Feature

Pier Pleasure

The Kapahulu groin is Waikīkī’s gathering place
Text by Derek Ferrar. Photos by Matt Mallams.

Call it what you will: the Kapahulu storm drain, the groin or, like most regulars, simply “the Wall.” No matter the name, the concrete jetty that projects 355 feet out into the surf from the end of Kapahulu Avenue at the Diamond Head end of Waikīkī is a place unto itself.

Constructed in 1951 as part of a multimillion-dollar project to replenish the vanishing sands of the world’s most famous beach, this promenade into the sea has long been a nexus of die-hard local beach culture mixed with a rainbow of sun-seeking souls from the far corners of the globe. There’s something for everyone at this distinctive gathering place: bodyboarding in the gentle but fun break along the Diamond Head side of the wall, floating carelessly in the sheltered water on the ‘Ewa side, strolling down the walkway to snap a sunset selfie or even taking the risky (and officially prohibited) leap off the jetty’s end, which many describe as a “rite of passage” of growing up in Honolulu.

Many a Honolulu waterman and woman rode their first waves at the Wall’s forgiving bodyboarding break or learned to swim in the protected water behind the low breakwall on the other side (seen here). For surfer Keone Downing the Wall represents “innocent, fun times. It’s a safe place to go in the water, and there’s so many different things you can do to have fun there. And for kids from the city, it’s a place you can take the bus to and just hang out all day.” Longtime beachboy Teddy Bush remembers living as a boy in the tight-knit “Hawaiian village” of small cottages that stood across the street until the late ’50s, where the community often caught its dinner together hukilau style, by casting a large fishnet next to the Wall.“Those were great days,” Bush says.

Built over a storm drain on the spot where a meandering stream once flowed into the sea in the days before marshy Waikīkī was drained for development in the 1920s, the Wall was constructed as part of a grand Waikīkī Beach Development Plan that also involved trucking in massive amounts of sand from plentiful beaches on the Windward side of O‘ahu. Surf historian John Clark remembers his father, an engineer who was the construction supervisor on the groin project, bringing the family down to the site to show it off. Clark says he’s never been able to find out exactly why the storm drain’s designers decided to build a spacious walkway on top. “I guess that was just considered an enhancement for the beach,” he says, “so people could walk out and watch the surfers.”

For many, a part of the Wall’s allure is watching daredevil jumpers pull flips and flops off the nine-foot-high concrete edge into the surf below, or even giving it a try themselves. The thrill of the officially forbidden leap is not without peril, however: Divers must time their landing to match the crests of incoming waves or risk hitting the coral bottom about three feet below the surface. Over the years a number of devastating injuries have resulted from tragic miscalculations. Still, Teddy Bush recalls that in his childhood, as today, the challenge proved irresistible. “We would cannonball into swarms of jellyfish, packs of little hammerhead shark pups—anything just to have a moment to brag and show off,” he remembers. “We were just stupid kids, that’s all.”

Come sunset time, the photo-snapping crowd under the framework roof at the end of the Wall grows four or five rows deep. As a star social media attraction, the Wall has its own pages on places like Facebook and Yelp. And these days the beach even gets the annual red carpet treatment at open-air premieres for new seasons of the revisited Hawaii Five-0 and now Magnum P.I. television series. Ryan Oxford, a regular player at the beach volleyball courts next to the Wall, says what he loves most about the spot, besides the stellar view, is that “we have people from all over, a very diverse group brought together by their love of the game. It’s just a really fun community.” HH