November 17, 2014

How to Watch the Vans World Cup of Surfing

Created in 1983 by surfing promoter Fred Hemmings to showcase the surf of Oahu's North Shore, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing is made up of three events.  Although each event has its own winner, the Triple Crown is awarded to the surfer who performs the best across all three events.  The first event, or "jewel," 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, which is also the final event of the ASP World Championship Tour and where world titles are often decided, 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.
Partial map of North Shore surf breaks

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 Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach.

When to Go

11-time World Champion Kelly Slater
at the 2012 Vans World Cup of Surfing
Perhaps the biggest challenge after choosing which of the three events to watch is deciding when to go.  All three events take place within an approximately two week (12-14 day) window, and they usually take 3-4 days to complete.  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 Vans World Cup of Surfing has been more spaced out.  The 2013 event took place on the 3rd, 6th, 7th, and 8th day.  The 2012 event transpired on the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 10th 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.  Be aware that event organizers are going to call "event on" the earliest they possibly can to avoid crunch time later on, so your best chance to catch at least some of the Vans World Cup of Surfing is to arrive early.

Where to Stay

For the most part, you have three choices on where to stay.  For the best combination of luxury and convenience, you will want to stay at Turtle Bay Resort close to the northeast corner of Oahu and east of the North Shore surf beaches and breaks.  The rooms and amenities are very nice, and the hotel is only a 5-10 minute drive to Sunset Beach.  Furthermore, the hotel is 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 several reasons to think 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 to get to and around the North Shore, adding to your expenses.  Finally, you'll have to spend some time in your rental car to get to other parts of the island, including Honolulu, to find things to do on event lay days.  However, this last reason for caution is offset by the fact that there 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 will get a much better rate at one of those hotels than you would at Turtle Bay Resort, 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 rent a car, probably for the week (you don't want to have to scramble for a rental at the last minute), and the hotels usually charge by the day (around $20) 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.  Like staying at Turtle Bay Resort, the upside is that you won't have to take a long morning drive to get to the event.  Aside from the expensive room rates, the downsides are also similar.  You'll have to rent a car during your stay, of course, and you'll have to drive to other parts of the island, including Honolulu, to find things to do.  But again, there's also plenty of things to do on the North Shore.

How to Get There

You'll probably only need directions to the Vans World Cup of Surfing if you're staying in Honolulu.  If you're coming from Turtle Bay or North Shore rental from the east or from Haleiwa or North Shore rental from the west, you basically just get on Kamehameha Highway and Sunset Beach is about in the middle.

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, including Sunset Beach.

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

Free parking close to Sunset Beach is a little hard to come by during the event. There is a parking strip along Kamehameha Highway in front of the beach. There is also a public parking lot on the other side of the highway in front of the beach. But these parking lots fill up very fast very early in the morning. 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

Sunset Beach has a rather large, heavily sloped sand area. You shouldn't have any trouble finding a spot on the sand that will give you an unobstructed view of the action. Unlike the other two Triple Crown events, there is also a set of grandstands to use.

You should be aware, however, that the Sunset Beach breaks are not as close to the shore as Pipeline and Backdoor, for example.  You will still get a decent view of the action, but if you're bringing  a camera and/or video camera to capture it, you're going to want to bring one with a strong lens or high zoom.

Furthermore, here's a few words of advice on spectator etiquette. For one, don't bring a big beach umbrella.  You don't want to ruin the view for other spectators. If you absolutely have to shield yourself from the sun with more than just sunscreen, try wearing a hat, wearing a long-sleeve shirt, and covering your legs with a towel.  Also, it's okay to stand up, but do it near the shoreline, not in the middle of the crowd. That might fly at a concert, but not at a surf event. At least if you're at the shoreline where people do in fact congregate, the crowd higher up on the beach has a better chance to see over you.

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. Although it's a little disappointing that the event organizers don't provide much in the way of port-a-potties, there are restrooms available in the public parking lot across the street from the beach.

Where to Eat

Garlic Shrimp and pie from Ted's Bakery
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. Also nearby, within walking distance, is Ted's Bakery, which not only has great pies and pastries, but awesome lunch and dinner plates, served with the traditional Hawaiian sides of sticky rice and macaroni salad.  I highly recommend the Garlic Shrimp plate.

So that's pretty much all you need to know to enjoy your time watching the Vans World Cup of Surfing.  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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