After a great start to the Hawaiian winter the North Shore was hit with an armada of north winds (onshore), which are traditionally accompanied with bad weather and rain. The one good thing from this weather pattern is that it’s the perfect wind direction for Backyards located on the infamous North Shore of Oahu.
It had been 5 long years since my last session at Backyards and I was looking to get out of the bad weather on Maui and into sunshine and some powerful clean faces that the North Shore is famous for.
Comparing backyards to Hookipa is like comparing a beat up Fiat to a nice new BMW. The ride is smooth with great walls to hit and lots of power that you can feel under your feet. It’s sometimes tricky when it gets a little too big but if you are careful and select the right waves you can have some of the most epic rides of your life.
Backyards offers a more high performance top to bottom sailing where you can push as hard as you want in the bottom and top turns. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to sail a real quality wave.
As I drove past Sunset Beach I got my first real look at the Backyards line-up. It looked pretty big and a little uneven due to the 14-second period swell that day. The wind was super light and already starting to switch to the offshore direction. Right then I knew it was going to be a hard day.
Backyards is one of the most fickle spots to sail on the planet. The only guys that really do score this wave are the very few local windsurfers that live in the tight knitted community.
I decided to just get on with it and get out there as Backyards is the sort of place where you just have to be out there drifting around and wait for the gusts to have any sort of chance at a productive day. Cloudbanks were rolling through and I knew that with each passing system there would be small window of good wind. A few other friends joined me, so I felt comfortable getting out there and sharing a few waves with my friends.
The second reef was breaking which always makes Backyards a very tricky place to sail. You have to be just outside the first reef but not too far out where you will get one right on the head from the second reef. There’s only about a 20-meter safe zone between the first and second reef. Whitewater from the second outside reef at times can fill the small channels that separates each reef making it a real game of cat and mouse. That’s why they always say that Backyards is best at around 6 to 8 foot as there is no second reef breaking. Sailing this spot on a day like today would be achievable by the most experienced sailors.
On my very first wave I had I tried to aerial over a section of the wave but got a little back-winded due to how light the wind was and had to bail my gear. I knew I should have taken it easy on my first wave but the shape of the wave was so perfect, I just had to hit it. I flew through the air on top of this exquisite looking beast and then just pin-dropped to the bottom of the wave. I took a deep breath and waited for the harsh thrashing I was about to receive.
The wave is so shallow at the end section you really have to be careful not to hit the bottom. If you do slam into the reef you could find yourself with a broken leg or ankle. The trick is to try to land mid face into the wave so you can absorb some of the downward energy, helping cushion your blow and hopefully avoiding the reef below.
From that first wipeout I knew it was going to be a tricky day and I spent the rest of the day picking out the best waves and trying not to wipeout.
On this particular day, once you pick your wave from the top of the reef you were basically committed to run the entire length of the wave before it eventually closed-out at the end of the reef know as Boneyards, which is the bottom channel that sepeated Backyards from Sunset . If you caught the right wave you could get around 3 to 4 solid bottom turns as you maneuvered around each breaking section.
Some of the waves are so smooth you can bottom turn as fast as you like and hit the lip with as much speed as the board will handle. When you’re sailing a wave like this you can feel all the spray coming off the rails and fins as you cut back under the lip. By the time you get to the end section, the wave starts to close out and you could either kick out the back of the wave or straighten out and head for the beach. If you chose to straighten out there was no way you could get back out. You were left with the option to either walk along the beach or tack back and forth along the inside shoreline to get back upwind to the Backyards channel.
For all its dangers and fickle behavior, Backyards has a unique quality that is a great asset to surfers and windsurfers. The strong current on the inside reef runs in the opposite direction to the apparent wind. If you’re in the right spot you will simply be transported upwind and spat out in the Backyards channel courtesy of Mother Nature.
The trick is to keep tacking back and forth on the inside until you hit the current line and just enjoy the ride upwind.
After a few hours of sailing there were either moments of brilliance or moments of despair. I tried to pick off the medium size waves, as they seemed to be the best shape and had more of a tendency not closing out as much. The only problem with choosing the mid size waves was it left you exposed to the larger set waves once you kicked out the back of the wave.
I remember on one occasion I was on the inside after finishing my ride and the next wave was already starting to wall up. As I made my way out I could see that I was not going to make it over the wave. I decided to try duck dive my equipment through the barrel and save my gear. I’ve tried to duck dive my gear a few times but the wave need to be quite hollow and not too massive. On this occasion I managed to thread the mast perfectly through the barrel, grab the nose of the board with one hand and the boom with the other and just popped out the other side perfectly.
The rest of the afternoon was a chess game, trying to make the right moves and not get caught out. For all the heart stopping moments that day I really had a great time. What added to the excitement of the day was the fact that no one sailed Hookipa that day so I did not miss out, not that I would choose Hookipa over Backyards anyway. I look forward to getting back there again this year. I keep my fingers crossed and my eyes on the forecast, always.
All photos: John Bilderback