November 24, 2014

How to Watch the Billabong Pipe Masters

The Vans Triple Crown of Surfing is a set of three surf competitions that takes place between November 12th and December 20th at three different surf spots on the North Shore Oahu.  Each event, or "jewel," has its own winner, but the Triple Crown is awarded to the surfer who performs the best across all three events.

The first event in the Triple Crown is the Reef Hawaiian Pro, which takes place every year between November 12th and the 23rd at Haleiwa Ali'i Beach Park.  The second jewel, the Vans World Cup of Surfing, occurs between November 24th and December 6th at Sunset Beach.  The final jewel, the Billabong Pipe Masters, happens between December 8th and the 20th at Ehukai Beach Park, site of the world famous surf break (Banzai) Pipeline as well as its lesser known companion break Backdoor.

Having witnessed these amazing events in person, I'd like to provide some basic information and advice on how to best go about watching these events (dates, where to stay, directions, parking, food, bathrooms, etiquette) for first-timers.  This post is about how to watch the Billabong Pipe Masters.

When to Go

See some of your favorite surfers up close,
like John John Florence
Deciding when to go is as challenging as picking one of the three events of the Triple Crown to watch.  All three events take place within an approximately two week (12-14 day) window, and they usually take 3-4 days to finish.  If the swells are really pumping, it could be over early.  For example, the recently concluded 2014 Reef Hawaiian began on the first day of its window and was over by its fourth.  In the past couple of years, the Billabong Pipe Masters has taken longer to wrap up.  The 2013 event took place on the 1st, 3rd, and 7th day.  The 2012 event transpired on the 1st, 2nd, and 7th day.

If you can afford it, you should schedule your visit to Oahu during the entire event window, up to two weeks.  If you're more budget-constrained, my advice is to arrive in Oahu on the first day of the event window and try to stay for about seven days, covering the early and middle days of the window.  Since event organizers are going to call "event on" the earliest they possibly can to avoid crunch time later on, you're most likely to catch part or all of the event in the early and middle days of the window.

Where to Stay

2013 ASP World Champion Mick Fanning
For the most part, you have three choices on where to stay.  For the best combination of luxury and convenience, you'll want to stay at Turtle Bay Resort in the northeast corner of Oahu.  Not only are the rooms and amenities upscale, but the hotel is also the site of Surfer the Bar (where many special events take place during the Triple Crown) and Kuilima Cove (where some of the best, calmest snorkeling on the North Shore can be found.)

There are a few reasons for thinking twice about staying at Turtle Bay Resort, however.  For one, the rooms can be kind of expensive, usually starting in the high $200s/night.  Second, you'll have to rent a car not only to get to the North Shore but also to get around, adding to your expenses.  Finally, you'll need to drive to other parts of the island, including Honolulu, if you want to do certain things on event lay days.  However, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied at the North Shore.  Check out my post "10 Things to do on Vacation at the North Shore."

A second option is to stay in Honolulu near Waikiki Beach where most of the hotels in Oahu are located.  You'll get a much better rate at one of those hotels than you would at Turtle Bay, and it's only about a 45-minute to an hour drive up to the North Shore from Honolulu.  The downside is that you're going to have to pay for parking for your rental car.  Unless you want to scramble for a rental at the last minute, you're going to have a rental car on standby because you don't know what day the event will be on.  Parking is hard to come by in Honolulu, and the hotels usually charge around $20/day for parking.

A final option is to rent a room or condo from a local somewhere on the North Shore, which you can usually find on vacation rental sites such as HomeAway.  The rates are generally equivalent to the rates you'd get from the Honolulu hotels.  The upside is similar to what you'd get if you stayed at Turtle Bay Resort (you won't have to take a long morning drive to get to the event.)  The downsides are also similar (you'll have to rent a car and drive to other parts of the island to find things to do.)

How to Get There

You'll probably only need directions to the Billabong Pipe Masters if you're staying in Honolulu.  If you're coming from Turtle Bay Resort or thereabouts or from Haleiwa or thereabouts, you basically just get on Kamehameha Highway and Ehukai Beach is between these two points, though much closer to the former.

If you're coming from Honolulu, you're going to want to find your way to Interstate H1 West.  Take H1 West to Interstate H201 West.  You'll be on H201 West for a short time before you merge back onto H1 West.   Continue on H1 West until around Pearl City where you'll transfer to Interstate H2 West.  Take H2 West to Exit 8, the town of Wahiawa, where'll you catch Highway 80 North, then Highway 99 North, then finally Highway 83 North.  All three of these highways form Kamehameha Highway, on which lie most of the famous surf beaches and breaks of the North Shore.  Ehukai Beach is about 10-15 minutes past Haleiwa, which is where Highway 99 turns into Highway 83.

What to Bring

When you go to an arena or stadium to watch your local professional sports team, you usually don't need to bring much besides your wallet to buy over-priced beer and food. To watch a live surfing event, however, you're going to need to be a little more prepared. For a list of things to bring, check out my post "What to Bring with You to Watch a Surf Competition."

Where to Park

The parking lot in front of Ehukai Beach is very small, so you almost certainly won't find a spot there for the event.  Most people end up parking along either side of Kamehameha Highway, but you may have a little walk ahead of you depending on how far away you have to park. Some nearby property owners also open their properties to offer parking, and it will typically cost you $10 for the day.

Where to Watch

In contrast to Sunset Beach, the breaks at Ehukai Beach, Pipe and Backdoor, are a lot closer to the shore.  Theoretically, you should get a much clearer view of the action at the Billabong Pipe Masters than at the Vans World Cup of Surfing.  Be sure to bring your camera and/or video camera to capture some great shots and/or videos to make your friends jealous back home.

However, be prepared to face some possible challenges in getting an unobstructed view of the action.  Ehukai Beach is not as wide and sloped as Sunset Beach.  There's still plenty of beach area for you to find a place to sit, but your view might be obstructed by spectators who start congregating near the shoreline right in front of the action as they usually do.  Your best bet for an unobstructed view is to try to get to the beach early and sit as high up on the beach as you can.  Keep in mind that the Billabong Pipe Masters is the final event on the ASP World Championship Tour, and for many years it has been where world titles have been clinched.  The beach gets crowded early, especially on the final event day.

Kelly Slater and John John Florence waiting
for waves in the finals

A great alternative to sitting right in front of the action is to sit to the left or right of it.  Keep in mind that Pipe breaks to the left of the surfers (to the right if you're watching from the beach), and Backdoor breaks to the right (to the left from the beach.)  Not only will you be able to see the action past any people standing near the shoreline right in front of the action, but you might actually be getting exactly the best view possible.  The Billabong Pipe Masters is all about surfers getting barreled, and you're going to be able to see them inside the barrels from an angle rather than covered up as you would if you were looking straight on.

Where to Use the Bathroom

Every heat of the event is 30 minutes long, and there are so many during the day that you could be there 8-10 hours. At some point, you're going to need to use the bathroom.  It's a little disappointing that the event organizers don't provide any port-a-potties.  There is a public restroom at Ehukai Beach, but if the event is crowded, especially on the final day, as it usually is, there's going to be a long line to use the restroom.  Be prepared for some agony if you really have to go.

Where to Eat
Shark's Cove Grill

If you're going to be there all day, you're also going to get hungry.  There are usually several food trucks parked along Kamehameha Highway. East of Ehukai Beach, within a short driving distance, is Ted's Bakery, which not only has great pies and pastries, but awesome breakfast, lunch and dinner plates, served with the traditional Hawaiian sides of sticky rice and macaroni salad.  To the west is Shark's Cove Grill, a permanently parked food truck. Though it's menu is not as good as Ted's Bakery, it has some good combo plates and smoothies for breakfast, and for lunch and dinner it has some decent skewers and burgers.

So that's pretty much all you need to know to enjoy your time watching the Billabong Pipe Masters.  Have a great time, and know that you're watching surfing at one of the greatest, if not the greatest, stretches of beach for surfing in the world, North Shore Oahu.

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