Living in Hawaii has given me firsthand exposure to the incredibly rich history and culture of the Hawaiian people. It is a total joy, delight, and privilege to experience it. One of the coolest things about their heritage is surfing – everything from how it originated here in Polynesia, how it spread to become a worldwide phenomenon over the years and influenced millions of people, and how it’s still such a coveted and celebrated sport here to this day.
During the winter months from November to March, surf enthusiasts from around the world flock to Oahu’s famous “North Shore” for perfect surf conditions at iconic beaches. The waves range from 20-30 feet most days and during large swells, there are some pretty major surf competitions that go down. Basically, in the surfing world, this is the place to be.
However, there is one “big wave” surf competition that trumps all others. The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, affectionately known as “the Eddie”, is THE most prestigious surf event in the entire world. For it to occur, there are extremely distinct standards for the size and duration of the waves that must be in place. When forecasters predict that conditions could be favorable for the Eddie, thousands of spectators will camp out ahead of time with high hopes. Yet it’s only went down 8 times in the 31 years since its creation in 1984. The last time it happened was in 2009. That is until last week, when the 9th Eddie and the biggest one yet was a go. And I was fortunate enough to attend.
You may be asking who Eddie Aikau was and why this even matters. This is something that absolutely fascinated me when I learned it, as the whole story is SUCH a huge deal to the Hawaiian people and their culture. Eddie was a native Hawaiian born and raised on the North Shore of Oahu, with much family history in the area. He was Waimea Bay’s first official lifeguard and became well known for saving thousands of lives, as one of the best and bravest to ever do it. No matter how rough and dangerous conditions were, Eddie would go. In fact, he never lost a life on his watch. During a period where the sport of surfing was becoming a favorite around the world throughout the 60’s and 70’s, Eddie was one of the best and even won competitions. According to Quiksilver, “In 1978, Aikau was among a handful selected to join the cultural expedition of the Polynesian voyaging canoe, Hokule’a.” During its trip from Oahu to Tahiti, the canoe “encountered treacherous seas and capsized” and the crew was stranded in the middle of the ocean. Eddie braved the crazy waters on his paddleboard to go seek rescue and sadly, he was never seen again. The other crew members were all eventually rescued. The search that ensued for Eddie’s remains was “the largest air-sea search in Hawaii history”. The phrase “Eddie would go” can now be seen ALL over the Hawaiian islands, especially on t-shirts and bumper stickers. The fact that this courageous man lost his life trying to save others truly embodies the spirit of the Hawaiian people and their treasured concepts of aloha and being a fearless warrior.
Knowing all this, I was extremely excited just to attempt to attend. The night before, everyone was buzzing that the Eddie might be a go, and thousands were on their way to the North Shore. My coworker invited me to go with her, and I had every excuse not to go, such as… we would have to leave super early and I’d get no sleep, there wouldn’t be food options, there would be no parking and way too much traffic on the one lane road to the North Shore, and above all else, what if we go through all this trouble and the damn thing doesn’t even happen?! Despite this, something told me I needed to thug it out and give it a try. So I woke up at 12:30 in the morning after very little sleep, we arrived at the North Shore at about 1:30 am, and begin camping out with the other spectators until Waimea Bay Beach Park opened at 5 am.
I remember seeing the lines of cars and hundreds of people running around at 2am and thinking to myself, holy shit. This is a bigger deal than I ever imagined. The energy in the air alone was enough to make the experience worth it. It was an adrenaline rush like no other. We got an unbelievably great spot on the beach since we got there so early and we bundled ourselves up in layers and blankets (it was 60 degrees, which is considered freezing to us Hawaii residents). It was terrifying to see HUGE walls of water coming towards us in the dark like tsunami waves as we sat there. There were several close calls where everyone stood up and grabbed all their belongings to run away, and I recall thinking “so… this is one of those times where I might die.” But thankfully, the water always seemed to stop just a few inches away from the mobs of people.
Before we knew it, the sun came out and by that time, there was an unimaginable amount of folks anxious to hear the announcement on whether Eddie would go or not. At around 7:30 am, they finally announced the Eddie was a go. This was just after the brother of Eddie Aikau, Clyde, spoke and we all joined hands during a Hawaiian prayer chant. I will never forget that moment. We jumped for joy in unison. We were about to witness history.
Our perfect spot was right next to the Aikau family and closeby where the surfers would enter the water. Their pathway to walk through the crowd was literally a few feet away from us so we got amazing shots of all the pros, including Kelly Slater, John John Florence (who won the competition later), and Clyde Aikau himself, who was competing for the last time at age 66. The most magical moment was just as Clyde entered the water and a huge rainbow appeared above the ocean. We all got goosebumps, or as Hawaiians call it, chicken skin. This was indeed a sign from Clyde’s brother, Eddie.
We got to see all the surfing going on and the giant monster waves, which reached up to 60ft that day, an absolute record for the event! It was hard to get good pics, especially in comparison to the TV footage I saw later on, which had millions of people around the world in awe. But for the four hours we got to watch, every minute was completely incredible. The bravery and courage of those guys to go out there and face such huge waves is just unreal, and I just felt so lucky to be seeing it in person. Absolutely one of the most memorable things I have ever done. It was a total honor to witness this and be a part of it, especially considering that this is the biggest Eddie to ever go down.
One thing I proved to myself in all of this is that the best experiences come when you push yourself and just say “YOLO”. If I had went with all my excuses and not gone, yes, I would have gotten a full night’s rest, but I would have missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. It could be another 7-8 years before this event ever goes down again, and I might not ever get the option to go. You just never know. So whenever you get the chance to do something this epic, you just do it! I couldn’t be more glad that Amanda did go.