune renting modest beach houses, useful for hosting their star surfers and searing the company brand into the heart of hip. The Rip Curl Pro Pipeline Masters is the summit of the Vans Triple Crown, a series of competitions that frames the North Shore social season: thousands of fans, groupies, tourists, and groms clog the beaches and Kam Highway, an invasion that doesn't always sit well with locals, who lose treasured surfing days and their small-town, Mayberry-gone-trendy ambience. Pipeline, which breaks close to the beach with 10-foot waves, can be a terrifying spectacle. One midnight at a throbbing youth barbecue in an old-line family's beach house, which had been rented by Red Bull, the portraits on the wall literally shook when a big swell came up.

Jack Johnson, the noted art-surf star—he's gone platinum with such albums as In Between Dreams, a long way from Jan & Dean but still free and easy, the aural equivalent of a lazy day at the beach—grew up in a house at Pipeline, making the finals of the Pipe Trials at the age of 17. Shortly before last year's Pipeline Masters, a kind of People's Choice Awards of the sport held every December since 1971, Johnson and surf celebs Kelly Slater, Mark Cunningham, and Rob Machado co-hosted a benefit to keep the lush Pupukea-Paumalu bluffs above Pipeline a recreational preserve. The 1,129-acre tract, once intended to become an upscale housing development, is now being sold by the Obayashi Corporation; a consortium of environmental groups has raised $7 million and—according to Josh Stanbro, project manager of the Trust for Public Land—has a letter of intent from Obayashi for the sale. Recently, the same groups kept Waimea Valley from being developed; the next battle is a fight against the inevitable specter of condominium development. To natives, the North Shore is all about using money as a force of cool, and in recent years, the falling yen has allowed locals to save much of the undeveloped land.

The North Shore has the capital of Malibu, but somehow it has kept the raw funk of early Venice Beach. In the modern age, money never needs to go to the office anymore, and software designers and financial types like trader Fred Parr ("I surf in the mornings, and do business with Japan from noon on") might live next door to a garage apartment occupied by some terminally 1968 boho character who gets along by selling macramé hangings at the flea market. On Sunset Beach, the narrow access path between Kam Highway and a string of beach houses is a lush wonderland of hibiscus flowers, banana trees, and enormous Pritchardi palm fronds. But it's also plastered with surf company decals, the local equivalent of graffiti, and serves as a dumping ground for abandoned cars: gypsy surfers—who sleep in hostels, rented rooms, their girlfriends' apartments, or on the beach itself during the season—buy old junkers for cheap transportation and just leave the rusting hulks on the side of the road in the spring. Memorials to youth, beauty, and the perils of surfing are everywhere, carved into trees: IN MEMORY OF AN AUSTRALIAN WHO LIVED AND SURFED HIS DREAMS: 18 FOREVER.

On the other side of Kam Highway, in an even more eclectic neighborhood that winds its way up to the Pupukea ridge and a motocross track, Hawaiian hillbillies operate welding shops out of improbable plywood huts; cows, horses, and goats graze along the road, with roosters scratching for leverage in the dirt. Way up in the hills, James Michener wrote Hawaii. Years later, a middle-class neighborhood is still talking about the renter who covered his windows with tinfoil, knocked holes through the second floor of his house, and grew 15-foot-tall marijuana plants. Recently, at Happy Trails Hawaii, where tourists take trail rides, general manager and polo player Mark Becker was contemplating dinner, his staff having speared a wild boar after their dogs chased it down. Oahu is not for wimps.

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