Ma'alaea Bay, on the south shore of Maui, is the location of a small boat harbor and one of the world's most electrifying surf breaks -- a moody right hander over a coral reef bottom -- that is acclaimed as the world's fastest rideable wave.
Despite its perfect shape and machinelike consistency, surf historian Matt Warshaw notes in “The Encyclopedia of Surfing” that fewer than one in four rides at Ma’alaea are completed. “For most surfers," he writes, "the object at Ma’alaea is to simply take a trim position inside the tube and try to keep pace with the falling curl for as long as possible.”
The wave is divided into five sections, beginning with Off the Wall, then moving thorough Impossibles, Freight Trains, Down the Line, and Inside Section. A single ride from Impossibles to Inside Section would last more than 300 yards and is one of surfing's rarest feats -- partially because Ma’alaea breaks so infrequently.
When Ma'alaea does break, it gets covered on the evening news. It's a place worth fighting to protect, which is what the local heavies, along with the Sierra Club, the Protect Ma’alaea Coaltion, and the Surfrider Foundation have been doing since 1968, when the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) submitted a harbor improvement plan to triple the number of boat slips and extend the existing breakwater by 620 feet.
A single ride from Impossibles to Inside Section would last more than 300 yards and is one of surfing's rarest feats.
From the very beginning, the Maui's surfers opposed the plan for fear that it would destroy large sections of coral reef and wreck the surf break. They argued that ACE submitted an incomplete environmental impact assessment, one that incorrectly accounted for the impact on surfing areas and gave no consideration to several factors, including the effects of increased boat traffic on water quality, the effects on the ecology of nearby reefs, the impact of sewage from bilge flushing and pass-through plumbing, the effects of increased noise, and potential of propeller-related injuries to marine mammals, like humpback whales and green turtles.
The Surfrider Foundation got involved with the fight 23 years ago. "Ironically, the battle over Ma’alaea Bay was a lot like the surf break that we were fighting for: All would be quiet for months, but every once in a while things would really flare up," said Stewart Coleman, Surfrider's Hawaii Coordinator, recently in an interview.
At one point, in the late 1990s, the coalition of preservationists collected 10,000 signatures for a petition that they presented to then-governor Benjamin Cayetano in Honolulu. They commissioned an independent engineering firm to prepare a separate environmental impact study revealing that ACE's report was wildly inaccurate. Around the same time, Surfrider and the Sierra Club commissioned a documentary called “Ma’alaea: A Cry For Help.”
According to Coleman, the turning point in the battle came two years ago when representatives from Surfrider and the other opposition groups sat down with Cindy Barger, the Watershed Program Manager for ACE. Coleman said that Ms. Barger made it know that she was a concerned environmentalist and that her sister had been the head of a Surfrider chapter.
Victory finally came this month when the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and ACE announced they were abandoning their plans.
Coleman, who grew up surfing knee slappers in South Carolina before moving to Hawaii, has never surfed Ma’alaea. He told me he plans on celebrating with a trip to Freight Trains next time one of those big southeast swells rolls through.
"I'm definitely up for the challenge!” he exclaimed. “I'd love to get over there the next time it breaks. I just hope I don't break my board."