Luke Shepardson won first place in Sunday’s 2023 Eddie Aikau Invitational Big Wave Contest at Waimea Bay in a breathtaking display of surfing that surpassed the highest expectations.
On this picture-perfect day, the 27-year-old North Shore lifeguard battled the size, power and shape of waves which averaged 25 feet, with 50-foot faces.
Late in the afternoon, Shepardson drew gasps by taking off late into a radical drop on an enormous wave racing in off the point, maneuvering turns on a long wall and completing the ride. It was the biggest wave of the day, moderators said.
The 2016 Eddie champion and fellow North Shore native John John Florence, 30, placed a close second. The holder of two world titles on the World Surf League Championship Tour took off deepest toward the point on massive outside set waves, dropping down sheer cliffs of water with trademark composure and strength.
As co-director Clyde Aikau announced the winner, and Shepardson stepped up beside Florence with a shy, boyish smile, the crowd let out a deafening roar.
The enthusiastic gathering underscored this community’s pride in its native sons and daughters and its gratitude toward all the city ocean safety officers who, from towers and personal watercraft, protect the public every day in Oahu’s beautiful but often lethally dangerous seas.
More than a contest, as many of the 40 participants said before and during the event, which started in 1985, this Eddie was a celebration of the entire island community, defined by Hawaiian pride, style and generosity.
The spirit of the day was embodied early on by one previous Eddie champion, Kelly Slater, who was invited and showed up, but didn’t surf.
“I don’t feel right today,” Slater said, looking straight-shouldered and fit as he stood, surrounded by young fans asking for autographs in front of the lifeguard tower.
“I actually gave my spot away to someone else, Chris Owens,” added the 11-time world champion, adding that Owens, an alternate this year, had been invited but never surfed in the Eddie before. “And he’ll be stoked.”
The 40 contestants comprised the largest number fielded since the contest moved to Waimea, with women competing for the first time while surfing the largest and best-shaped waves of any Eddie in recent memory.
It was hard to predict a winner throughout the one-day event, with one jaw-dropping ride — and several wipeouts — following another in glassy conditions, the peaks rising skyward, held up by light, offshore winds from the east.
In countless long rides, surfers dropped under the shadow of the overhanging ledge and rode across the outer, right-breaking walls, then transitioned on the inside, sometimes riding the barreling shorebreak to the beach.
Many disappeared at the bottom of the perilous drop but emerged, still standing, from beneath the avalanche of foam.
Suddenly, in these clean conditions and beneath the feet of these aerialists, normally thick, mountainous Waimea was looking like a sleek, coiling, high-performance wave.
Mark Healey, who somehow seemed to be dropping in on nearly every wave of the often closed-out sets that peaked in the afternoon during the second round of heats, placed third.
Maui’s Billy Kemper, a three-time big-wave world champion, took fourth, while Kai Lenny, his fellow regular and dominator at Maui’s monstrous Peahi (Jaws), placed fifth.
Honolulu native Ezekiel “Zeke” Lau, who considers Kewalo Basin his home break and has won three Sunset Beach Pro contests, placed sixth and won the award for the best wave of the event, his first Eddie.
“I’ve been surfing Waimea a lot the last 5-6 years,” said Lau, who has been invited before, “and I learned that no matter how big the waves get, it still breaks in the same spot, so you have to stay there, holding the line — that’s the hardest part.”
Landon McNamara, a North Shore surfer and musician, son of big-wave veterans Liam McNamara, the Eddie co-director, and nephew of Garrett McNamara, placed seventh.
Keali’i Mamala from the Big Island, a graceful yet dominant force who executed an improbable cutback in the bowl of a wave, placed eighth.
Participating in their first-ever contest with organized heats at Waimea, the six women faced a steep learning curve, not taking many, if any, waves in the first round, but warming up quickly with impressive rides in the second.
“I can hear you from the lineup, thank you, thank you,” Justine Dupont said to the crowd after her rideless first heat, “but I hope I can seize the moment and catch a wave next heat.” And she did.
“It was really beautiful out there,” said a calm Keala Kennelly, who kept her feet throughout a precipitous ride.
Throwing themselves over watery ledges, Paige Alms, Andrea Moller, Makani Adric and Emily Erickson also held fast.
Everyone, male and female, also suffered their share of wipeouts but, thanks to water safety patrols on jet skis, every surfer got out of the water safely.
This year’s Eddie, named for late North Shore lifeguard and indomitable big-wave surfer Eddie Aikau, also commemorated his brother Solomon Aikau, who died Oct. 22, and legendary waterman China Uemura, who died Jan. 8.
“It’s not a surf competition, it’s a celebration of the best waterman who walked the earth, of Hawaii watermen and lifeguards,” Lenny said. “It’s about everyone getting home safe.”
Chris Owens, 63, looked like a youngster as he made a vertical drop and came out of the whitewash, carving his way into the 15-foot shorebreak.
“I try to be biologically young,” said the house painter by trade, red-eyed and covered with sand after a wipeout in his second heat.
“He’s the local hero for all the women when there’s wave in the Bay,” big-wave surfer Jamilah Starr said of Owens, who, she added, mentors and trains women surfers in everything from wave riding to forecasting.
Other standouts included previous Eddie winners Ross Clarke-Jones and Greg Long, veteran high-performance surfer Shane Dorian, 18-year-old Jake Maki, the youngest contender — and every other surfer on this exceptional day.
Because of the requirement that waves be at least 20 feet (Hawaiian standards) throughout the day, the Eddie has only run 10 times in its 39 years.
To judge from the cheers and radiant smiles from the mellow thousands watching from the beach, park and road, it’s worth the wait.
“It was good, really fun,” said North Shore native Koa Rothman, whose brother Makua Rothman also surfed powerfully, despite an injured knee.
“It was the best day in surfing history,” Kemper said as he walked hand in hand with one of his children after his second heat.