Surfers worldwide are nervously watching their mobiles and inboxes waiting for the magical sms and email alert which simply says “The Eddie is on!”
“The Eddie” in its full ceremonial regalia, is the (ahem) Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau Invitational, a big wave surfing event held at Waimea Bay in Hawaii. Although it has been going since 1985, the tournament has only been held seven times.
This is because there is a precondition in the tournament by-laws which states that for “The Eddie” to be run, open-ocean swells must reach a minimum of 20 feet within a nominated contest waiting period which this year runs from December 1, 2009, through February 28, 2010.
To put that wave height in perspective, a 20 foot swell equates to a wave face in the region of 28-32 feet (about 10 metres), which is roughly the height of a 3rd floor balcony. Next time you’re standing on the verandah of your third floor unit, imagine jumping off it on a surfboard as it charges towards the beach at about the same speed as a Melbourne Cup field.
As four-time World Surfing Champion Mark Richards once put it during a big swell in Hawaii, “one wave looked like someone had put a block of flats on its side and sent it sliding towards the beach”. Heavy.
The contest-with-the-longest-name-in-world-surfing, The Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau Invitational, is one of those wonderful events that most people never find out about, except for a few seconds at the tail end of the news when they see a 30 second clip of some maniac throwing themselves down a moving glass mountain on a big skateboard with no wheels.
Who was Eddie Aikau? And what did he do to inspire the world’s premier big-wave surfing event?
Edward Ryan Makuahanai Aikau was born on Maui in 1946 and was a direct descendant of Kahuna Nui Hewahewa, the highest priest of Hawaii in the early 1800’s. He began surfing at the age of 11, and eventually became the first official lifeguard at Waimea Bay.
He was “discovered” surfing big Waimea Bay in 1966 and photos of him charging the massive peaks were published in Life Magazine for the public to shake their heads over. He captured imagination so much that he became the first surfer to appear in a major advertising campaign, splashed across billboards across the USA for the Bank Of America.
In 1977 Eddie won the Duke Kahanamoku Classic, beating Australian greats Mark Richards and Rabbit Bartholomew (a former world champ and director of the ASP World Tour). Eddie was a 6-time finalist in the Duke event between 1966 and 1974.
In the year of his 1977 Duke win, Eddie was ranked number 12 in the world surfing rankings, but he wasn’t just a legendary lifeguard and a big wave surfer. Eddie was a true Hawaiian, very much aware of his cultural heritage. So much so, that he was selected to be part of a project crew to sail an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe by traditional celestial navigation from Hawaii to Tahiti in March of 1978.
It was to be an epic 30-day, 2,500 mile voyage across the Pacific, following the ancient route of Polynesian migration, and the crew set sail on the stormy afternoon of March 16, 1978.
Not long after they departed, conditions became progressively worse. Storm winds gouged at the sea and lifted freak waves from the depths of the ocean. The canoe flexed and creaked as the sea tore at the hull, and finally it sprang a leak, before capsizing in the Molokai Channel. The exhausted crew lasted through the night by clinging to the upturned hull, but by morning they were fading fast. A decision had to be made.
Estimating their position to be about 12 miles from the island of Lana’i, Eddie Aikau ignored the pleas of his crewmates and set out on a board to paddle to the island and raise a rescue. Those that were with him remember him stroking away on a paddleboard with a few oranges strung around his neck and wearing a lifejacket. Several hundred yards away he discarded the clumsy lifejacket and kept paddling until he was lost from view. A few hours later, his crew were sighted by a passing plane and rescued. Eddie Aikau was never seen again.
Eddie’s shadow fell long across Hawaii for a time, but eventually his friends looked for a way to celebrate his life, and the Eddie Aikau Invitational was born. First run in 1985 and won by Eddie’s brother Clyde Aikau in its first outing at Waimea in 1986/7, The Eddie has become one of the most anticipated events on the surfing calendar, for both pros and spectators alike.
Spectators are drawn like moths to a flame at the prospect of watching their heroes cheat death in the massive Waimea waves. For pro surfers though, the Eddie is a cherished acknowledgement of their prowess from their peers, as the 24 final invitees for The Eddie are arrived at via a peer poll.
The list for 2009 reads like a pantheon of surfing gods.
Former Pipe Masters and Triple Crown champion Michael Ho backs up again as one of only 4 surfers who actually surfed with Eddie Aikau. Makua Rothman, the 25 year old prodigy who stunned the surfing world in 2004 by pulling into a 66 foot beast off Maui, is also there. His father Eddie Rothman helped start The Eddie back in 1986 at Sunset Beach before it moved to Waimea.
Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s brother and winner of the 1987 Eddie, returns to his Waimea roots, still competing in the massive surf at 50 years of age. Darryl “The Flea” Virostko also suits up to defy the memory of The Eddie’s worst ever wipeout, when the turbulence shredded his rashie off him after a 30 foot free-fall in 2006.
With a dozen word titles between them, Kelly Slater and Andy Irons will pressure the front-runners in the big stuff, as should Andy’s younger brother Bruce, a noted big wave exponent and the most recent winner of the Eddie in 2004/2005.
Australians featuring in the lineup include super-fit pocket-Hercules Tom Carroll, and effervescent madman Ross Clarke-Jones, noted for his tow-in exploits at huge Shipsterns Bluff in Tasmania, and recent typhoon riding projects in Japan.
Regardless of their big-wave experience, all 24 competitors are only too aware of the need to do justice to the memory of Eddie Aikau when the big waves call at Waimea. Said Eddie’s brother Clyde on the 20th anniversary of Eddie’s death in 1998, “I surf some of the biggest waves in the world. I’m the oldest guy in the world surfing the biggest waves in the world, and I’ve seen lots of surfers take off, but none surfed like Eddie. He’d take off on a big, big scary wave, and he’d be sliding down it with the biggest smile you ever saw. The rest of us are nervous. Eddie belonged there; it was home.”
Surfers noticed Eddie at home in the biggest of waves, and eventually began to use him to push each other over the edge in that moment when the terror took hold, saying simply “Eddie would go”.
“Aikau was a lifeguard legend on the North Shore” says maritime historian Mac Simpson, “pulling people out of waves that no one else would dare to. That’s where the saying came from – Eddie would go, when no else would or could. Only Eddie dared.”
In the next couple of days, 24 surfers on the rumbling North Shore of Hawaii will step up to try to secure their place in history as a winner in the world’s most respected big wave event. TV highlights, front page photos, massive cheques all abound for the winner, but the most important prize on offer in simply respect.
For each contestant, the moment will come when they are suspended on the lip of a runaway 30 foot freight train, about to take the drop. Pull in? Or pull back? That is the question. Pull in and risk death, or pull back and wait for something a little smaller, a little easier, a little tamer?
For most of them, if there’s doubt, it means there is no doubt, and they’ll all whisper three words to themselves before committing to the heart-rending plummet down the green crystal mountains of Waimea Bay.
Eddie would go. Yeah, Eddie would go.