With the Eddie, Waimea Bay Reclaims the Big Wave Spotlight

The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau competition was held for the first time since 2009.


A buzzer clock shot of a swell arrived on Feb. 25, sporting mountainous waves just right for the Eddie Aikau Invatational surf contest. Competitor Clyde Aikau—Eddie’s brother—66, told beachgoers over the loudspeaker that it was the best conditions he had seen at the Bay “in 40 years.”


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


North Shore residents, slightly shell-shocked from a massive swell that collapsed sea walls and sent waves and debris over Kamehameha Highway in several spots on Monday, spent the days before the contest filling sand bags as well as bracing for standstill traffic and the onslaught of visitors.




By 9 p.m. the night before, parked cars lined the highway shoulders as diehard surfing fans arrived on the North Shore to camp overnight. But the scene at the Bay itself had a more serious tenor than the rowdy carnival atmosphere of the almost-Eddie that was called off two weeks ago. A quickly rising swell kept would-be campers and bonfire builders off the beach while a possible swimmer-in-distress alert (later determined to be a false alarm) reported at dusk had search-and-rescue helicopters droning over the churning water with spotlights through the night.


Amateur surf forecasters posted hourly updates on the buoy readings on social media through the night, speculating on not if the swell would be too small to run the Eddie (as it was two weeks ago), but if it would be too big (as with the 1998 almost-Eddie, which was canceled when 40-plus-foot waves proved to be too much for the Bay).


Photo: Brittney Nitta-Lee


At daybreak, crowds lined the beach, waiting for the final call on whether to hold the contest. With the waning moon setting behind the break, the brutal energy of the waves was on full display with a handful of surfers and jet skis already out in the water when a cheer erupted on the beach—the contest was on. Live music began playing from the scaffolding and there was a palpable sense of excitement—and relief—that the Eddie was actually, finally, going to happen.


The Eddie contest has always functioned a little differently from most surf competitions: It is part big-wave contest, pitting 28 of the most experienced names in the big-wave world against each other in an eight-hour, four-heat, two-round format, and part tribute for the contest’s namesake, Eddie Aikau, the legendary North Shore lifeguard who was lost at sea after paddling for help after the Hōkūle‘a ran into trouble on its first long distance trip.


In honor of Brock Little. 
Photo: Brittney Nitta-Lee


This Eddie carried an extra layer of significance with the recent death of legendary big-wave surfer and Eddie 1990 runner-up Brock Little on many fans’ and competitors’ minds. On Instagram and Twitter, the hashtag #Brockswell and #BrockLittleSwell gathered momentum in the days surrounding Little’s passing.


It’s only been six years since the last Eddie, in 2009, but so much has changed not only in the surfing world (the death of competitor Andy Irons; the rise of a new generation of surfers: the younger competitors Koa Rothman, Kai Lenny and John John Florence, in their mid-teens at the last go-round) but in technology as well. Social media, streaming video content and drone video footage would have been almost unthinkable in 2009, but in 2016, high tech helped define this year’s contest. Bystanders could get the visceral impact of the waves from the beach, but then watch live commentary and replays through the Internet broadcast in almost real time.


Nathan Fletcher wipes out. 
Photo: Zak Noyle, Quiksilver 


But even with advances in technology, the broadcast was no match for actually being at the Bay. The natural amphitheater of Waimea Bay set the stage for an electric sort of energy that makes this contest unlike any other. Bruising sets of waves feathered then pitched onto the break before rolling into shore, with beachgoers hooting and whistling for big rides, creating a sort of call and response between the wave and its fans. Several close-out sets (when the waves break across the Bay) had the fleet of jet skis racing for the horizon or shore and surfers scrambling over peaks.


Some faces in the contest were familiar: Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s brother and winner of the 1986 contest, Kelly Slater, the 13-time world champion and 2002 Eddie winner, Greg Long, the 2009-contest winner, as well as big names in the surf scene of the 1990s and 2000s, such as Nathan Fletcher, Tom Carroll and Sunny Garcia.


On the beach, bystanders caught glimpses not only of competitors as they walked to the beach’s far-right corner for the paddle out, but living surf legends, who came for the show: former North Shore lifeguard and body boarder Mark Cunningham and famed Hawai‘i surfer Michael Ho, were all on hand to watch the action.


Left to right: Nathan Fletcher, Ian Walsh and Peter Mel.
Photo: Zak Noyle, Quiksilver


North Shore’s homegrown son, John John Florence, took the title, garnering a late bomb of a wave in his second heat to take the lead over big-wave legend and 2001 contest winner Ross Clarke-Jones.


By the end of the contest, North Shore residents and visitors were tired after a full day in the sun—but happy. The swell held up to expectations with large waves pulsing through the entire day, the surfing was the very definition of spectacular, and the crowds were actually somewhat manageable. There was general feeling that the dress rehearsal of Feb. 10 had ended up being sort of a boon—a chance to work out rusty logistical kinks with parking, traffic and police—before the real show on Feb. 25. And what a show it was.