I first laid eyes on the famed Maui surf break at Maalaea in 1975. The vivid image of that day is still fresh in my mind: brisk offshore winds, blue skies, Haleakala towering in the distance. The surf was only a meager one to two feet, but the peeling waves passed over the shallow coral reefs with tremendous speed, faster than I had ever seen waves break before, and the whole setting seemed almost surreal.
I was sixteen at the time. My first-ever published photo had just appeared in Surfing magazine, and I knew I wanted to shoot more. That day Maalaea cast its lure, and I took the bait: The notion of capturing an epic day of surf at Maalaea on film ultimately became an obsession.
When I moved to Maui from my hometown of San Diego a decade later, I figured I’d have a better shot at getting the photo. I was wrong. Maalaea is the most elusive wave on the planet, a wave so rare that even surfing veterans in Hawaii have yet to see it break. Some say the surf at Maalaea is just a rumor, that the spot doesn’t really exist. But those diehards who chase it know better. It’s rare, but it’s real. Over time, six-foot swells at Maalaea have brought out some of the biggest names in surfing history.
They come for the speed, that pure movement I’d witnessed back in ’75; in surfing lore, Maalaea is touted as the world’s fastest rideable wave. The waves initially pass over the deep waters of Maalaea Bay, then gain speed as they approach shallower water; the flat coral bottom and brisk offshore tradewinds do the rest. When the winds meet the cresting waves head-on, huge plumes of sea spray ascend high into the air, often forming rainbows.
The main break at Maalaea is known as "Freight Trains," and the name says it all. Riding inside the tube is the primary goal—it’s the only place on the wave a surfer can keep up. To get "performance level" surf at Maalaea, the waves need to reach at least six feet—and for Maalaea to break with that size, it takes a very large south or south-easterly swell. Those swells are usually generated during the summer months, from April through September, formed by powerful storms east of New Zealand. The swell travels thousands of miles across open ocean before finally encountering Hawaii. Then, it must find its way around several formidable obstacles, most notably Maui’s neighboring islands of Lanai and Kahoolawe. Direction is critical here: A few degrees one way or the other makes all the difference. But if the waves can get through, their prolonged odyssey comes to a spectacular conclusion on the reefs at Maalaea.
It happened a few times while I lived on Maui—always, as fate would have it, when I was off the island. When I moved away to the Big Island in 1993, there was an empty, unfulfilled feeling inside me. And as the years passed, I gained another reason to capture Maalaea on celluloid: No one is quite sure how much longer the surf spot will exist. The state has been making noises about expanding the Maalaea boat harbor, a move that would surely destroy the break. Fortunately, opposition has been strong, and a variety of groups, including the Surfrider Foundation, have kept it preserved—for now.
By April of 2004, I’d been waiting nearly three decades for my shot. That month, I tracked a south swell on the computer. As it neared Hawaii, I literally prayed that this would be the swell and flew to Maui. And my patience and persistence were finally rewarded. I got the day I’d waited for: solid six to seven feet, offshore winds, blue water, blue sky, flawless surf. The perfect swell under perfect conditions. I was so enthralled I took a helicopter up to shoot aerials. Hovering above the waves, I thought back to all the great surf I’ve shot over the years—at Jaws, Waimea, Pipeline, Hanalei, Honolua—and realized that this moment photographing Maalaea—and obtaining something so rare—topped them all. HH