The High Priests Wore Board Shorts

Don Chapman
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December 16, 2009
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Kohl Christensen is about to take a very hard fall in an early heat of The Eddie

Medical evidence suggests sitting on the beach watching waves breaking on the shore lowers your blood pressure. Such has been my experience.

But such was absolutely not the case last Tuesday at Waimea Bay when The Eddie went off for the first time in five years.

Formally known by a commercial mouthful so ponderous it seems to need punctuation - The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Fueled by Monster Energy (whew!), named in honor of the late, heroic Waimea lifeguard - The Eddie happens at the bay only when wave heights reach a minimum 25 feet. The occurrence of big and clean is so rare, this was just the eighth time in 25 years contest organizers called it “on,” and the first since 2004.

Yers truly had to be there. Midway through the contest, beach announcer Kaipo Guerrero - surveying 20,000 to 30,000 people lined 20-deep on the beach and clinging to rocky cliffs on either side of the bay like so many ‘a’ama crabs - asked, “Don’t any of you people have to work today?” Sitting in the shade of a hau tree, notebook in hand, I thought, “Dude, I am working.”


Of all the displays of nature’s power I’ve experienced that make a person feel puny upon this Earth - volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, blizzards, rains of Biblical proportions and historic floods, house-shaking thunder and lightning, eclipses of the sun - there is nothing quite like massive waves. So big that the first thing you notice is the sound of the ocean, rumbling like thunder, exploding like live-fire ordnance, even the remnants of a barreling shore break creating such compression it reverberates through your bones, sinew and tissue.

The raw power of the sea on such days is a heart-pumper even if it’s limited to just waves - water incited and agitated by faraway storms and winds - that make you gasp in awe.

And then, on the day The Eddie goes, tiny little men on tinier little boards made of foam and resin and decals and hope jump into the ocean and paddle out 500 to 600 yards through freight train after freight train of onrushing walls of water, all for the right to essentially jump off a five-story building with a surfboard. Sorry, Doc, no lowered blood pressure here, just good, edgy excitement churning the innards.

Waves were so huge Tuesday, spectators standing at the top of Waimea’s severely canted beach, 15 feet above the waterline, were sometimes unable to see surfers taking off on waves because their vision was blocked by a preceding wave. Even from the judges’ tower another 20 feet up, contestants were occasionally blocked from view by waves in front.

On a day like this, with both nature and humans showing off, adrenaline hangs in the air like the salty mist kicked up by the constant explosions of sea crashing upon sea, sand and lava rock.

Nine-time world champ Kelly Slater races ahead of this monster wave at Waimea Bay

And surfboards. I lost track, but at least six or seven boards were broken during this year’s running of The Eddie - four just in the third hour-long heat of the day, two of those coming undone beneath the feet of Garrett McNamara. (Fortunately, board “caddies” on Jet Ski sleds rushed replacement boards to surfers who broke one.) And these are not your usual surfboards. They’re longer, thicker, heavier. Halves of one red board hauled ashore were about 4 inches thick. Kelly Slater, the nine-time world champ who finished second at Waimea this time (and won in 2002), has a board he uses only in The Eddie.

Then there was 1990 champ Keone Downing, who wiped out, lost his leash, he said, “and my eyes - my contact lenses got knocked out.”

Packed and ready, I’d left my Kaneohe home seven minutes after the call was made that The Eddie was on. Kaneohe Bay was placid as a pond, but driving up the east side of Oahu - through Kaaawa, Punaluu, Hauula, Laie, Kahuku - the sea grew increasingly turbulent. Here and there were wet patches where an hour or so earlier at high tide waves had thrown sand and pebbles onto Kamehameha Highway.

Turning the corner at Turtle Bay, the North Shore was catching a full frontal assault, and the turquoise sea roiled and frothed, waves crashing in towering white explosions like oceanic geysers.

Finding a parking place at Shark’s Cove - and a legal one, luckily, because HPD officers were going through parking ticket pads the way Garrett McNamara was going through surf-boards - I walked across to Foodland-Pupukea to grab a sandwich (an employee was filling a cooler case with cartons and cartons of fresh sandwiches just trucked in for the expected crush) and a back-up pen (told you I was working). The woman at the checkout counter shook her head and laughed the laugh of a woman who is not really amused when I said, “Kind of busy today, eh?”

Adrenaline hung in the air Tuesday like the heavy sea mist

“Busy?” she replied, blowing bangs off her forehead. “We’ve never had anything like this!”

Outside, throngs of people on foot and on bikes - I didn’t realize that many cruiser bikes existed on the entire planet! - made their way along the bike path toward Waimea, ecstatic pilgrims in sandals on their way to the mecca of surfing, passing cars that inched along the road bumper to bumper, called ever onward by the throaty roar of the sea and of early arriving spectators. In ancient times, Waimea was such a sacred place to Hawaiians it was known as The Valley of the Priests of Priests. On this day, the high priests wore board shorts.

The beach was a patchwork of towels and blankets and mats and lava-lavas arrayed across the sand, hem to hem, with no exit aisles. (Spectators may have set some sort of record for saying, “Uh, excuse me,” light-stepping as if through a maze to get to a lua or find a friend.)

And the beach scene was buzzing with a positive vibe, as if everyone there was grateful to be experiencing such a glorious day at the beach, such epic surf and such ridiculous displays of courage and cojones.

But there was also an undercurrent of menace - these guys were literally risking their lives. Prayers were whispered.

Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, although the day before, with waves huge but sloppy, former two-time world champ Tom Carroll of Australia broke an ankle in a wipeout, which left his foot “flopping around” at the end of his leg. Talk about a goofy footer. The worst injury Tuesday seemed to be to Brock Little’s elbow. Coming down a sheer face, the nose of his board pearled (dug into the water), slowing him, and the wave “ran me over,” he said, knocking him to the bottom where his elbow banged a coral head and opened a cut. That may be the most amazing aspect of the 2009 Eddie - 28 surfers, eight hours of surfing on raging monster waves, and the worst injury is a scraped elbow. High priests, indeed.

Clyde Aikau drops in on a sheer face as another competitor avoids going ‘over the falls’

No, I take that back. The most amazing thing was seeing Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s kid brother by three years and the winner of the second Eddie, in 1986, out there in the lineup, still competing at age 60 and taking the drop down those treacherous faces. Clyde and I are, shall we say, contemporaries, and the graying dude finished ahead of relative youngsters Keone Downing, Michael Ho, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, Brian Keaulana, Rusty Keaulana and Pancho Sullivan. I have a new hero.

(Yes, head-jarring as it may sound, the “Eddie Would Go” icon, who was lost at sea in 1978 while paddling for help when the sailing canoe Hokulea was floundering in wild seas off Maui, would be 63.)

In the end, the winner’s check went to 26-year-old southern Californian Greg Long, a guy who lives out of his van so he can chase the biggest waves on a moment’s notice, and as a boy dreamed of surfing in The Eddie. On his first try, he got the win with a perfect 100-point ride in the last heat to overtake Slater, on a 50-footer, the biggest wave of the day.

It was a wave, said Sunny Garcia, who took third place, “I didn’t want ... He’s crazy.”

Which of course he meant as a compliment.

Who knows when the next Eddie will happen. Twice the contest got the go in back-to-back years - 1985 and ‘86, 1999 and 2000 - but there was once a 10-year hiatus - 1990-‘99 -and then the just-ended five-year furlough. But whenever the call may go out for the next Eddie, I hope ol’ Clyde is in the lineup, and I’m on the beach to see it.

Until then, The Eddie of ‘09 will forever be a day not just to remember, but to savor. Because this is as fantastic as life in these Islands gets.


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