Free. W i l d. Magnificent.
And we are talking DRaMaTiC surf — upwards of 40 ft waves, complete with currents and rip tides, both turmoil and power, amidst the stunning beauty and absolute peril. Rest assured - it is world class expert surfers only - the rest of us would surely be maimed or killed in short order.
Many an over confident swimmer has been rescued by the life guards despite warnings EVERYWHERE not to swim. One such life guard was Eddie Aikau, who in his 9 yrs as a life guard made over 500 rescues, with not one failed attempt. Eddie is a legend in these parts.
Late this February, February 25 to be specific, I was lucky enough to be in Oahu when a happenstance opportunity arose on the way to the north shore....'the Eddie', as it's affectionately called, surfing competition was announced, out of the blue. And by 'the blue' I mean markers deep off shore measuring the height of swells, predicting when and where breakers upward to 40 ft(I heard rumoured peaking out at 50 ft) will arrive at shore for, you guessed it, the world renowned surfing competition-- the Quicksilver, much better known as 'the Eddie.'
Winner takes home 75 000 US. Sounds sweet, but I ask you this, do you risk your life daily to make your annual salary? Because that IS what it takes to paddle out to what seems to the gob smacked onlooker, certain death. Lifelong strong swimmers swear up and down they would NEVER enter that water. And, as a recent front row observer of all----although undeniably impressive to behold, it does seem purely insane to do so. I believe the expression ''bat shit crazy'' just might have originated here.
Now understand, this competition has been cancelled many a time because waves are not high enough. To run the Eddie, waves must be consistently over 20 ft high. Hence the wild blue yonder markers calculating swells. We are talking falling off your board to an oft 25-30 foot drop, (like from a four story building batman,) with a punishing wall of crushing water coming down on you as you ''land''.
And we watched enraptured, with thousands of other thrilled avid fans crowding Waimea Bay, not wanting the day to end. First to get there, winding down narrow north-shore roads, police flagging traffic through, no stopping, no gawking, cars parked for miles. Leaving before dawn we arrived to the throngs- many who camped out on the beach all night to be there...now 80 degree heat by 8.30 a.m., deafening waves crashing at shore, punishing sun.
It is hard to perceive the vertical walls of turquoise blue water. Your eyes play tricks and want to see it as a horizon. It only becomes clear when at times you would see a cluster of tiny men bobbing up 30ish feet, and when one finally risked catching a wave—they looked like leggo figurines dwarfed by the magnitude of the turbulent sea. Sometimes your view would be blocked by the enormous wave cresting in front of them.
'Yes, it's a competition but help each other', was the Aiken family reminder at the opening ceremony, as that helping hand, is the true spirit of Eddie. Hawaiian identity and the movement for native sovereignty is imbued within this competition although not as evident on the spectacularly entertaining day. The historian, Isaiah Helekunihi Walker identifies a “culture of respect and exchange” on the beaches of Hawaii. * Eddie grew up a poor kid living in a graveyard with his large family. But ocean life, swimming and fishing were a break during these difficult days. Eddie's future could be different. Eddie could make a name for himself by holding his own in ocean breaks. Eddie's father knew this and encouraged him to learn surfing. This also led to his eventual livelihood as a lifeguard. Highly contrasted to the outward life of heroics he led, Eddie was known as a deep, shy and quiet person.
It was during the thriving Hawaiian renaissance movement during the 1970's that his fate was set. Protest banners that decry ''illegal statehood'' were part of the Hawaiian protest of militarization and war, celebrating instead indigenous art and traditions like hula, all attempts to preserve the culture. Eddie embraced it. As such, he embarked on a voyage on a Polynesian vessel named, Hokule'a, one of the most visible symbols of this cultural and political movement. * His death came from trying to rescue the crew from its' capsized fate as they were sailing to Tahiti on what was to be a 28 day voyage. Instead, the boat hit a storm and soon capsized in a maelstrom; and after hours with 16 crew clinging to the side of the vessel, terrified, fatigued and seasick, Eddie finally convinced the captain to let him paddle his surf board to shore, approx 20 miles away, for help.
Eddie died heroically trying to save the crew. He must have believed it was their only chance at survival. Ironically, the 15 remaining were saved by the US coast guard, with only Eddie perishing, although never found. Eddie is cherished as a rare and special human especially by the surviving crew.
Apart from his role as a life guard it seems Eddie was a much larger guardian of the life spirit itself.
Eddie Aikau is a well loved figure as proven again by the outpouring of support for Eddie's brother Clyde—now 66—also entering the surf like a practised Trojan warrior. In this case of course, a true Hawaiian warrior. Although Eddie's tale ends tragically, it is his fearless, generous, warm spirit that lives on infused through this crazy ass phenomenon know simply as 'the Eddie', with the defining mantra phrase ”Eddie would go...”, coined out of his fearless and compassionate spirit and legacy.
I am most grateful for the sheer dumb luck enabling me to be present at this auspicious event. It felt like an enormous gift mother nature simply blew into town for us and all that attended. This is only the 9th Eddie in 31 years due to the strict wave criteria. To be there, is to be a part of a life force energy to be reckoned with... infectious, mesmerizing, courageous and yes, reckless.
--but what is life without risk?
The trick, as demonstrated by these surfers, seems to be a heady mix of preparation, training and practice meeting passion, a lust for life, awareness, a dose of crazy and of course, the final act of courage. Carpe Diem. Courage, the mastery and grace of riding one's wave, (whatever your own 30 ft challenge might be) side by side with your heart in your throat. SURF's UP!
What will you ride?
[In memory of Eddie and many other beloved special spirits we have all known and been touched by, may we always remember to help and inspire each other throughout our lives and for some, even long after their death.]
- Thank you to conversations at a dinner party hosted by Andrea Corwin in Oahu, feb 27
- Eddie is Gone, Believer mag.com-Nicole Pasulka (historical context)
- Quicksilver.com /Eddie would go—(fact checker)