The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau surfing contest attracted thousands to Waimea Bay today as top surfers from around the world enjoyed some of the biggest and best conditions ever for the rarely held big-wave tournament.
Clyde Aikau, brother of the revered Hawaiian waterman, made the announcement that the contest was a go at 7:16 a.m. to a cheering crowd and a worldwide TV and Internet audience.
“Today has to be one of the best days I’ve seen in 40 years,” Aikau, who won the meet in 1986, said over the public address system.
In the end, hometown hero John John Florence, 23, of Haleiwa, beat out 27 other world-class, big-wave surfers to win the 8-hour contest.
The contest has only been held nine times since 1985 and is only held when waves are consistently clean and around 40 feet during daylight hours for at least six to eight hours. The last time the Eddie was a go was on Dec. 8, 2009.
Surfers competing in the event said wave faces were at least 50 feet. Strider Wasilewski of the World Surf League’s broadcast team called the wave size “60-foot faces and sometimes bigger.”
At the contest’s start, Eddie Aikau’s sister, Myra, and brother, Solomon, asked the competitors to look out for one another in the pounding surf. “Safety first,” they both said.
“It’s gnarlier than it looks from here (the beach),” said Hawaii surfer Reed McIntosh after his first heat.”It’s heavy, but that’s what we do, so it was awesome.”
Event organizers referred to today’s surf as “The Brock Swell” in honor of big wave rider and North Shore lifeguard Brock Little. Little, who died of cancer on Feb. 18, rose to fame at the 1986 Eddie and was an alternate for this year’s competition despite his illness.
A surfboard that Little rode in 1990 was placed near a monument to Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay.
Jodi Wilmott, general manager of the World Surf League Hawaii, estimated today’s crowd at around 25,000. “It’s max packed,” she said.
Lifeguards constantly told spectators to watch their children and to keep them away from the rivermouth area of the beach. Lifeguards on all-terrain vehicles drove out to warn spectators to go further inland.
A Coast Guard helicopter and patrol plane took turns flying over Waimea Bay, after someone reported seeing a possible swimmer in trouble on Wednesday.
Julie Negron of Kapolei, her husband, Keir, and their three friends showed up at midnight, waited around for Waimea Bay beach park to open at 5 a.m. and then got slammed by a wave while watching the meet, losing three iPhones and a pair of slippers in the process.
Soaked, they walked back to their car to regroup, but planned to return to the action.
“Oh yeah,” Keir said. “I took two days off (from work) for this.”
Today’s excitement was in stark contrast to earlier this month when thousands flocked to Waimea Bay only to hear that the contest would not be held after all because wave and wind conditions were not perfect.
Before this morning’s announcement, Dani Quevedo, a 21-year-old nursing senior at the University of Hawaii, and her cousin, Jeremy Garo, 23, both of Mililani, sat farther back from the shore break than when they came out to Waimea last time. “The waves are way bigger,” Quevedo said.
Neither had seen an Eddie contest before and Quevedo called it “One of my life goals. I need to see an Eddie.”
Elton Yu, a 39-year-old Marine stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, took his three daughters — ages 9, 13 and 15 — out of their Kailua schools today to try to see an Eddie for the second time in as many weeks.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event to pay tribune to Eddie Aikau, a hero to the people of Hawaii,” Yu said.
Kristal Caldwell and her friends arrived at 3 a.m. to stake out a spot on the highway near the entrance to the beach.
“It’s history,” she said. “Why would you not come? … Well, if you have a job maybe.”
Traffic was heavier than usual around Waimea Bay early this morning, but not as busy as Feb. 10, when the contest had a green light, but was called off in the morning when the Eddie-sized waves did not materialize.
Police kept a heavy presence along the highway today and around the bay to keep both pedestrian and vehicle traffic moving.
Honolulu police have plans for traffic to flow “as smoothly as possible,” even if surf runs over Kamehameha Highway, said Honolulu Police Department Major Kerry Inouye on Wednesday.
The National Weather Service warned that the swell has “the potential for significant damage to coastal properties and infrastructure, including roadways. “Coastal evacuations and road closures are possible,” the weather service said.
TheBus added additional buses along North Shore routes 52 (Honolulu-Mililani-Haleiwa) and route 55 (Honolulu-Kaneohe-Haleiwa) starting at 5 a.m. The schedule is posted at TheBus.org website.
Bob Burke, a meteorologist with the Honolulu office of the weather service, said people who are on or near the shoreline on the North Shore should be aware that the large waves could sweep up the beach, even in areas that appear to be dry.
Event organizers noted that Eddie Aikau was a lifeguard and encouraged people to follow the advice of lifeguards.
Oahu’s North Shore and other areas on neighbor islands exposed to the northwest swell are under a high surf warning until 6 a.m. Friday.
The contest is being broadcast on the Internet on the World Surf League website and WSL mobile app, and on the CBS Sports Network and on Oceanic Time Warner Cable channels 250 and 1250HD.
The contest format features no eliminations.
Twenty-eight invited surfers will surf twice, in separate rounds in seven-man heats. Surfers can ride up to four waves in each heat and the top four scores will be totaled to determine the winner. Anyone can win, even in the last round, if they ride a big scoring wave.
Judges will score each wave up to 100 points, based on size, risk and control.
The weather forecast for today calls for sunny and breezy conditions with northeast winds of 10 to 20 mph and highs between 76 and 80 degrees.
Spectator Cherie Johnson said this is her second Eddie. “I was here 26 years ago, in 1990,” she said. “Today is different. There were no cell phones. It was by word-of-mouth.”
Johnson, then a student at Brigham Young University Hawaii, said a friend came up to her at lunch and told her about the contest. “We left at noon and parked right at the church,” she said.