The waves at Waimea Bay rose like angry, 60-foot monsters Thursday, ripping surfboards from their leashes and sending spectators scrambling out of the wash as the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau finally went off for only the ninth time in 30 years.
“Oh my God, it was awesome, brother,” said Elton Yu, 39, of Kailua, who took his three “straight-A” daughters — ages 9, 13 and 15 — out of their Kailua public schools to try to see their first Eddie for the second time this month.
It was worth it, Yu said.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “Exciting. An epic experience. Oh my God, I’m so excited I can’t even think of the words.”
John John Florence
Before being called onstage to accept his winner’s check for $75,000
Aikau’s younger brother, Clyde, addressed the crowd that packed the shoreline. “Today has to be one of the best days I’ve seen in 40 years,” said Clyde Aikau, who won the tournament in 1986. He then entered the water for his last “Eddie” at age 66 and took a nasty tumble on his first wave.
Haleiwa’s John John Florence, 23, one of the youngest competitors in the contest, won in a come-from-behind victory after trailing Ross Clarke-Jones and Shane Dorian in the first of two rounds. Competing with 27 other big-wave surfers, Florence flirted with the lead in the second round, temporarily falling behind Dorian but charging back with scores of 88 and 89 out of 100.
“We’re on the limits of what’s possible for Waimea,” said Jodi Wilmott, general manager of the World Surf League Hawaii, marveling at the waves.
The National Weather Service said North Shore waves ranged from 40 to 55 feet. But Strider Wasilewski spent the day on the water on a personal watercraft as part of the World Surf League’s broadcast team and described the avalanche-size waves as “60-foot faces and sometimes bigger.”
Wilmott estimated the crowd at Waimea Bay at 25,000.
“It’s max packed,” she said.
Uncounted others lined Kamehameha Highway, causing traffic to crawl across the North Shore.
Honolulu police spent all day urging pedestrians to keep moving along Kamehameha Highway, instead of stopping to take pictures of the action in the water.
Part of the adventure
Just staying dry on shore proved tricky.
Julie Negron of Kapolei, her husband, Keir, and their three friends arrived at midnight, waited for Waimea Bay beach park to open at 5 a.m. and then got tossed by a wave while watching the meet along the shoreline, losing three iPhones and a pair of slippers in the process.
“It’s all part of the adventure,” Julie Negron said.
Soaked, the group walked back to their car to regroup but planned to return.
“Oh, yeah,” Keir Negron said. “I took two days off (from work) for this.”
Lifeguards repeatedly told spectators to watch their children, be prepared to run to higher ground and to get out of the area near the mouth of the Waimea River as huge waves rolled onto shore.
Aikau’s siblings — sister Myra and brother Solomon — asked the competitors over the public address system to look out for one another in the pounding surf.
“Safety first,” they both said.
Hawaii’s Mark Healey later told the World Surf League that he got “hogtied” by his leash during one wipeout that caused a welt on his calf and forced him to activate a CO2 cartridge that inflated his safety vest.
Healey held the fingers of both hands together to describe the size of the welt.
Honoring Brock Little
The invitation-only meet always stirs emotions regarding Eddie Aikau, the original North Shore lifeguard who was never found after jumping onto a surfboard to find help for his crew mates when the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a capsized off Molokai in 1978.
Aikau’s sacrifice gave birth to the legacy that lives on today, “Eddie Would Go.”
But Thursday’s meet also honored another North Shore lifeguard and big-wave rider, Brock Little, who died of cancer Feb. 18.
Event organizers referred to Thursday’s surf as “The Brock Swell.”
Little was 19 when he was invited to the first Eddie in 1986, and later finished as runner-up in 1990. A surfboard that Little rode in the single-day 1990 competition was placed near a monument to Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay.
Along Kamehameha Highway outside Sts. Peter and Paul Mission, broken surfboards were lined up and hand-painted with letters to read, “BROCK ON.”
Worth the wait
Previously, the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau has been run eight times and was last held Dec. 8, 2009.
Event organizers will hold an Eddie only when the waves are consistently clean and at about 40 feet during the daytime for at least six to eight hours.
The Eddie got its last green light Feb. 10 but was quickly called off when Eddie-worthy waves failed to materialize and wind conditions were less than ideal.
Danica Quevedo, a 21-year-old nursing senior at the University of Hawaii, and her cousin Jeremy Garo, 23, both of Mililani, were disappointed when they came out to Waimea Bay to see their first Eddie on Feb. 10.
They returned Thursday because the Eddie represents “one of my life goals,” Quevedo said. “It was amazing. It was more than expected. The waves just got bigger and bigger. It was worth the wait.”
Yu, the dad who pulled his three daughters out of school to see their first Eddie, described the sound and force of the punishing waves as “earth-shattering.”
He knows that other parents might not agree with his decision to spend a school day with his kids on the North Shore, but he felt justified.
“Even though people may look at it negatively,” Yu said, “this experience as a family only happens once in a lifetime. It’s all about the ocean, the free spirit and honoring a Hawaii legend.”
Staff writer Nick Abramo contributed to this report.