By Lauren Rolland

When it came to surfing, for Eddie Aikau it wasn’t about the competition. It wasn’t about gaining notoriety. It wasn’t about talent and style. Surfing was about a connection to the ocean. It was about the line that was drawn from his ancestral roots to the peace and pride that was found on a wave. As quoted in Sam George’s documentary, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, “A Hawaiian’s place was in the surf.” Surfing was one of the last traditional arts that the Hawaiian people practiced, and when Eddie surfed, it was a revival for his people.

Eddie was lost at sea in 1978, during an act of heroism on Hōkūle‘a’s voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. On March 16, the double-hulled Hōkūle‘a set sail with Eddie and a team of navigators on board. It was a stormy day, but nonetheless hundreds of friends, family and community members gathered to see the ship off. It was an exciting bon voyage event that celebrated the culture and tradition of the Hawaiian people.

eddie-aikau-2Before even leaving the warm waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, the voyaging canoe developed a leak in one of its hulls and later capsized twelve miles south of the island of Molokai. Crewmembers floated for hours in the open sea, not knowing when – or if – they would be found. Eddie, being a strong waterman and hero by nature, made a decision to seek help. He paddled toward the island of Lanai on a surfboard, away from the floating people and debris, in a valiant effort to save his fellow crewmembers. That was the last time anyone ever saw the Hawaiian.

Hawaii, and more namely the local surfing community, was suddenly hit with the loss of a legend. At that time, Eddie was considered a representation of surfing for the Hawaiian athletes, and a figure for bravery in the waters of Waimea. Eddie and his brother Clyde were the first official lifeguards on the North Shore, notorious for never losing a life on their watch at The Bay. But it wasn’t until after his passing that Eddie Aikau became the international icon of righteousness, compassion and commitment that he stands as today.

The man is remembered as different things to many different people – big wave surfer, brother, son, lifeguard, voyager, hero, Hawaiian. It is through this legendary presence that The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau event was established.

The 2015-16 season marks the 31th anniversary of The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau. Known as the most important and respected big wave event in the world, The Eddie is only called on in the most pristine and worthy of conditions. This includes waves that meet a 20-foot minimum height (40-foot faces).

Over the past 30 years, there have been a total of eight champions that have claimed the prestigious title. This means that over the past 30 years, the contest has only been called to run a total of eight times.

“The Bay will call the day” is the phrase coined to the decision-making process of whether or not The Eddie will run. Event directors, surfers and organizers know that even though they may make the final call, it’s not the people who dictate if the contest will take place.

Many claim that it’s up to Waimea Bay, and whether or not the ancient ahupua‘a will bring the waters, waves and weather necessary to uphold or exceed the conditions from the previous contests. Because it is rare for the conditions to come together, The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau maintains its integrity and exceptional reputation.

“I think what makes each year special is you never know what you’re going to get. Mother nature decides,” says big wave surfer and Eddie invitee Kohl Christensen. Fellow North Shore charger Mark Healey adds that, “It’s very, very difficult to get a big swell at Waimea that is Eddie worthy. More difficult than any other known big wave spot.” Any good surfer knows that Waimea Bay is a fickle wave, and only works on rare occasions. “The kind of window you need, the kind of interval, the direction… it’s a rare beast when it comes alive,” remarks Healey.

In 1984, the inaugural event was held in Eddie’s honor at Sunset Beach. Oahu surfer Denton Miyamura was the first to win The Eddie, which solidified his name forever in the history books of surfing and the winner’s circle of the influential event. Denton took home a $5,000 check for placing first in the 6 to 8 foot conditions at Sunset. The following year, The Eddie as we know it today was solidified.

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Greg Long’s winning wave, 2009. Photo: Mike Latronic

Denton recalls that, “the excitement of the new contest dedicated to Eddie Aikau had all the invitees stoked and pumped to win it.” The win was Denton’s best result as a professional surfer and the highlight of his surfing career. “Being 1 of 8 champions for the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau makes me feel like the luckiest guy in the world!” he says. “The Duke Kahanamoku Invitational was just cancelled the previous year, so winning the inaugural Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau was a dream come true.”

After the first event at Sunset, for the following season it was decided to move The Eddie to Waimea Bay. It is here at The Bay that the contest has taken place seven more times. But it’s not the 6-man, hour-long heats or big wave battles that evoke the spirit of Eddie Aikau. Those blessed to have known the waterman can agree that surfing, in Eddie’s eyes, was never about the competition.

“You have to remind those guys why they’re there,” says George Downing, Hawaiian big wave pioneer and event director. “We let them know what the importance is… remember who the man was,” George continues. “The man wasn’t about surf contests. He was about taking care of one other and the ocean.” So from the inaugural event in 1984 to today, the opening ceremony has become the true revival of Eddie Aikau.

“Eddie is best remembered throughout the opening ceremony, when his story is told again and again,” says Mark Healey, who has been an invitee of the event for twelve years. “Hawaiian history and Hawaiian knowledge has always been oral… it was never written down,” he adds.

Each year the Aikau family, Quiksilver and event organizers get together to plan a memorable opening ceremony to respect and honor Eddie. The story is retold and the memories flood back. The opening ceremony is reminiscent of a Hawaiian storytelling gathering – the spoken words are the imagery while the natural land is the backdrop. “Everything about this event – when it runs, the opening ceremony, the entire process – it’s always in remembrance of Eddie and his way of life,” says Healey.

On February 21 in 1986, The Eddie was held for the first time at Waimea Bay after Denton Miyamura’s win at Sunset Beach. It seemed only fitting that Clyde Aikau, younger brother of Eddie, Waimea lifeguard, bloodline to Kahuna Nui HewaHewa – Hawaiian caretaker of the Waimea ahupua‘a – should win. And on one of Eddie’s boards too.

Clyde and Hawaiian surfer Mark Foo were tied at the end of contest, but Clyde won on a wave-score countback in the 20-foot surf. Throughout the years, Clyde has continued to compete and perform well in The Eddie competitions, placing fifth in 1990 and tenth in 2001. In 2002, the Hawaiian surfer placed eighth at the age of 52. Clyde attributes his knowledge of surfing and Waimea big wave riding to Eddie, and returns every year for the opening ceremony to honor his brother.

1989-90 was the season that Keone Downing, son of George Downing, nabbed a crazy Waimea tube ride from Brock Little on a board his father shaped. Keone became the third champion to ever win The Eddie. With a perfect wave score, Keone recalls what that day and win felt like. “It was an honor to go out and surf in the name of Eddie Aikau, one of Hawaii’s top watermen.”

That year, wave heights reached 25-foot-plus, upholding the epic conditions from the two years prior. “I remember the year I won, I watched Richard Schmidt free fall, his eyes the size of silver dollars, because he was floating and just hoping he was going to stick back onto the wave face,” Keone describes.

Aside from his year of triumph, the renowned big wave rider describes other memorable waves from the 30 years of The Eddie. “I’ve seen all kinds of rides,” Keone begins. “One year I went on a wave… just tumbling and spinning like a pizza dish… and I watched Bruce Irons behind me.” Keone continues, “I’ve seen Kelly Slater get in a barrel that closed on him, and he popped out the back like it was a 6-foot day.” Keone and his father are living legends as big wave riders, and George continues each year as contest director. It’s his decision as to whether or not Waimea’s conditions are worthy enough for competition.

2014 Opening ceremony. Photo: Tyler Rock

2014 Opening ceremony. Photo: Tyler Rock

In 1998-99, at the age of 25, Hilo’s Noah Johnson became the youngest surfer in the event’s history to win the title. On New Year’s Day of 1999, Noah sealed the win in 25-foot conditions and his mark in big wave history.

Noah flew in the night before from the Big Island, rode a 9’6” Bradshaw surfboard, caught one of the biggest waves of the day, (estimated to be over 25 feet), won $55,000 and bested Australia’s Tony Ray, who took home second place and $10,000.

2000-01 saw Australia’s Ross Clark-Jones become the first international surfer to win The Eddie. Held on January 12 in 20-foot-plus surf, Ross’s name was etched in surfing lore as he became the sole Australian to take the Quiksilver In Memory Of Eddie Aikau title to date.

Clearly leading the event, Ross Clarke-Jones had a total of 319 points by the end of his two-round performance (each wave could score a maximum of 100 points, for a possible total
over four waves of 400 points). The Australian finished in first ahead of second place winner Shane Dorian (292 points), Paul Paterson in third (283 points), Ross Williams in fourth (280 points) and Kelly Slater in fifth (270 points).

In 2001-02, Kelly Slater, the most accomplished competitive surfer in history, solidified his supreme status outside of the world tour, surfed phenomenally in the waves at Waimea and won The Eddie title on January 7. Conditions were immaculate – blue Hawaiian skies and smooth faced waves in the 20 to 30 foot range. At the time, Slater had six world titles under his belt and was just one month shy of his 30th birthday.

An interview published online by Transworld Surf in 2002 documents Slater’s win. “I’m shaking,” said Kelly after realizing the victory was his. “I don’t even know how to take it… I thought it would be close but I didn’t expect the win. I’m just going to have to sit back and think about it for a while.”

In the 2004-05 season, Kauai’s Bruce Irons took the title on December 15. This marked Bruce’s second year as an invitee, and despite his comparatively little experience riding the waves of Waimea, the athlete dominated his heats and put on a performance that many would describe as mind-blowing. Bruce posted the two highest wave scores of the day, which included a perfect 100 on his final ride of round one and a near-perfect 99 on his final ride of the second round.

Bruce’s victory came with the 20th anniversary of The Eddie. At 25 years old, the surfer was one of the youngest athletes to compete that year. But the win was every bit Bruce’s, as he closed the event with a perfect 100 and a ride all the way to shore.

“Seeing Bruce on the Eddie invite list was awesome,” says Big Island pro Shane Dorian, who has been invited to The Eddie since he was 19. “I don’t think he had ever surfed Waimea when he was invited, and yet I knew he would kill it,” Shane describes. “That huge one he rode and then packed the shorebreak closeout was so raw. Just no hesitation and enjoying the moment and making the massive crowd so stoked.”

The most recent champion of The Eddie is California big wave surfer Greg Long. It was December 8 during the 2009-10 season. Massive 25-foot swells marched through The Bay. Greg pulled out two of the biggest rides of the day in the final heat of the contest and bested Kelly Slater for the title. The most prestigious win of his big wave career, Greg is back again this winter in hopes of defending his title.

North Shore freesurfer and Eddie invitee Jamie O’Brien says that the year Greg won was most memorable for him. “The waves were so big, and the thing about it was it just got bigger and bigger throughout the day,” Jamie describes. “I was watching 25-foot waves come through The Bay that were just so perfect. I got to see Greg Long’s winning wave, I got to surf with Andy Irons in my heat, I shared some really cool experiences with Kala (Alexander) and Twiggy (Grant Baker) and Michael Ho… it was that intenseness that brought the happiness out of everyone that day.”

The variety of wins and waves make each year unique and anyone who’s been present at one of the eight competitions can attest to it. The winners blessed enough to claim a title seem both overwhelmed and humbled by the experience. Keone Downing describes how the champions are chosen: “The winner basically comes about by Eddie deciding, it’s the guy who is living up to his values in the water that day,” he describes. “A lot of times, people can get distracted with the “I” instead of the “we” and I think Eddie watches the “we”. That’s why there’s been so many different winners.”

Eddie is relived each year on the North Shore by family, friends, fans and the world’s best big wave riders. But this event isn’t about the competition. It isn’t just about big wave surfing. It’s about spirit, integrity and upholding the honor and prestige of Eddie Aikau’s legacy. “It’s about camaraderie,” says Garrett McNamara. “Heart,” says Kohl Christensen. “Commitment,” says Mark Healey. But perhaps the most poignant description of all that embodies what The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau means is Big Island big wave surfer and Eddie invitee Aaron Gold’s illustration:

“Pono. Pono means everything is right and in its place and where it needs to be. It sums up everything Eddie would have done… in the water, in any situation, in heavy situations… Pono is doing the right thing at the right time and sacrificing whatever needs to be sacrificed.”

The ocean was a spiritual place for Eddie. It’s where he went to find peace in life and where he found peace in passing. The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau will always remain a symbol of the Hawaiian waterman – Eddie’s spirit and legend lives on today.
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