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Does the Super Bowl of Surfing Need to Change?

After five years of waiting, almost everybody thought the Eddie should have run last week. Lead sponsor Quiksilver says it won’t pass up an opportunity like that again.

by Will Grant
Feb 5 2016, 7:45pm

All photos by Anthony Quintano/Flickr

Update: On Monday, Quiksilver announced that the Eddie will run on Wednesday, February 10. The webcast is available at Surfline.com.

About 5,000 people had gathered on Waimea Bay, Hawaii, at daybreak last week on Wednesday morning, hoping to see the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau surfing competition. It only runs if there is an eight-hour period of 20-foot waves. Since its inception 31 years ago, conditions have been good enough for the Eddie to take place eight times, the last being in 2009. The crowd, having heard through the "coconut wireless" about an incoming swell, was hoping that this time would mark the ninth.

The Waimea lifeguard team, who planned on working until dark that day, arrived just before 9 AM as 10- and 12-foot swells rolled in under the marine layer. On days like this, with thousands of people within spray-reach of the ocean's fury, the lifeguards do as much crowd control as water rescues.

"Lifeguarding at Waimea on an Eddie-sized swell is like being security at a rock concert where the band is actively trying to kill the audience, and we're trying to control the chaos," said lifeguard Jason Bitzer, who was working at Waimea last Wednesday. "Everyone is at the ocean's will."

By 11:30, the marine layer had burned off, the waves were piling up to 20 feet and higher, and the crowd had grown by several hundred people. Big wave surfer Dave Yester has been lifeguarding on the North Shore for the past 27 years and was on the beach on Wednesday morning. He'll compete in the Eddie this year, if it runs, and surfed in the 2002 event.

"I've been living on the North Shore for more than 40 years, and I've never seen a day like that," he said. "It was a once-in-a-decade-type day, I would say."

READ MORE: We Tagged Along For The Biggest Surf At Jaws In More Than A Decade

Kelly Slater, one of the 28 surfers invited to compete in the Eddie this year, called the surf that day "easily big enough for the Eddie" on Instagram. He tried to paddle out a few times, but wasn't able to catch any waves. He eventually had to pull the cord on his inflatable vest to get out of the bay, according to Bitzer. It didn't matter—the Eddie wouldn't run that day.

At 5:30 PM on Wednesday, Quiksilver wrote on its Facebook page that "conditions weren't big enough and a bit slow this morning for #EddieWouldGo." Social media trolls were quick to weigh in, saying that Quiksilver, which filed for bankruptcy last year, is too broke to host the Eddie, that the waves were totally big enough, that the event should be re-tagged "Eddie Never Goes."

Quiksilver responded Friday morning, clarifying that although the surf was Eddie-sized for much of the day, it wasn't Eddie-sized for "an entire contestable 8-hour period." Under the current rules, the company wrote, the waves have to be at least 20 feet high from the first heat of surfers through the final heat to ensure a fair contest. Even if those conditions did turn out last Wednesday, though, the Eddie still wouldn't have run.

"When it gets to 20 feet it just turns into a monster," said Glen Moncata of Quiksilver. Waimea Bay on Wednesday, January 27

Event organizers have to pull the trigger on the Eddie two days before they want to hold the event. Part of that lead-time is to give athletes, who come from all over the world, two days to travel to Hawaii. The other reason is to allow Quiksilver time to build the venue—just laying the cable for the broadcast is a near-continuous 48-hour job—and spread the word through local television and radio announcements.

Quiksilver's Glen Moncata, who's organized the event every year since its inception in 1985, looks at "four or five forecasts" and consults a handful of meteorologists and local shade-tree Waimea experts who know the bay and its surf as well as anyone on the planet. They coordinate buoy data off the coast of Japan with the wind and weather over the north Pacific. The decision to run the Eddie, and the costs that entails—just setting up the parking barriers along the highway costs Quiksilver $30,000—hangs on some fickle guesswork, but Moncata and his team are far more informed than they were in the 1980s and 90s when they relied solely on ship reports called in from heaving seas.

Last Wednesday's forecast didn't call for eight hours of 20-foot waves, so no one pulled the trigger. The wind and buoy data suggested that the system would pass north of Hawaii, which would have sent a recoil swell to Waimea but not likely something up to Eddie's standards.

"I've done a lot of soul searching over the past week," Moncata said, "and I think that what we will do from now on, if we get the indication that we're only going to get half a day or whatever, we're going to set up."

That could potentially mean changing the competition format. One way to do that, Moncata said, would be to forego the requirement for an eight-hour period of 20-foot waves, a swell with the consistency and amplitude that seems to come around only every five or six years.

"We've been putting our heads together to figure out what to do because we don't want to let another day like that go by without doing something," he said. "If I would have set up Wednesday I would have run half a day. I would have put the first heat in the water at 10:30 and blown it out from there."

For pro surfer Jamie O'Brien, who's entered in the Eddie for the eleventh time the year, that's good news. It's been a heavy winter on the North Shore, and he can think of at least three days so far that would have provided a good contest. Running the Eddie in a six-hour window, he says, wouldn't compromise the legacy or integrity of the event, and might allow it to run more often than eight times in 31 years.

"It's the most iconic surf event in the world, and if they're trying to figure out a way to make it happen more often, I'm in on it," he said. "We all want to surf it, so let's do it."

O'Brien points to the necessary lead-time, namely setting up the broadcast, as something that could stand to change. Maybe organizers should just run the event without laying miles of cable, he says.

"If they have the money every year, I think they should spend some of that money, rather than just saving it year after year," he said.

Dropping in at Waimea on Wednesday last week

If the Eddie runs this year, Clyde Aikau, 66, Eddie's brother, has said this will be his final year to surf in it. On Wednesday, a lifeguard towed him out at Waimea as the 20-footers were rolling in.

"He took off on a wave with a bump on it, and got bombed," Moncata said. "The bump knocked him off, and he took two 20s on the head, and it broke his board. He had some help getting out of the water."

Clyde called Moncata on the phone as he was leaving the bay that evening. Clyde told Moncata that his decision not to run the Eddie on Wednesday was sound, that the waves were inconsistent and not quite to Eddie standards.

The waiting period for the Eddie goes until February 29. Moncata said he's watching three potentially Eddie-sized swells headed for Waimea: one that will hit on Super Bowl Sunday, another on Wednesday next week, and then one next weekend, "which really has the potential to be what we want," he said.

Moncata is quick to reaffirm his and Quiksilver's commitment to the event. No one, he says, wants to run it more.

"It's like being pregnant for five years," he said. "Can we just go ahead and have this thing?"