Mixed Plate
The Almost Eddie -- 1/28/98

Macking Waimea (the two specks on the shoulder are jetskis)

Right off the bat, I'd like to apologize for some major name dropping. My intent was to help validate the significance of this contest to the surfing world by naming some of the players.

Also, there's lots of web links throughout the story to help understand it better. If you don't know who Eddie Aikau was, what the Quiksilver contest is all about, or have any other questions, check the links for details.

(2/2/98: Rewritten slightly, to more accurately describe the jetski incident, among other things)

1/27/98 8 PM: Buoy #1 -- 23 feet, 25 seconds! The long awaited Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational looked like it was going to happen.

1/28/98 8 AM: Got the official word--the Eddie was on! They were calling it the biggest since the massive swell of '69, when Greg Noll took off on what many regard as the biggest wave ever ridden. Would history be rewritten today?

Had to slip out of work, but not before a bit of friction. At least my wifey was super-supportive, especially when she found out the last time this contest happened was 1990. "I thought it was just another contest," she said. Not just any contest my dear...

I was fortunate to have been there the last time the Eddie ran eight years ago, marveling at the performances that would become the standards of big wave riding even to this day. I was helping out on the judge's stand, calling colors with Ben Aipa. Brock Little's tube ride and attempt at a 30 footer, Kerry Terukina's freefall wipeout, Keone Downing's solid consistency--I saw it all and it was truly epic.

Since then, the sport of big wave riding has blossomed, touted as the extreme side of surfing. With the revelation of the big wave spot Mavericks in California, the tow-in action at Jaws, and the deaths of three prominent surfers in big surf (Mark Foo, Donnie Solomon, Todd Chesser), it has become even more tantalizing to the general public. Commercialization was inevitable.

To up the ante this year, the K2 ski company has thrown down the K2 Big Wave Challenge. It's become insane.

Driving out to the North Shore was pretty easy, with fairly light traffic most of the way. As I got my first glimpse of the ocean, I was completely blown away by the mayhem fronting Haleiwa and Waialua. I was still almost ten miles away, but I could easily see the waves pitch and reel down the line. It was huge!

Parking was already a bitch at 9:30 AM, so I ended up leaving my car near the Alligators/Marijuanas area and hiked the rest of the way. Traffic was stop-and-go around the bay, with police everywhere, passing out "choke" parking citations.

When I got to the lookout, my mind couldn't comprehend what I saw. The bay was just a churning mass of foam. The surf was pounding in from the WNW, with an insane left reeling in towards the jump rock. The wave at Waimea proper was breaking wide into the channel at times, and closing out quite frequently. Some beautiful faces did surface on occasion, but otherwise, it was pure mayhem.

There were two jetskis out (way, way out), and I didn't realize it at the time, but a drama was unfolding right then and there. Apparently, a clean-up set caught one jetski in the pit. They made a break for it and barely got over, with the accompanying photographer losing his helmet. They were so rattled that they decided to drive in through Haleiwa harbor rather than face the bay's closeout sets and insane shorebreak.

After taking a shortcut down the mountain, I ended up playing four-wheel drive in the deep buffalo grass. By then, Randy Rarick was calling the available invitees to start setting up the heats. Rabbit Kekai was handling the jersey assignments, and Lord Tally-Ho Blears eventually came to cover the emceeing task.

I decided to use my long-since-expired clout to try and sneak up onto the judge's tower. I was fortunate enough to still be in good grace with most of the judges, so I parked myself up on the top grandstand tier, three-stories above the beach. Stoked!

One of the judges was Jeannie Chesser, mom of the late Todd Chesser. I hadn't seen her since her son's passing, so I gave her an extra big hug. Among the others up there were Donald Pahia (Quiksilver Hawaii team manager), Wendall Aoki (HASA contest director), Bernie Baker (North Shore guru and photog), contestant Ross Clark-Jones (pro surfer), Craig Hoshide (Kauai contest director), Willie Grace (former pro surfer) and Reid Inouye (surf entrepreneur).

The only person in the water was this renegade bodysurfer (from Kauai) named Redwing, who stupidly tried to catch some shorebreak action. With the raging current and shifty lineup, there was no chance in hell, and he returned to shore, embarrassed but unscathed.

In fact, nobody had even attempted to try and surf the point that morning. Even Ken Bradshaw, the consummate Waimea tactician, pulled back, saying there wasn't enough time to paddle into what little channel was available.

It was really neat mingling in the crowd. Titus, Buffalo, Rusty, Dane, Sunny and Cheyne Horan were all there among other surf stars that I gawked at. (I hold these pro surfers and legends in very high esteem, despite surfing with and even knowing a few of them.) I even heard Kelly Slater was in town and was entered in the contest (sorry girls, I didn't see him).

However, I soon realized that something was amuck. Everything and everyone was ready to go, but things were just not right. I noticed a big powwow behind the judge's stand and decided to do a bit of eavesdropping to find out what was up. (just call me "niele")

Event director George Downing had grabbed a bunch of veteran surfer-types together and were discussing the conditions. Apparently, a LOT of the contestants didn't want to go out--I didn't blame them one bit.

Ben Aipa was the sole dissenting vote. It was very interesting listening to him talk, because he had studied the lineup, counted the swells and period between them, and truly believed the contest was doable. He said that every twenty minutes or so, there was a set of about 20 waves, six of them being rideable. (However, some of the other twelve were bay closeouts!) If he was 20 years younger, I'm sure he would've charged out there and proved it too.

Jack Shipley (ASP Hawaii head judge), Barry Kanaiaupuni (legendary surfer), Clyde Aikau (brother of Eddie, and winner of the '96 event) and the rest of the surf guys all thought that it was too big and dangerous. Psycho-surfer Shawn Briley popped by and he put in his two cents saying he wasn't about to paddle out through that shorebreak. Now that was a big statement, coming from him!

George continued to gather more information, conferring next with the Hui o He'e Nalu jetski rescue team. One by one, each of them had their turn to express their opinions. Brian Keaulana said that they could only go in all the way or out all the way--there was no riding around those beasts and no chance of saving multiple people and boards. Also, the turbulence on the surface was unbelievably strong and difficult to negotiate. Terry Ahue summed it up best by saying conditions were so dangerous, who was going to rescue THEM when they got into trouble.

George grimly thought it over, then had a heart-to-heart with Clyde and Myra (Eddie's siblings), who always helped make the final call. Then he told the small gathering this story (repeated from memory as best I could):

"Ever since we lost Eddie with the Hokule'a, I never told anyone what I'm about to say. I believe that if we had been more careful with the launching and had done our homework, then Eddie would still be with us."

He then went on to talk of how this contest was a tribute to Eddie, and that it would be a dishonor to put everyone in such extreme danger. George said that if he had to, if it was a life or death situation, he knew that he, and every single one of the contestants, could paddle out. However, it was silly to jeopardize lives, especially when the contest is honoring someone who was lost at sea.

"In life, we are given choices, and have to make decisions. And at this time, I've decided to postpone for today."

And so it was postponed... again! So frustrating to have had to go through all that trouble getting there and setting up, and it not running. But it was definitely the right call.

I quickly packed up my stuff, said my goodbye's, and ran to my car trying to avoid the slowly departing crowd traffic. When I got to the top of the bluff, I looked back to see another set nearly close the bay. I thought to myself, "This was one of the most spectacular "non-events" in the history of surfing."

Aloha from Paradise,