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Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

North Shore - Oahu - Hawaii, United States

Surf, Bodyboard

Sunset is located on Oahu’s North Shore, Hawaii. Words alone cannot describe this famous stretch of coastline between Pipeline and Rocky Point which is home to some of the most important, powerful and legendary waves in the world. It’s for this reason that it’s known as the world’s surfing capital. If Pipeline is the reference for tube riding, Sunset is the reference for power riding and although it doesn’t seem like one of the most difficult waves in the world to surf at first sight, especially backside, it’s a waves that everyone respects and is a challenge for most as well as being a training ground for aspiring pros such as the American Junior surf team who have their final exam there.


Every year, during November and December, competition is high at some of the most important annual events there and it’s where the best surfers in the world are decided. We can refer to the Triple Crown of Surfing, an event which is open to the world’s best surfers. It was created in 1983 to unite the Hawaiian champion with the world’s professional championships. It consists of three events, the first is the Hawaiian Pro which is held in Haleiwa, the second is the World Cup at Sunset and the third is the Pipe Masters. The Vans World Cup at Sunset is the last and most prestigious Prime of the WQS as it’s the final decision for who will be chosen as the new elite of the WCT.

Getting to Sunset from Honolulu Airport is easy. Head towards the north of the North Shore along Kamehameha Road. Once you arrive, pass Ted’s bakery and the Chevron garage and you’ll have a perfect panoramic view of Sunset Beach. You’ll come across places to stay along the way, options such as room only as well as houses and hostels. Don’t forget the North Shore’s most famous hotel, the Turtle Bay Resort. There are many places to eat, drink and spend time, especially around Haleiwa.

By mid-century Woody Brown and Dickie Cross were some of the first to surf big waves at Sunset, the sessions were an odyssey and in fact, when the sea got heavier and the strong currents were difficult to handle, they once had to paddle three miles to exit the water at Waimea Bay. Standing out during the sixties was Barry Kanaiaupuni and in the seventies, Jeff Hakman AKA Mr Sunset, Buttons Kaluhiokalani and Larry Bertleman. In the eighties it was the still present Bobby Owens and in the nineties, Gary Elkerton, Tom Carrol, Michael Ho and Sunny Garcia. Others that should also be mentioned are Randy Rarick, Peter Cole, Ricky Grig, Ken Bradshaw, Pancho Sullivan, Makua Rothman and of course the great Andy Irons. All of these legendary surfers have made Sunset one of the most important places in surfing history.

Sunset Beach runs along the whole of the coast in front of Kammieland until the channel. It’s one of the places which receives some of the biggest and most spectacular waves in the North Shore, to put it into perspective, if it’s 25 feet in Waimea, there will be 30 feet on the outside of Backyards. This large, complex reef which is over one kilometre long, receives all swells from W to NE and has formed geologically, like the rest of the North Shore spots, around the freshwater outflows which create the deepest water channels and surround the reef in a mushroom like shape, outlining a base of big long lava fingers that gradually descend to the sea towards the west – northwest. Like the rest of the Hawaiian spots, the bathymetry of the complex lava and coral formations of the bottom refract the series towards the main peaks with all its energy. This is the main reason why the Sunset surfers are those that have spent their whole lives observing the distinct conditions which these erratic waves acquire. Like few places in the world, the conditions change a lot depending on the size, the period and the distinct swell components, making the dynamics of the Sunset wave practically a secret. Among those who know its secrets is the local legend Randy Rarick, who has been surfing it for more than forty years, and thanks to him we are now able to better explain how Sunset works.

It’s a wave which bears no resemblance to what it seems from outside of the water, and where you can’t think that the most difficult part is done when you have caught the wave because you never know how it is going to respond. For one of the world’s best surfers, the South African Jordy Smith, Sunset is one of his preferred waves as it fits well with his surfing style and because of that he always gets good results. This is because being a surfer of such magnitude, he is at ease with the critical drops and huge water pumps that transform into enormous barrels on the inside. Something which you will need to bear in mind is that what you may understand as six feet at your local beach, is one for the Hawaiians and for the majority of the locals, less than six feet is very small. Everything changes from eight feet and up and few will miss the opportunity. The locals have what they call ‘Sunset Guns’ and underestimate the wave most of the time, using boards that are too short, ignoring the huge amounts of water that manipulate the spot. Sunset requires a good level of surfing and the right board suited to your ability. It’s important to have a board with volume to be able to enter the wave well and to make paddling easier. It’s common to use a gun over seven feet, and on normal days, days which are big to any non-Hawaiian, it can be okay to use round pins or a pin tail over 6’6.

Of course, before you go in, it’s important to remember that like in the rest of Hawaii, respect is vital and if there’s a good wave you can be sure you won’t be there alone, so it can be difficult to get a wave because of this. You’ll also need to be aware of the phantom series and the currents and the fact that in this playground, mistakes will not be forgiven. However, you should trust Sunset because it could give you one of the most impressive sessions of your life and you’ll see how it’s got the perfect location, as its name suggests, to watch the sun disappearing over the horizon.


The best time of year in Hawaii is from October until May and above all the months in the middle of the winter in the northern hemisphere as this is when the biggest swells of the year arrive. Sunset starts to work with personality from 6 up to 20 feet but the best conditions are when it’s from 8 to 12 feet with mid tide. The best wind direction is E to SSE, although the norm is NE (side shore), a wind which isn’t too bad on the inside but can be very annoying on the outside. One of the most important things to remember before going in is that the currents can help you enter from Kammieland towards West Peak, making it easy to reach The Point, but on the big days all of this can be bad for the less experienced. For example, broken leashes are common and being taken by the currents are all part of the game at Sunset. If this does happen you should get out in front of The Point and let the white water take you to the shore before the current takes you back out to the line up. The strong currents are like rivers and can leave you in very risky places if a series breaks on top of you so it’s important to stay aware and be in excellent shape.

Sunset has various take off zones throughout all of its sections and the way to surf it depends a lot on the origin of the swell. It’s always more difficult to get in position and choose the right wave, including many times when you’ll find it’s unorganised and the series suddenly break over you, or you go too far in search of them. The best conditions generally come with W and NW swells. When it comes more from the N, the take off zone will be even more unpredictable because the series which approach on the parallel can break over any part of the Sunset reef. The three main peaks begin to be defined from 3 to 6 feet. From east to west, Backyards is the peak which is located most towards the NE of the reef, a zone which offers both rights and lefts. The Point is an excellent wave when it connects to Middles, and the best option on small days. It’s advisable to take care there because it’s very shallow when it’s small, but there is the possibility of surfing fun summer waves with as little as 3 feet and ENE swell. When the swell gets to 7 feet, Middles and the inside bowl become the focus of attention and it’s at the moments when Randy Rarick knows the ideal moment to avoid the frustration of watching the waves close out in The Point without reaching Middles. He knows that you need to wait until the NW swell reaches 8 feet and Middles starts working with all its splendour until the legendary inside bowl which forms better when the waves come more from the NNW. It’s therefore when the true challenge begins and when Sunset’s nature becomes unpredictable offering sectioned walls with occasional barrels on the inside and critical take offs with large pockets where speed and knowledge is the key.

As Pancho Sullivan said, this wave is magical because every day is different and so it always surprises you, above all in the inside bowl where you never know what’s waiting for you. Falling in a bad place on the inside is serious business and you need to stay aware of the series that unexpectedly break more towards the W. The other peak to name is West Peak but this appears with long periods and W swell. The 15 foot waves at Sunset reach to around 30 feet further down and with these conditions bombs break on the outside of the second reef and sweep along the whole of the line up. These are conditions where only the most prepared dare to paddle in. There could be others being towed in on the outside of Backyards. The most attainable option is closest to the shoreline at the end of the beach at Val’s Reef, quite a busy peak where kids and longboarders surf. It’s an easier option compared to the power of Sunset’s main peak and it may be difficult due to the crowds but it’s not impossible to catch a few waves.
Optimal Conditions
  • Wave
    Epic right hand
  • Wind
  • Tide
  • Swell
    NW - NNW - N
  • Bottom
  • Size
    6 to 25 ft
  • Time of year
    From October to April
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