KAILUA-KONA —Boarded up storefronts peppered the north end of Alii Drive Thursday morning, standing in lonely juxtaposition to a thoroughfare bustling with foot and vehicle traffic.
Spectators lined the seawall, phones in hand and mouths agape. Children shrieked and giggled as waves crashed into the rocks below, an explosive ocean spray occasionally drenching those who ventured too close to the edge.
The draw was a seldom-seen swell in Kailua Bay, courtesy of Hurricane Lane, which beckoned body boarders and surfers alike with the rare opportunity to ride some of the island’s most iconic waters.
“It’s been almost 20 years probably since it’s broken like this inside the bay,” said Willy Petrovic, who was hoping the swell would double or even triple in size come Thursday afternoon. “I haven’t seen one like this since I was a kid.”
Petrovic estimated the swell around 5 to 6 feet. The National Weather Service office in Honolulu corroborated his guess, saying surf on the island’s west side topped out at roughly 6 feet, based on reports.
By Freddy Huihui’s recollection, it was 2014 the last time a hurricane riled up Kailua Bay enough to ride — and he wasn’t going to miss his chance.
“When we got up at the crack of dawn, we knew we were coming out here,” said Leilani Dudoit, who greeted Huihui as he made his way out of the water up the beach alongside the north end of Hulihee Palace. “All the boys were watching it and waiting for it to pick up. And sure enough, after about an hour and a half, he’s like, ‘I’m going in.’”
That sentiment spread up and down the West Hawaii coast as morning slipped into afternoon, even as strong winds whipped through Waikoloa and Kawaihae and torrential rain pummeled much of the Big Island’s windward side.
The state and county closed all beach parks in anticipation of the hurricane’s arrival, but it did little to deter west side oceangoers.
The gates at Old Kona Airport park were shut to visitors, barring entrance to the parking lot. As the day wore on, however, vehicles began to line Kuakini Highway and Makala Boulevard, backing up for blocks.
“They can close the gate,” said one surfer who declined to provide his name as he was technically disregarding an official directive, “but they can’t shut down the shoreline.”
It wasn’t just the wave riders who took pleasure in the uncommon swell at Kailua Bay. For many who had the day off due to expected weather hazards, the surf and the surfers provided a free show.
“This is fantastic,” said Pat Marsh, who stood on the mauka side of Alii Drive watching the waves come in. “I walked this (stretch) with my dog every day for seven years. These are the best waves crashing into the seawall I’ve ever seen, so it’s very entertaining.”
“Usually, if we’re going to have a disaster, it’s always overblown,” she continued. “But I just like this part of it. This is just fun and Hawaiian and just hanging and rolling with it.”
While West Hawaii sidestepped the worst of the weather throughout the day Thursday, Hurricane Lane is still close enough to cause high winds and heavy rains up and down the coast today, not to mention potential storm surges that could carry significant amounts of water over the seawall and onto Alii Drive.
Kuilee Dela Cruz, a member of the community policing section with the Hawaii Police Department, and his partner were stationed on Kailua Pier all day Thursday in case the road needed to be shut down in short order. A Hawaii County roads crew was stationed just up the street from the officers for the same purpose.
As for safety in the water, Gov. David Ige warned citizens and tourists alike to avoid marine activities, especially on south-facing shores.
His warning largely unheeded, lifeguards patrolled the Kailua Bay on jet skis. The seawall itself, as well as the reef and the heavier swell, made conditions in the bay — a more popular swimming and viewing area than anything else — more precarious than usual.
Huihui said most of those in the water were familiar enough to navigate the conditions. Dela Cruz echoed his comments, providing some perspective on the situation.
“It’s more so the local group of guys who surf every day (who are out there), and they know where to pull out of before the reef begins,” Dela Cruz explained. “They did say there was one kind of tourist out there and the local guys told him to go in, ‘This is not for you.’”
Huihui said he planned to return, noting the conditions in the bay might be even more favorable Friday as the storm inches closer.
Kalani Awo, who started his Thursday boarding in Kailua Bay before making his way north for round two at Old Airport, put words to what appeared to be the prevalent wave rider sentiment.
“If the waves are up and it doesn’t really look stormy or anything, of course we’re going to be out there,” he said.