In the Islands, and Everywhere Else, are a Thousand Winters

Illustration by Meg Studer

The coldest I have ever been was on a beach in Hawaiʻi. It was four in the morning, and the pitch-black waters of Waimea Bay could have been a void but for the thunderous sound of waves crashing 100 yards offshore. A steady stream of headlights on the main road illuminated the crags of cliff faces and silhouetted the zombie-like mass of would-be spectators descending on the beach. 

It was February 2016, and it had been announced that the Eddie was on. My wife and I and our friends Emily and Jen packed beach bags, set our alarms for 3 a.m., and drove to the North Shore of Oʻahu.

The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is one of the most famous surf competitions in the world. Named for Hawaiian waterman and North Shore lifeguard Eddie Aikau, who died attempting to rescue the crew of the Hōkūleʻa, the famed voyaging canoe, in 1978, the Eddie is held only when swells in Waimea Bay reach a minimum of 20 feet. That might not sound very tall, but a 20-foot wave can have a face—the towering, near-vertical, concave surface a big-save surfer carves their way across—of 40 feet or more. (For reference, a six-foot wave, the minimum to be considered “overhead,” is capable of snapping a surfboard in half or holding a person underwater for several seconds.) 

The Eddie has been held just 10 times since it was established in 1984 (most recently this past January, when Honolulu lifeguard Luke Richardson edged out returning champion John John Florence). In 2016, our plan was to beat the crowds, snag a prized spot on the beach, and snooze until sunrise. 

Unfortunately, half the island had the same idea. By the time we reached the North Shore, cars lined the highway for miles in either direction of the competition site. We left our car by the side of the road and joined the throngs trekking the four miles to Waimea. 

In shorts and tank tops, we were unprepared for how cold it was. Temperatures had hit near-record lows in the night, dropping into the low-50s. Having moved to Hawaiʻi from Chicago, I was accustomed to thinking of 50 degrees as balmy. Fifty was a number I waited to see on my weather app. But temperature is tricky—and subjective. How we experience temperature depends on everything from expectation to our unique physiology to how and where we grew up: In 2021, a pair of researchers reviewed existing literature on cultural background and thermal comfort and found that, “individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds develop different levels of tolerance and comfort perceptions. A person’s previous exposure to [an] environment can determine differences in thermal perception through various habitual, technological, and psychophysiological adaptations.”

Huddled on the beach, waiting for the sun to rise and the Eddie to commence, we utilized the few technological adaptations we had access to. We wrapped ourselves in our thin beach towels and pressed our shivering bodies together as tightly as we could, a spoon train to save our lives. We only peeled ourselves apart when dawn finally arrived.

Hawaiʻi exists in the cultural imagination as a place where summer never ends. A tropical paradise where the sun is always shining and the plumeria are always in bloom. During the seven years I lived on Oʻahu, people often asked me, Don’t you miss seasons? And I did at first. But I quickly realized that Hawaiʻi does have seasons. They’re just different. And the more time I spent in Hawaiʻi, the more aware I became of the subtle changes—in light, in temperature, in the colors of the ocean—that differentiated one from the other. 

Hawaiʻi is still in the Northern Hemisphere, which means the archipelago experiences many of the same general patterns as North America. In the winter, the sun’s angle is glancing and less intense. Seasonal “Kona lows” bring more rain. And temperatures dip from highs in the upper-80s to highs in the upper-70s. (I know, I know.)

But the most noticeable—and, for many, consequential—shift is not in the air, but in the water. During the summer, the waves along the south shores of the Hawaiian Islands gradually grow in intensity until waves reach six, eight, ten feet high, driving hordes of surfers to the lineups of the most popular breaks. In the winter, all that energy moves to the north sides of the islands, the monstrous waves crashing into Waimea Bay set into motion by storm systems swirling thousands of miles away in the northern Pacific. (Summer swells are similarly caused by far-off storms to the south.) For surfers in Hawaiʻi, the difference between winter and summer is as dramatic as night and day. 

It’s not just the ocean. I queried a few Hawaiʻi friends about what they love most about winter. The first response was, predictably: “The surf.” But others wrote about changes in the light: “More morning rainbows and softer lighting during sunsets.” “The sunlight, I love the shadows, [and the rain] makes the colors more vibrant.” 

In Honolulu, I grew accustomed to telling time through these at-first-subtle-but-then-obvious changes. Biking through the city, I knew what month it was by how glassy the ocean looked from Kalākaua Avenue or how many of the leaves on the ketapang tree near our apartment had turned red—a sign that winter, and more rain, were approaching. 

I anticipated signs of winter’s arrival the way others await the crispness of autumn air or the first tantalizing flurries of snow. More rainy days meant more time inside reading. The end of peak tourist season meant more bike-friendly streets and easier seats at beach hotel bars. By December, the humpback whales had returned from their feeding grounds off of the Aleutian Islands, 3,000 miles to the north. We watched them frolic from the sea cliffs at China Walls or from the deck of the catamaran we sometimes booked when friends came to visit. 

It would be especially absurd to suggest to Hawaiians that the islands exist inside some sort of static atmospheric bubble. An intimate knowledge of the islands’ seasonal cycles sustained the Hawaiian culture for more than a thousand years, passed down in mele (songs), moʻolelo (stories), and ʻōlelo noʻeau (proverbs). As cataloged by Collette Leimomi Akana and her daughter Kiele Gonzalez, the Hawaiian language contains hundreds of names for rain, hundreds more for the various winds and clouds that carry it. Such linguistic abundance comes not from stasis but from near-infinite variation—and careful attunement to it. 

In Hawaiʻi, the winter season roughly coincides with the season known as Makahiki, a three-to-four-month period of feasting, celebration, and sport during which, historically, most types of work were forbidden. Marking the Hawaiian New Year, Makahiki begins not on a particular day but with the rising of the Makaliʻi, the constellation more commonly known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters, typically sometime in November. Traditionally, once Makaliʻi was visible in the eastern sky, Makahiki would begin at the next new moon. “That’s what the stars do for us,” Kalei Nuʻuhiwa, a Hawaiian lunar practitioner, told me several years ago. “They give you a sense of time.”

As it happened, the Eddie was called off that day in 2016. The waves never reached the necessary height. It was held two weeks later. Only my wife made it back up to Waimea to watch. And yet that night is a reminder that how we experience an environment has as much to do with our assumptions and the “adaptations” we’ve developed as it does with whatever the temperature gauge says. 

Stereotypical depictions of winter suggest that, worldwide, the season is all snow drifts, chilly gray skylines, and wool sweaters. But Hawaiʻi taught me that what winter means isn’t determined by weather, or the Gregorian calendar, or even by the stars, but by culture. Our lives may be shaped by the seasons, but we shape them in turn, through ritual, tradition, and cultural practice. Which is to say that winter is not one thing but many things. This world is full of winters.

Far from dulling my senses, living in Hawaiʻi heightened them. I learned to look more closely, listen more intently, feel more deeply. But you don’t have to travel halfway across the world to find a winter that differs from the one you know. Chances are your friends and neighbors already inhabit one. 

Originally published in Weathered, a seasonal newsletter that publishes writing on cities, places, and the built environment from December 21 to March 20.