Spot Check: Kewalo’s

Spot Check: Kewalo’s

The Making of a Legend

A faded red minivan backs into an oceanfront parking spot at the end of Kewalo Basin Park, adjacent to the refurbished shed that plays home to a mix of fishing nets. A tanned father opens the tailgate to reveal a quiver of surfboards stacked haphazardly in the back, neon colors blazing from under the wax. Three groms, what older surfers call surf-stoked kids, hop out the side door.

After a couple of friendly jeers about who’s going to get the best wave, they grab their boards, walk to the end of the jetty, and hop off the rocks into the light blue Pacific. Not a minute later they’re in the lineup, paying their respect to the uncles, high-fiving their peers, and paddling into position for the next set wave.

Iterations of this same scenario have been playing out for decades at Kewalo’s, one of the south shore’s most high-performance surfbreaks, which happens to be across the road from Ward Village. Once a native Hawaiian fishing grounds and canoe landing with a shallow reef and deep lagoon, this iconic locale has evolved over the centuries to reflect the needs of the burgeoning local community.

In the early 1900s, Victoria Ward sold what is now Kewalo Basin to the Territory of Hawai‘i. The government dredged the area to create a more usable harbor to address the growing needs of the neighboring industrial neighborhood, Kaka‘ako, which was home to Honolulu’s heavy industries such as iron works, draying companies, and lumberyards. By 1926, the lumber industry was in severe decline and the harbor became used primarily by commercial fishing fleets. Archival images from the late 1800s show the harbor packed with Japanese sampan fishing vessel, which brought in aku and ahi, two local favorites. After several updates to the harbor and shoreline throughout the 1950s that created eight acres of new land called Kewalo Basin Park, surfing became the main draw. Heavily localized and nicknamed Shark Pits, the early days saw aggressive surfers tough it out in the water, and in the parking lot, for claim to the break.

Fast forward to the 2000s and the vibe at Kewalo’s had completely changed. With the mainstream popularity of surfing fueling a rush of kids into the lineup, Kewalo’s became the place to be seen for Hawai‘i’s up-and-coming elite surfers. Horns sounded at surf contests on the weekends, the parking lot was full of families with pop-up tents and beach chairs, and the surf industry had its eye on the talent in the water, namely a young girl named Carissa Moore. In 2010, 14-year-old Carissa, just a freshman at Punahou School, took out an ultra-talented and highly competitive field of 60 of Hawai‘i’s top amateur boy surfers at the Quiksilver King of the Groms contest.

“Oh my gosh, Kewalo’s is the most special place to me,” recalls Carissa, now a three-time WSL (World Surf League) World Champion. “There was a crew of us who basically made Kewalo’s our home base. Almost every day, that was where we surfed—rain or shine, big or small. It’s pretty baffling to think about how many of us call that wave our homebreak and how many of us went on to professional careers.”

The contest was graced with some of the biggest surf seen on the south shore in over a decade, with double-overhead waves bombing on the shallow reef. Carissa’s harrowing performance sent the surf industry into a frenzy. “This isn’t the first time Carissa’s shocked the surfing world and we are certain it will not be the last,” Roxy’s Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Randy Hild said after the event. Headlines like “Hawai‘i’s ‘Groms’ Bow to 14-Year-Old Girl” from the Honolulu Advertiser and “The Queen of Kings” from Surfline foreshadowed Carissa’s rise to professional surfing royalty.

Carissa credits much of that success to her formative days at Kewalo’s, surfing with her friends. “As a whole, I think the vibe in the water with the younger surfers is really competitive,” Carissa says. “We were all there surfing and pushing each other. The environment with the locals is also very supportive, and the older uncles in the water really supported us. If you can surf Kewalo’s, you can surf anything. Big, small, rights, lefts—it’s all there. It can prepare you for everything. It’s super accessible as well, so it’s easy to pull up and get straight in the water.”

As the faded minivans packed with colorful surfboards and sunscreen-caked groms continue to pull up at Kewalo’s, undoubtedly there’s one kid in the mix—boy, girl, it doesn’t matter—who has their heart and hopes set on becoming the next world champion.