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“When I find out the Eddie’s going to run, I’m scared”

The annual Eddie Aikau invitational surf competition at Waimea Bay is one of surfing’s most exclusive and terrifying contests, even for rock stars like Jamie O’Brien.

by Hans Aschim
Dec 16 2015, 8:00pm

Courtesy Brian Bielmann

It's December on Oahu's North Shore and that means two things: house-sized waves are rolling in with startling frequency and it's fucking packed. The beachside overlooks are jammed as surfing's global elite—and the media caravan that follows them—join the regulars on this seven-odd-mile stretch of Hawaiian coastline. Above Waimea Bay, Tourists in woefully sensible walking shoes stumble over the miniature forest of camera tripods. John John Florence dodges scaffolding as he races his derelict beach cruiser toward triple-overhead Pipeline for a sunset session.

Throughout the month of December, the North Shore plays host to the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach and the Billabong Pipe Masters at Pipeline—events that offer major prize money and a boost in rankings, not to mention respect. Less than two miles from Pipeline, another contest promises something even more valuable to surfers: a place in history and an unforgettable session.

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The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau—or The Eddie, as it's more commonly known—is held every year at Waimea Bay to honor one of Hawaii's great watermen. "Eddie Would Go" stickers are plastered around the islands and can be seen at surf destinations around the world. The saying has become part of modern Hawaiian lexicon, and the memorial competition embodies the athleticism and culture of Hawaiian surfing at its best.

A committee of 150 people—big wave surfers, past invitees, North Shore lifeguards, and members of the Aikau family—selects 28 invitees and 24 alternates for the Eddie, which runs between December and the end of February each year. "It's an honor to be in the Eddie Aikau every year, and it's not like you're locked in for life. It's an event that your peers and people you look up to—the lifeguards, family, friends—they vote," said local ripper and pro surfer Jamie O'Brien, who's known to ride Pipeline on foam tops and rafts. This is O'Brien's eleventh year. "I just kept doing what I'm doing and I'm blessed that Pipeline is in my backyard."

The roster of the Eddie runs the gamut in age and surfing style, from 54-year-old Aussie legend Tom Carroll to 27-year-old Championship Tour superstar Jeremy Flores. There are enough household names to interest even the most landlocked haoles. (Yes, Kelly Slater was invited.) These aren't just top pros; they're the torchbearers of the sport and its values.

As far as the waves and the field of competition go, this is the fiercest contest in the world: the biggest waves and the best surfers from the past 30-odd years. Yet the opening ceremony feels like a party that's half family reunion, half religious service—the kind you actually want to attend. Many competitors carry their children into the ceremony, where they crawl across the brightly colored, logo-plastered decks.

This year's opening ceremony, on December 3, was the sort of idyllic scene you hope to see in Hawaii, but don't really expect to. The remnants of a rainbow arced from a cathedral tower toward the mountains beyond the beach. Waimea was pumping and well overhead. It might not have been big enough for the Eddie, but plenty of the competitors let their gazes drift from interviews when a set rolled in. They appeared composed and relaxed, but the excitement was high.

"The best thing about big wave surfing—it's not how you do it; it's what you get out of it," O'Brien said. "When I find out the Eddie's going to run, I'm scared. But the outcome and the afternoon afterwards make it feel so much better."

Jamie O'Brien at the opening ceremony: "At the end of the day if you're in The Eddie, you're a waterman." Courtesy Tom Servais

Nearly everyone on the North Shore has an Eddie story. He's a legend, and one that truly lived up to the lore. Eddie served as the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay in 1969. He was known to dive headfirst, without hesitation, into towering shore break to make a rescue. In his free time, he dropped into 40-foot waves with a smile on his face and no camera around to take his picture. Eddie embodied the Aloha spirit—a welcoming, humble, and wholly knowledgeable persona.

"We saved thousands of lives," said Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother. He and Eddie were Waimea lifeguards from 1969 to 1978. Clyde is 66 years old now, and this will be his final year competing in the Eddie. "Most of our rescues were in the impact zone: one feet water, 20 feet wave. Can do some damage—has done damage. There were no jet skis. There's no rafts. All we had was a surfboard, fins, and a foam life preserver."

Eddie put the safety of others ahead of his own until the end. In 1978, he joined a dugout canoe expedition from Hawaii to Tahiti, following the ancient route of the Polynesians and using only traditional technologies. Miles offshore, their voyaging canoe, the 61-foot Hokule'a, sprang a leak and capsized. Eddie paddled away on his surfboard to get help. He was never seen again. The Coast Guard later found the floating remains of the Hokule'a and rescued the all of the crew, but the largest air-sea search in Hawaiian history couldn't find a trace of the lost waterman.

Over the past 30 years, the Eddie has run only nine times. Well, actually, eight and a half: in 1995, a 50-foot swell arrived but didn't hang around long enough for the contest to run past the first round. As the waves dropped in size, the organizers called off the contest and split the prize money among the 33 competitors. If the forecast doesn't call for a solid day of 40-foot waves (20 feet in Hawaiian terms) within the three-month holding period, the contest doesn't happen. Those were the conditions that Eddie preferred, and that's the way it's likely to stay.

With El Niño raising air and water temperatures, many of the contest's competitors and organizers expect this year's waves to be up to Eddie's high standards. Halfway through December, the North Shore is having one of its most wave-packed winters in years. To the relief of the World Surf League (which includes the Eddie as a specialty event), northwest swells continue to light up Pipeline. For the biggest surf, Waimea Bay needs the breaks to trend a few more degrees west, according to the wave forecasters who have broken down Eddie-level predictions to a science.

"It's the Super Bowl of all the surfing events," said Waimea lifeguard Jeff Okuyama. He was watching over the same water Eddie did as the competitors paddled out during the opening ceremony. "Who cares about all these other events? Everyone who's invited and involved—it's a tight-knit group of guys who are experienced watermen, who travel around the world surfing big waves. If Eddie was alive, he'd be doing the same thing."

In memory of Eddie. Courtesy Tom Servais

Six years after Eddie's death, in the fall of 1984, his father, Pops Aikau, and infamous North Shore personality Eddie Rothman called Quiksilver's Glen Moncata with an idea. They asked Moncata, who has been with the company for over 33 years now and is one of the brand's chief representatives on the islands, if Quiksilver would be interested in sponsoring a contest in Eddie's memory. He didn't hesitate to say yes.

In the 1970s and 80s, title sponsors for contests were mostly non-surf brands looking to cash in on the sport's cool factor. Down the beach from Waimea, at Sunset, the Smirnoff World Pro-Am Championships ran from 1969 to 1977. The trend continues today. The Samsung brand can be found wherever there's mention of the World Surf League. TAG Heuer holds the title of Official Timekeeper for the WSL's Big Wave Tour. The connection to surfing, let alone the North Shore, is tenuous for some of these brands, though they each have a significant financial investment in the surfing competitions there.

Quiksilver, on the other hand, has a long history in Hawaii, sponsoring local events and riders since its beloved boardies hit the islands in 1974. Though the company was originally founded in Australia, it was here at the North Shore where local big-wave champ Jeff Hakman and would-be CEO Bob McKnight first had the idea, in 1976, to license the brand in the U.S.

"I don't think of the relationship between Quiksilver and the Eddie Aikau as corporate," said O'Brien. "It means something so much more. Out of any surfing event in the world, this is the least corporate event."

"There are a lot of true Hawaiian watermen who pass and their names fade into space," Moncata said, "and I think that with Quiksilver doing the contest for 31 years, it kept Eddie's name in the conversation."

With Eddie's name comes the values that he and watermen like him represent: humility in and out of the water, selflessness in the face of danger, and a commitment to helping those in need.

Quiksilver's dedication to the event has helped foster big-wave surfing as an increasingly popular category in the sport, appealing to both the core community and mainstream audiences.

"Back 31 years ago, when we started this thing, big-wave riders were either legends or guys you'd hear about every once in awhile when they surfed," Moncata said. "It's given resurgence to big-wave riding, to where now the guys who surf the outer reef have careers and they're able to support their families."

One of those surfers is big-wave world record holder Garrett McNamara, whose 100-foot ride in Nazaré, Portugal in 2013 is currently the largest documented ride ever. For McNamara, the key element of partnerships is finding common ground between the sport and the sponsors.

"Brands getting involved makes it to where we can actually make a living doing it," said McNamara, who is currently developing his own big-wave event in Portugal. "It's tough. We grow up surfing because we love it. Then it turns into this thing where you have to decide, do you want to go to work nine-to-five somewhere or do you want to keep surfing?

"As long as you've got good intentions and you're doing good things for the world—if you get companies to back events like this—you can do great things with them, through them."

Jeremy Flores at the opening ceremony. Courtesy Tom Servais

Thanks in part to streaming high-definition video and a global, digitally native fan base, surfing events have a bigger audience than ever before. Last year, the World Surf League posted record viewership, reportedly reaching 58 million people through its combined social media channels and broadcast of more than 2.2 million hours of footage online. When the swell hits, WSL social media lights up and the streams begin.

"It's a totally different way to stay relevant and youthful and connect with surfers around the world," said Troy Brooks, Quiksilver's Global Events Director. Brooks is a former pro who surfed in more than 300 contests during his career. "The difference and the way you relate is in the communication, with kids these days primarily communicating online. It's all about keeping it authentic and creating stoke."

Unlike other sports, surfing competitions follow Mother Nature's schedule, not that of a major network. Despite the relative spontaneity of the events, last year's Billabong Pipe Masters saw a bigger audience than the final game of the Stanley Cup Finals, according to the New York Times. Specialized events like the Eddie, with its extraordinary criteria for surf conditions and lineup of household names, have the potential to bring contest surfing to a wider audience.

"Surfing is getting so big, everyone wants to be following everything," said Jeremy Flores, the 2010 Billabong Pipe Masters champ and world title contender. "A lot of people have respect for normal small-wave events; some people have respect for big-wave events. Some have respect for free surfers doing big airs in an empty lineup. Now events have to be in every part of surfing."

The real opening ceremony. Courtesy Hans Aschim

Back at Waimea Bay, the sun was hanging low on the horizon as the opening ceremony came to a close. The heart of the ceremony occurs off the beach, away from the public; only the contest participants and a few photographers are invited out. The 40-odd surfers taking part this year—among the best in the world, past and present—punched through the walls of shore break and linked arms in a large, bobbing circle outside the takeoff point as the swell continued to rise.

At the center of the circle was Clyde Aikau, leading the prayers and rituals. Glances drifted toward the hulking waves, now well overhead and growing. Suddenly Clyde threw up his arms, sending twin splashes into the fading light and starting a chain reaction around the circle. Ceremony complete, the surfers couldn't resist a bit of action, even with the reef nearly sucking dry on the inside and the wax on the board a few months old.

After all, Eddie would go.