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Retrospect: The 1990 Eddie Aikau (8/04)
The Quiksilver Eddie Aikau 1990: A retrospective look at one of the biggest (literally and figuratively) surfing events ever. I wanted to put this down on paper before it got erased from my memory banks. Curious though, it has been 14 years since the event but I still remember it very well.
Back in the day, I was quite entrenched in the amateur surf scene. I was unofficially dubbed "second in command" as the assistant contest director of the now defunct Hawaiian Surfing Federation (HSF). I worked for Reid Inouye, who was a key player in the competition surf scene in the islands. And that's how I got the "ins" to the 1990 Eddie.
This big wave contest hadn't run since 1986, and it started to be sort of a farce waiting year after year. But the Eddie contest director, George Downing, was dead-set to have it run in consistent 20-foot surf (his scale). The looming $50,000 prize money just hung like a carrot for these usually unsung and underpaid riders. And so we waited. I told Reid, sort of half-jokingly, that if he needed help at the contest to give me a buzz.
On January 21, 1990, that day finally arrived. A huge low-pressure system out in the northwest Pacific generated a swell the magnitude of which hadn't been seen for a very long time.
That morning, I went to work with my photo gear in the car just in case. I was doing my normal routine when I heard on the radio that the Eddie was on. Quickly, I got in touch with Reid, and he confirmed it. Without hesitation I bailed work (taking leave) and flew out to the North Shore.
Driving towards Haleiwa, I got my first glimpse of the swell--it was macking with long lines of whitewater lining up outside Haleiwa and Waialua. I was stoked that the road wasn't too crowded with sightseers just yet, and strategically parked my car on the Haleiwa side of the bay facing Town for a quicker getaway (I had a intramural basketball game to go to that eve).
I was so amped about being at the contest that when I walked down to the bay, I decided to take a short cut through the bushes and ended up falling down the embankment, getting all dirty and scratched up in the buffalo grass. Minors.
The surf was indeed big, with some competitors practicing outside. I had never ever seen surf that big in my life, so I was in awe trying to absorb it all. Guys were taking off from way outside the point, racing towards the relative safety of the open channel. From the sand, the surfers looked like ants in the lineup. "How were the judges going to identify who was riding?" I wondered aloud.
Anyway, I met up with Reid and offered my services. This event was way above my meager status to administrate, but I was willing to help out the cause any way I could. Got introduced to the legendary George Downing, who was in another world prepping for the contest. Eventually I was assigned to help spot the competitors. I had a walkie-talkie and was told to converse with Matt Nielson who was watching from the point. Sitting right next to me was Ben Aipa (whom I did not know that well at the time), spotting from the judges stand and barking out the riders' name while Matt and I confirmed them.
For regular amateur and pro contests, a single heat usually consists of two, four or maybe six competitors in the water at a time. However, Downing had decided that the 33 competitors would surf 11 at a time, two heats each (I believe an hour per heat) to give everyone ample opportunity to catch good waves. Both heats counted towards the final tally.
This made spotting a total nightmare for me. Competitors had different colored jerseys/sleeves, but it was so hard to determine who was up. There were no restrictions from dropping-in, so many riders could be going at the same time.
After a short, ceremonial blessing by the Aikaus, Downing started the historic contest.
In the very first heat, Haleiwa regular Kerry Terukina got hung up on a medium sized set and dove off a three-story tall wave. We were just screaming in excitement from the judge's stand. Kerry was all right and eventually came back and even caught a couple more in that heat.
Throughout the ensuing heats, Ben and I were trying to make out the riders and telling the judges who was up and riding. We eventually got into a system, calling out colors ("green jersey/orange sleeves") and position (inside, middle, outside).
I had a tough time hearing Matt through the walkie-talkie, especially with Ben on my side hollering out the colors to the judges. One good thing is that Ben knew the individual styles of most riders, so he could make more accurate calls.
I was awestruck at the performances and the conditions. I thought the judges were so calm, like they'd seen it all before. In hindsight, I now realize that the surf and the performances also blew them away that day.
One time, I asked judges Jack Shipley and Donald Pahea how big they thought the surf was. Donald replied, "overhead." Oh, thanks Donald.
The contest continued with excellent surf. Some heats did not have as good waves as others, but for the most part, the day had consistently huge waves throughout.
Keone Downing (son of contest director George Downing) was riding like a man possessed that day. I had never heard of him before, but I could tell he was an incredible big wave rider. Keone consistently picked off the best waves and rode them cleanly to the middle of the bay. Nothing extravagant about his style; just rock solid waveriding.
Some riders did not enjoy the day, however. Don't think Mark Foo did very well. And Ken Bradshaw just could not catch anything. There was obvious frustration from them.
However, others were just reveling in the conditions. Brock Little's second heat went down in the history books as one of the most mind-blowing ones ever.
Early in the heat, Brock stroked into this monster of a wave--later it was called a legitimate attempt at a 25-30-footer (Haw'n). It looked like he had a good line to make it, but there was too much water moving. As he traveled down the face, he hit a huge chop and just skipped down the face like a rag-doll. It was a hideous wipeout. The crowd just screamed in disbelief.
On another wave, he took off super deep and had no choice but to pull into this huge cavern. Barreled at Waimea Bay! Very few had ever done it ever before, but Brock did. Everyone on the beach was just screaming, and we blew up when he emerged from the pit. Brock tried to turn down, but couldn't on his gun, so he fell off. But that didn't take away from this tremendous feat.
"Is this how it is with big wave surfing?" I asked the judges incredulously. Don't think I got an answer because I don't think anyone had ever seen this kind of performance before.
Right after Brock's tube, I think it was Tony Moniz who also pulled into a barrel. Unfortunately, the water was already drawn out of the bay, so Tony's wave just dredged hollow with no chance of escape.
If you watch the official video of the contest, you might see me on the judges stand, wearing my characteristic "safari hat" and Vuarnets (I still wear the same combo). Also, if you listen to the overdubs of some of the rides, some of the ooh's and aah's are me just blowing my mind.
I decided to leave early from the contest. I didn't want to get caught in the nightmare traffic jam that would ensue, and anyway I had that basketball game to make. I left just as the final heat began, thanking Reid and George for the privilege of helping out.
I missed one key ride in the last heat, where Richard Schmidt took off late, free-fell with board and fins completely out of the water, and landed, making the wave for a perfect score. It was pretty impressive on video.
We ended up losing the basketball game, no thanks to my poor play. I was still thinking about the contest and what I had seen. Didn't realize how huge the 1990 Eddie really was in the scheme of big wave riding.
Keone Downing won the contest with his consistent riding. Brock came in a close second with his radical rides. Richard Schmidt got third.
This contest officially heralded back the art of big-wave riding. Nowadays, even a "little" swell at the Bay will attract throngs of wannabes. Riding Waimea is actually pretty absurd now, with so many people scrambling in the lineup for their moment of glory.
Would you believe that I ended up taking a grand total of zero photographs with my camera? That's one regret that I have from the whole thing. Still, I was there and experienced it firsthand. Moreover, I was not just watching the event--I was actually a part of it.
About a month later, I was surprised to get a form letter from George Downing himself thanking us for supporting the contest. Inside the packet was a bunch of media clippings from the event, along with a check for $100! I wasn't there to work for money--I was just there to support it. I was so touched by the generous gesture that later on, I went down to George's shop (Downing Hawaii) and thanked him personally.
Since then, there have been a couple of "half-Eddies", one "Almost Eddie" and three full contests in 1999, 2000 and 2002. The tow-in phenomenon has almost made regular big wave surfing look passť. However, the 1990 event will go down in history as the one that brought back big wave riding to the forefront of the surfing world.
I know that it was inspiring to me. I've never wanted to ride those mountains, but it gave me a deep appreciation for people who do. Talk about a wake up call--I witnessed extreme surfing in a realm beyond my comprehension.