The Eddie Would Go Edition
On surf, timing, and Eddie Aikau
Eric Matthies (EM) is a producer, an artist and an athlete, roughly in that order. -Colin (CJN)
Eric here. In 1985, I was in a Chicago area high school, writing a term paper about surfing for an AP History class. Mainly, I was cribbing from fellow midwesterner Tom Blake’s book Hawaiian Surfriders 1935 and trying to fill in gaps with my own, at the time, very limited experience with the sport.
Along the research path, I found the story of Eddie Aikau, a revered son of Hawaii who had perished at sea. The Aikau’s are a family of oceanic legend and Hawaiian history. They had been a part of an effort to build and then navigate a traditionally built voyaging canoe between Hawaii and Polynesia, to prove migration routes that had been told through centuries of oral history. Eddie was a legendary lifeguard and surfer of great renown who had attempted to paddle his surfboard for help when the canoe became swamped and capsized twelve miles at sea. Everyone but Eddie was eventually rescued. His spirit is said to appear as a giant sea turtle along the harrowing reefs of Oahu’s North Shore. That same year that I was writing my paper and struck with the incredible story, now myth, of Eddie Aikau, a surf contest in his memory was organized.
Why is this interesting?
The event was, and remains, invitation only. Only surfers who meet an exacting criteria in Eddie’s model as determined by peers and elders of the community are considered. The contest is only held if the seas reach and maintain an average wave height of twenty feet. The first year was at Sunset Beach. In 1987, the next year that conditions were met, it moved to Waimea Bay where it has been held ever since.
The wave at Waimea Bay is a hydrodynamic marvel, focusing incredible amounts of water on a reef at the edge of a small inlet that is just over one kilometer wide. When waves get taller than 20 feet and come from a certain direction they can “close out,” meaning that a wall of water breaks top to bottom from one side of the bay to the other. People are at risk by simply standing on the sand berm watching the show. The lifeguards who work the Waimea tower are the worlds best, and Eddie, who made over five hundred rescues and never lost a person, is their icon.
The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is one of the most unique sporting events in the world. It's been going for 38 years, but it’s only been run ten times. That means 38 times an invite list was announced, a competitors ceremony was enjoined and a waiting period commenced during which conditions were monitored by a team of meteorological and oceanographic experts. But only in ten of those many years has The Eddie been called “on.” For each call up, even the false alarms, competitors have flown in from around the world. If they’ve missed a flight, gotten injured, or otherwise don't accept the invitation, a select list of alternates are ready to fill in the competitor's roster. It's the most prestigious group of competitors for the most revered prize in surfing.
For most of the aughts, including the last edition in 2016, the event was sponsored by a major name brand clothing company. Prize money was high, coverage was robust and many of the competitors were regularly collecting six figure salaries from endorsement deals and contest winnings. One thing that has always been true about The Eddie, though, is that some of the invited competitors at each competition are revered underground surfers—not household or media recognized names. This year, for the first time, that list of names included six women. Here’s Hawaiian invitee Makani Adric’s response:
When I heard I got invited to be a part of the Eddie Aikau I was so happy. At first I didn't believe it, that women were going to be participating in this world class event. It has always been a dream of mine that finally became reality. My heart was so full with love and excitement. Growing up on the North Shore of Oahu with a lot of my family being surfers had a huge impact on where I am today. Surfing is a part of our culture and the history of Hawaii. Our (family) lineage goes way back. My Grandma would always take us to the beach when we were little and that is how I learned to surf. I was comfortable following the footsteps of my family and friends who were also surfers. Hawaii is such a small place that everyone knows each other. I have gained my place and respect in the community because of my family and my hard work and dedication throughout the years.
This year, when the Aikau's called it “a go” in early January the world was well aware of massive weather systems slamming the western coasts of North America with herculean sized waves. The Eddie, it seemed, would be on. But then, with some athletes already on aircraft taxiing for take off, the Aikau’s conferred with the world’s top weather and oceanic forecasters and decided conditions weren't quite right, then called it off. A collective breath hold then groan passed through the wave riding universe.
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I sent some questions to invitee Nic Von Rupp, who told me that the first big waves he’d ever surfed were at Waimea fifteen years ago, making this a truly memorable and emotional event for him.
Yeah it is crazy to think that we need to be ready at all times; every hour we need to be ready to travel to the other side of the world. I’ve had some of the most intense weeks of my life, I traveled to the US three times in three weeks. I went for the green alert… got home for three days and then went back…. Arriving the day before, competing the next morning is super exhausting but it’s the sport we have chosen, we just have to send it, be ready and send It at the right time.
Fellow Witian Joseph Dana watched part of the competition with his neighbor Matt Bromley, one of South Africa's premier big wave surfers. He noted that not only does the swell need to be 20ft. plus, it needs to be building through the afternoon so that the waves are even bigger toward the end of the contest. Given what went down on Sunday, January 22nd, the wisdom of the Aikau clan proved correct yet again.
A week of cartoonishly large surf had been ridden and documented across the Pacific, so when the call was made again to hold The Eddie on Sunday the 22nd suffice to say people were keyed up. This year’s event would feature the widest range of competitors from across the islands and the world—among them a father and son, the daughter of a big wave legend, world champions and working class heroes. I've followed every one of The Eddie’s, mainly via sketchy VHS, YouTube recap clips, articles and photos. This year, the whole event streamed via the local station KHON, so for the first time I was able to see every heat, every wave as commentated by a crew of wise and wisecracking Hawaiian surfers. Watching it this way, complete with local car dealer and injury law-firm ads, was wonderfully quaint. The very knowledgeable on-air team worked with their wits and lifelong knowledge of the wave. They had no spotter, no direct communication with the judging tower and often no accurate capability of determining which color jersey was on which wave (red, orange, pink and black or purple all being similar when looking through sea mist from half a kilometer away), making for a very entertaining if slightly confusing broadcast.
Another aspect of watching the live broadcast was seeing the event’s on-duty lifeguards at work. This mostly unnamed crew of professionals were 100% focused on making sure that competitors were pulled out of dangerous spots, that water photographers were safely swimming (and hydrated) in the channel and that the increasingly boisterous crowd on the beach didn’t get swept out to sea. Lifeguards and specifically the Hawaiian Water Patrol (an A-team of the best lifesavers, founded, like the event itself, in 1985) are crucial to every surf competition in the islands. That this is the event honoring their most iconic predecessor made seeing them use their vast skills throughout the afternoon as significant as the waves being ridden.
While the 2023 event featured plenty of famous faces—John Florence, the reigning Eddie champion and a world title holder, Kai Lenny, a renowned multisport athlete with endorsement deals that rival F1 drivers, Michael Ho, the 65-year-old (!!) Pipeline master and one of surfing’s true living legends competing alongside his son Mason. Zeke Lau, reality TV star and no slouch in critical waves, and Andrea Moller, a leading voice for equality in women’s sport. The list is deep but it would be some of the lesser known names who would make their mark in this edition of the contest. Here’s what Nic had to say:
“Surfing is a great example of sportsmanship. Having women competing with men, they’ve proven to be able to perform together with the boys and that’s where the sport is going, elevating women’s surfing on the same platform as the men. The Eddie is definitely all about respect. The respect of your peers. It’s not a competition, it’s a celebration. Everyone wants to win but everyone’s respectful of each other. May the surfer with the best connection with the ocean that day win. That’s what it’s all about.”
Forty surfers entered the ocean in groups of eight, surfing for two heats. The first for forty-five minutes, the second for fifty. They could catch a maximum of four waves each heat and the best three would count toward their overall score. Here’s Makani again, describing what it was like to be out there:
Waimea is definitely something else. When the waves are big there is so much energy and power that is uncontrollable. Being the only female out there surfing a heat with a group of all men was very challenging. Some of the men were just there to compete. As for myself I was there to fulfill my passion and love for surfing. Although I had to try and be competitive, I still had to remember my main purpose which was to be out there surfing and having fun. The waves were huge and many of them maxing out. I was lucky to catch a few in between the bigger sets. During the period of waiting for the right wave was like a game of life or death. You don't know where exactly to sit, how many waves will be coming toward you, or which wave would be best to surf. I got one wave in the contest that was memorable. A few of the guys were telling me to go on certain waves and I finally turned around and paddled for one that I was able to catch. I stood up and made the drop then rode it as far as I could. It was such a good feeling to hear other people supporting me in the lineup. When I got to shore after my heat a lot of people were congratulating me for catching that wave. By being a part of this event I wanted to inspire women and the younger generation of kids watching to believe in themselves. If you value something then do it for the passion. Do it because that is what you want. Be a good person, and stay true to yourself, even if others don't know who you are.
There were quite a few stand out rides like Makani’s and the surf was truly thundering in the epic to marginally possible category all day. The performances of one young man, a quiet Hawaiian local named Luke Shepardson stood above the rest. Since he was technically on-shift for the County Lifeguard, he allegedly had to get permission from his captain to leave his tower a couple of times throughout the afternoon and surf his heats. Via surfing media, we’ve subsequently learned that after each heat he put his uniform on and went back to work, even helping to stitch up two of his fellow competitors who were injured during their jousts with the heaving water. In the waves, Shepardson was drawing the most critical lines on the more challenging peaks and getting through them cleanly. After he rightly won, he begged off his podium interview because he needed to “get back to the tower and make sure everyone's ok.” That point hasn’t been lost on mainstream news media around the world, who have repeated the story of the on duty lifeguard who won the prestigious big wave surf competition.
It's difficult to express how insanely challenging this event is, and how humble and appropriate the 10th ever winner is. I can think of no other sporting contest quite like The Eddie, and this year's may have been the best in its storied history. Von Rupp sums it up like this:
Luke Shepardson winning the event was one of the most heart warming experiences I’ve ever had. It was the ocean and Eddie giving back to someone who has given so much to the community. I’m just grateful to be a part of the event, grateful for the recognition, grateful to be able to represent my country, it’s very emotional walking down the beach… having everyone’s support. I saw a flash of my career, where I started, where I was now. The same flash you see when you’re about to die! It’s been a long road, I can’t believe I’m here, the first time competing in The Eddie and it ends up being the best in forty years… I’m grateful to be doing what I love.
The next day, our surf here in Costa Rica was small. The swell that had made The Eddie happen wouldn’t reach us for a few more days. The Pacific coastline here is dangerous, infamously known for a combination of strong swells, treacherous rip currents and unwitting tourists. Our local lifeguards are a volunteer force who come from around the world. Despite the meager swell there was a buzz on the beach—you could feel the extra stoke of knowing that one of their brothers had just been crowned King of The Bay. I spoke with some of the senior lifeguards, and they agreed that it was an important moment for people to recognize the quality of the lifesavers and the dedication they have to the ocean. As the Santa Teresa Lifeguard founder Tomas Ritchie told me:
We are not divided by borders, but surrounded by oceans. Luke winning embodied not only what it’s like to be a winner but to be humble enough to go back to the tower. The next morning he was also working. Taking time off for two heats that changed history is unprecedented and is a reminder to professionals and surfers around the globe what it really means to be a waterman!! Being dedicated to keeping people safe is what saves people 24 /7, for some it never stops.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Eric (EM)
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