Eddie Went: Big Waves at Waimea Bay, Oahu

“Why aren’t you boys at school?”

The chatter, which had been building to a noise as full as the packed bus, comes to an abrupt halt. Everyone turns to stare at the driver who stares at the two kids’ guilty faces – then releases the tension with a cackle.

“Get in,” he laughs.

The sound builds up again, but the driver’s on a roll; he’s got our attention and he’s milking it.

“You all know that this bus is going away from Waimea Bay don’t you?”

No one’s falling for it this time. This journey has been planned—for years by some—there’s no making mistakes. The bus carries on along the road to Waimea. Everyone’s talking to each other, friends and strangers alike. Passengers who began the journey over an hour ago ask if it has been confirmed yet—they left Honolulu early in blind hope—we tell them that yes, it was confirmed at seven this morning: for the first time in four years, only the eighth time in history, The Eddie is on.

Big Wave Surfing at The Eddie

Big Wave Surfing at The Eddie

As we drive on up the Kamehameha Highway our bus makes a turn that lends itself to a view of the sea. We see the waves. Again the packed-in passengers are silenced, but it is a different kind of silence: almost reverential. Just look at those waves.

It is the waves that make the event so rare: every year there is an official holding period for The Eddie, or “Quicksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau,” but for the event to take place the waves have to reach a worthy height: open-ocean swells must reach a minimum of 20 feet; a 20 foot swell equates to a wave face of around 30 feet. We are talking giants.

There is no official date for the competition; it just gets called if and when the forces of nature make it happen. The best surfers in the world are handpicked and flown in to compete; the rest of us, well, we just have to hope to be there the year it happens. I don’t know what it is like to practice the patience required of the event, or to experience the hope and disappointment that it necessarily brings most years; I arrived on Oahu a few months ago, got riled up by the Triple Crown of Surfing events over the past few weeks at Haleiwa and Sunset; by rights I should not have the fortune to see The Eddie in my first year in Hawaii, but there it is. I’m taking it; I’ll probably never get another chance. Right place. Right time.

The bus is slowing to a crawl as we turn along the coastline at Haleiwa. We are in bottleneck traffic, being passed by cyclists and fast moving walkers with cameras around their necks and determined expressions on their faces. Drivers have given up, abandoned their cars by the side of the road and set out on foot. Our driver grumbles about the cars blocking his bus stops.

While a local man patiently explains the rules of the competition to a middle-aged tourist from Iowa, a group of college kids have a proposal:

“Let us out here!” One of them yells to the driver, standing up tall to reach over the heads of the passengers pressed up against him.

The bus driver grumbles and tries to hold on to us, he wants to feel part of it too; he doesn’t want to be stuck in the traffic, craning his neck for a view with no one to crack jokes with, but we all pile out, wasting not a moment as we pick up the pace and begin to speed walk, dodging slower walkers, cyclists and cars. Anxious to find the best spot, we all hesitate at every gap along the road: “should I stop here, or will there be a better spot farther on?” I keep walking, determined, all the way down to the beach where I mould my body into a small space, careful not to obstruct anyone’s view. I sit in the spot for hours, ignoring thirst, bladder and potential sunstroke. I just can’t take my eyes of it, I have never seen anything like it in my life: I am watching these men ride mountains. It shouldn’t be possible, but there it is.

It is at the closing ceremony when Eddie’s sister and brother make a speech that my over-whelmed and open-mouthed sense of wonderment turns into understanding. This isn’t just about super-heroics, big-brand sponsorship and thousands of dollars in the prize purse. It is not even just about “the greatest exhibition of surfing” as the announcer says before introducing Eddie’s family to the stage. The Eddie is about respect. The event was created to honor a man who in turn honored his heritage. Eddie Aikau was a much-loved lifeguard here at Waimea Bay, and of the world’s greatest big-wave surfers. As Waimea’s first lifeguard, Eddie saved countless lives; giving rise to the expression heard all around Oahu: “Eddie Would Go.” If a life could be saved–even if the waves were so dangerous that no one else would–Eddie would go. In 1978 he was selected to be part of a crew that would sail from Hawaii to Tahiti in an ancient Hawaiian voyaging canoe, using traditional celestial navigation. The crew set sail on a stormy afternoon; the canoe sprang a leak and capsized in the Molokai Channel, around 12 miles from Lanai. With only a lifejacket and a few oranges strung around his neck, Eddie bravely set out on a board to paddle to the island and raise a rescue. He was never seen again.

Eddie’s sister Myra says that she is so proud to see the respect given to her brother. I believe that everyone here feels it; almost everyone on Oahu is here today for Eddie. As I turn away from the beach, knowing that it will be a long, difficult journey home, I reflect on my luck in sharing this moment, completely undeserved, and I think about Eddie. I’ve seen some of the world’s bravest athletes risk their lives today, and every one of them did it in the memory of Eddie Aikau.

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