Is Maui’s Pe‘ahi Challenge Replacing the Eddie?

A big-wave contest at Pe‘ahi takes on the Eddie Aikau, which hasn’t been held since 2009.
Maui’s Pe‘ahi peaked early: Shane Dorian catching the wave of the day (for no points) before the start.
Photo: neil rabinowitz


As the 40-plus-foot maw of Jaws closed around surfer Greg Long last December, some thought they saw the extinguishing of the torch of one of surfing’s greatest competitions, the Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay. The last time Long was seen paddling into a huge Hawaiian face for a contest was at 2009’s Eddie, which he won. But, in the past five years—going on six in 2015–2016, as HONOLULU went to press—no Eddie has been held.


And now here was Maui’s Pe‘ahi Challenge. Part of a seven-stop tour of some of the world’s largest waves, owned by the newly reorganized and corporatized World Surf League, the Pe‘ahi sent Long a second-heat wave that looked a third larger than his Waimea monster. And he even got barreled in Pe‘ahi’s cavernous jaw. 


Contest surfing’s Achilles’ heel has always been predicting waves that would last through a series of heats, right to a final. For the first Pe‘ahi, the WSL rolled the dice and got it right, it seems. Meanwhile, the Eddie did not go. Not only that, but director George Downing retired in 2014, and a large part of the Eddie’s mystique was Downing’s steely refusal to greenlight a contest that wouldn’t produce wave heights in excess of 20 feet for eight daylight hours. It’s only gone off eight times in 31 years.


But it’s also never failed as a spectacle, or as a monument to its namesake, the waterman and Native Hawaiian activist who died in 1978 while paddling for help after the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe foundered in the Maui channel. “The Eddie is the highest honor you can achieve, as far as I’m concerned,” says Garrett McNamara, holder of the world record for largest wave ever surfed—a 100-foot pyramid at Nazare, Portugal. Waiting for the selectees to be announced each year, “I am so anxious words can’t describe it—your friends vote you in, and if you do make it it’s a real high.” To make it once “is a higher honor than Nazare.” (This is his 10th.)


Downing’s son Keone, who worked with him on the contest—as well as shaping boards at their tiny surf shop, Downing Hawai‘i, on Wai‘alae Avenue—won in 1990 and knows what it takes to make the Eddie go. “When a northwest swell crosses the international date line, it still has 2,000 miles to go, yet for some reason it always arrives at night. So storms need to get really big to pulse to us; they have to last 30 hours for any chance to last through the night and then all day.”


Sure enough, as the final heat at Pe‘ahi started, the swell abruptly faded. Fewer waves, and few large waves, drained the drama. Maui’s own Billy Kemper found a great tube on a wave half the size of Long’s second-heat monster to win. Pe‘ahi shone, but the Eddie still stands alone.


Did you know? Unlike Waimea Bay, Pe‘ahi is private land, so the contest went off without the crowd that makes the Eddie Hawai‘i’s surfing Super Bowl.