Mechanics of Haleiwa - Understanding the BreakNov 11, 2019
Of all the iconic breaks along the North Shore of Oahu, Haleiwa is perhaps the most performance-friendly wave on the Seven-Mile Miracle during big swells. When it starts maxing out and washing through at a lot of the other big-names reefbreaks during the North Pacific winter, Haleiwa will often be the one spot that’s still surfable. It’s also the place where many legendary Hawaiian watermen first learned to surf — and a place they return to frequently throughout their lives — as well as the first stop of the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
The North Pacific sends its strongest swells from October through April, when mid-latitude frontal lows interact with adjacent high pressure. January is the climatological peak. These winter swells are often consistent, ranging from short to long period with a travel time of one to five days.
Watch: Live Haleiwa HD Cam
High-performance Haleiwa. Photo: Heff
Prime winter months (December-February) see a regular supply of WNW/NW swells. Early and late season (October/November, March/April) generally see more northerly angled swells from central to eastern North Pacific storms.
Tropical systems are not typically a swell source for the North Shore, however, recurving typhoons in the West Pacific often undergo extratropical transition (greater chance during fall) or enhance developing winter storms in the Northwest Pacific. These extratropical or tropically enhanced lows can produce some of the strongest swells of the year.
An illustration of a typically active North Pacific winter pattern.
The North Shore has a generally open swell window, stretching from the island of Kauai to the northern tip of Oahu. The swell window for Haleiwa on the western end of the North Shore, however, is a little narrower, confined between Kauai and the reef at Avalanche to the west (300°) and Pua’ena Point to the north (360°).
The ideal swell for Haleiwa is a shorter-period NW swell angled from 310-340°, which prevents the Avalanche reefs and Pua’ena Point from stripping away too much energy.
Longer-period swells feel the effects of nearshore bathymetry, refracting more swell energy toward Pua’ena Point and Avalanche, leaving a void at Haleiwa. Haleiwa is always smaller than most other spots on the North Shore — but when much of the North Shore is out of control, Haleiwa can be a diamond in the rough, showing half to three-quarters the size of nearby breaks.
NW is the preferred swell direction for Haleiwa.
Bathymetry plays a vital role, refracting energy into or away with each variation in swell direction and swell period. At Haleiwa, a finger of shallow reef extends from shore between two deeper channels, dictating how the wave breaks. On larger swells, sets approaching the end of the reef finger peak up, allowing Haleiwa’s signature wave to form — the right peels off while the swell line continues to refract from the channel back onto the reef, giving the wave more power and a uniquely identifiable, bowly shape. The left dumps off and mushes out into the abrupt, deep boat channel leading to the harbor. However, on smaller swells, the sets move closer in, giving way to workable rights and lefts.
The reefs make the magic.
Haleiwa is known for its challenging currents, which only get stronger with increased swell, pulling surfers toward the jetty and boat channel. Avalanche absorbs a great amount of swell, piling up massive amounts of extra water over that reef. The water escapes toward the area of least resistance, in this case, across the Haleiwa lineup and toward the deeper channel outside of the Haleiwa Harbor. On larger swells, you may find yourself being pulled into the impact zone after catching a right, no matter how hard you paddle. So when it’s solid, don’t take (or fall on) the first wave of a set.
The North Shore and Haleiwa generally face northwest, where the North Pacific’s ENE trades blow side-offshore most of the year. Stronger trades that veer more NE create sideshore texture and bumpy conditions. Some of the best days at Haleiwa are when NW swell is running and the winds go light SE.
E to SE is offshore for Haleiwa.
An ideal setup would look like this: a front approaches from the NW, decreasing trades, clocking winds around to the south (SE is straight offshore) and occasionally going slack. Stronger, lower-latitude-tracking storms that swing through the islands continue to clock winds around, eventually bringing unfavorable (SW/W) Kona wind before veering (NW/N) onshore as troughs sweep through and high pressure builds in behind.
— Best Tide: Mid
— Best Swell Direction: NW
— Best Swell Period: Shorter period
— Best Wind: Calm or light to moderate offshore (E-SE is straight offshore)
— Best Size: 4-10ft faces