John John Florence is one of the best surfers on the planet, and he carved another notch in his distinguished career by staking his claim Thursday to a Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave invitational victory at Waimea Bay.
The bright-eyed Florence, 23 and from Haleiwa, is a two-time Vans Triple Crown champion, but he just topped that with a stunning performance at the Eddie in massive waves with 60-foot-plus faces and punishing conditions.
“It was unbelievable, a lot of good waves coming in,” Florence said. “I’m just so stoked to be surfing in it and to end it like this is amazing. I can’t believe this day. It’s the biggest (waves that) Waimea holds, pretty much. Definitely Eddie conditions and an Eddie year and a Brock Little swell. It’s such a sad thing that happened. He (Little) was a hero to me and my brother growing up. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me so far in my surf life.”
Hawaii’s Brock Little, who was a big-wave charger, died Feb. 18. He was an inspiration to all 29 of the Eddie surfers.
Florence scored 301 points with his four-wave total to get past Australia’s Ross Clarke-Jones, 49, a former Eddie champion who finished second with 278. Kailua-Kona’s Shane Dorian, 43, took third, followed in order by: Australia’s Jamie Mitchell, 39; 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, 44, of Florida; and the North Shore’s Makuakai Rothman, 31.
Florence, the second youngest competitor, earned $75,000 for the win. Only 22-year-old Koa Rothman, Makuakai’s brother, was younger.
“Bottom line, I started out with the goal of catching big waves, but really wanted to be the guy with the biggest smile afterward,” said Hawaii’s Dave Wassel, 42, who finished in seventh place. “I am so elated to have made it back on the beach. My best wave was the wave that brought me to the shore because anything else besides that was horrifying. Nobody really manned up today, we just survived.”
John John Florence, Winner of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau
Slater was all pumped up about the day, in which he caught a rare barrel in his second heat, but he knew winning a second Eddie would be difficult.
“Every guy in my second heat was a super intense big-wave guy,” said Slater, who won his Eddie in 2002. “And they were all super capable of winning this thing. They all charge and all knew how to line up at the peak. You want to give each other space, but you also want that wave, so I got outmaneuvered a lot. Twiggy (Baker), Jamie Mitchell and Wassel, those are three of the gnarliest watermen on Earth. Those guys will take off on anything. So will Ramon (Navarro). So will Ross Clarke-Jones.”
Clarke-Jones, who was invited to the event for the 29th time this year, was surprised he did so well. The contest only gets the green light when wave-face heights reach 40 feet and the wind conditions are not blowing the waves out.
“It was a wonderful day,” Clarke-Jones said. “I wasn’t expecting too much after the false alarm two weeks ago because I was so ready then, too ready, probably. It was such a disappointment. This time, I was just cruising, and was calm. Just take it as it comes. I know how to accept it. I used to try too hard and it never works, so you just let it go. The time I won was the only time I relaxed (before this).”
The Eddie, named in honor of waterman Eddie Aikau, has only run nine times in its 31-year history. Aikau was a North Shore lifeguard and big-wave surfer who died at age 31 in 1978 while swimming to shore for help after the voyaging canoe Hokule‘a — on a cultural expedition from Oahu to Tahiti — capsized in treacherous deep-ocean waters.
Jodi Wilmott, the World Surf League Hawaii general manager, estimated the crowd at 25,000 and confirmed that these were the biggest waves the Eddie has seen and said that it could go down as the greatest one-day big-wave event in history.
Eddie’s younger brother, Clyde Aikau, 66, competed in the event on Thursday for the ninth time and placed 21st.
The honor of winning a contest with such a rich tradition and with so much meaning for the surfing community was not lost on Florence.
“I was riding my bike down here this morning in the dark and just the energy of how many people were parked all the way down the street was amazing,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen it like that. Walking down the beach, people just screaming, and the energy was so crazy. I’ve never been a part of an event like this. It’s definitely the highlight of my life for sure.
“Biggest of all, I want to say thanks to the Aikau family and Quiksilver for putting on this amazing event. I’ve only seen it run a couple of times in my life, so to be a part of it, to be surfing in it, and to actually win it is such a dream come true … against all these legends. These guys are my heroes.”