Thursday, January 20, 2011
The rumblings started last weekend, when it looked as though a north Pacific storm had the possibility to bring "Eddie-level" surf to Waimea Bay. People started looking at their schedules, moving things around. If it went, many of us would go. Thursday would be the day. Would it happen?
It came. The Eddie did not go. It came close. But thousands of us were there, just in case.
"The Eddie" is the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau surf meet. It is an invitation only event that goes off between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28 if rideable waves of at least 20 feet (Hawaiian scale, roughly 40-foot faces), without tow-ins, hit the outer break at Waimea Bay. It has only been held eight times since it formed in 1986, the last time in December 2009 — and before that in 2004. So when it's called, it's a big deal. Kids skip school. Adults skip work. Those not there are glued to the live broadcast (and now, webcast). Those there count themselves among the luckiest in the world to see true daredevils nose-dive into treacherously steep waves.
The scene on the beach as we waited to hear whether the contest would be called.
I left Honolulu before 5 a.m.; it was still dark when I arrived. I parked maybe a mile away and walked along Kamehameha Highway, enjoying the company of a monster moon throwing silver light off the churning ocean. I wasn't alone: Hundreds of us were shuffling in the moonlit dark toward one of Mother Nature's greatest feats.
The crowd lined both sides of the bay's cliffs — a potential "Eddie" is a big deal.
Near the cliffs that surround the bay, people were camped out in pup tents, wrapped in blankets against the cool pre-dawn air. They jammed the narrow shoulder of land between the highway railing and the cliffside, armed with huge cameras, binoculars and snacks. Down on the beach, families were snuggled together, reporters were broadcasting and recording, and everyone waited for daybreak. The word was spread: Contest director George Downing would make the call whether The Eddie would go at 8 a.m.
Moonlight and, later, sunlight revealed spectacular waves, eliciting gasps of awe. But they weren't coming in often enough. Downing delayed the call until 8:30 a.m. to see if the swell would mature. We had Eddie-sized sets at 7:15, 7:53, 8:15 and 8:23 — and the 50 or so surfers out there made good use of them, their boards knifing downward off the break, like colorful toothpicks dangling off a rising blue wall. Boards went careening skyward during wipeouts. They took off six and seven at a time when the biggest waves roared through. And the crowd went wild.
But the contest runs seven-man heats that last 45 minutes, needing at least four solid sets in that time frame. The decision was announced: Because the sets were not consistent enough, The Eddie would not go today.
The crowd sighed; a man near me yelled "Eddie would go!" We missed out on a rare and glorious event. But then again, the waves were big, the bay was beautiful — no reason to be sad. The Eddie is special because it is rare. It will go another day.
Eddie Aikau was a famed waterman and lifeguard who was lost at sea in 1978 trying to rescue the crew of the Hokulea, a Hawaiian voyaging canoe, which was foundering in a storm between Oahu and Lanai on its way to Tahiti. Aikau, a member of the crew, tried to reach land using his surfboard to alert the authorities. He paddled out and was never seen again. The Hokulea and crew were later rescued.
The phrase "Eddie Would Go" is a popular refrain, referring to his courage and self-sacrifice.