Today is about as unwelcoming of a day as you can get in Hawai’i. That is, unpleasant, but not downright unfriendly. The waves crashing along the 7 Mile Miracle of the North Shore are undoubtedly treacherous for inexperienced surfers. For the Big Wave professionals invited to the Eddie Big Wave Invitational, though, it’s a “fun-size” day— 6-to-8-foot faces jumbled by side-onshore winds and swirling rip currents gaining power thanks to a double hit of North-Northwest angled swells from the Pacific.
By tomorrow, these waves will have doubled in size, becoming even more intimidating to a novice surfer. The magic of big waves is a product of synthesis: swell, wind, and tide. Tomorrow will not bring the meteorological magic needed to run the Eddie, but it brings a thrumming energy to the air— “This year might just be the year”. The year last came in 2016. That’s because The Eddie, the world’s most renowned Big Wave surfing event, doesn’t run unless the swell readings are 20 feet or larger with a good direction, clean winds, and consistent waves. Because of these exacting standards, the Eddie has only run 9 times over the span of the last 3 decades.
I arrive at Waimea Bay early, to settle into the space and moment. I walk through the tents down to the water. Thick slabs of ocean open wide and crash upon the shore. A few brave kids are splashing in the shore break, body surfing and paddling into angry closeouts with smiles on their faces.
Joy and faith express themselves differently in each of us. In Eddie, it was faith in himself and faith in the pure pursuit of Big Wave surfing. He didn’t strive to compete; he strove to become the greatest he could. He was the first official lifeguard of Oahu’s North Shore. Over the course of his lifeguarding career, he saved 500 people, and not a single life was lost while he was on duty. He won lifeguard of the year in 1971, and regularly paddled into 30+ foot waves. Eddie was a pioneer in uncountable ways, but he always maintained grace and humility. Few of us will ever rise to the degree of sacrifice, conviction, and legacy that Eddie did.
In a podcast interview, gold and silver Olympic medalist Laurie Hernandez said,
The beautiful, and sometimes sneaky part of legacy, performance and super-human-“ness” is that it places people beyond us. It can have the effect of putting people at a distance, making us lose sight of just how profoundly human that person is.
I walk back up to where invitees, alternates, family members, and volunteers are gathering. Myra Aikau, Eddie’s sister, chats with the ceremony MC while Clyde Aikau gets the posters organized. Volunteers set up near the entrance are testing any unvaccinated participants and checking people in. It seems the weather understands that this year is different. We all wear masks, and despite it I recognize the premier athletes as they’re entering: John John, Eli, Keala, Kai, Justine…the list goes on.
These people, my own personal heroes of surfing, are standing right here, celebrating a man and history that surpasses each of us as individuals, a man who personified what we all, I think, wish to become in our own ways.
The sky hasn’t opened up, and a weighty blanket hangs above all our heads, seemingly cradled by the Waimea Valley itself. Covid precautions have made this year’s ceremony much smaller; it is intimate yet distanced due to regulations. There will be no band afterward, no buffet-style meal. That piece of community, that important practice of sharing a meal together, cannot happen this year. It’s almost as if the weather knows this and, to assuage that sadness and loss, has made itself disagreeable, coaxing each of us back home with its inclemency.
All of us—spectators, media teams, and family members—assemble while the participants sit on chairs evenly spaced apart. The opening prayer begins, then the blessing, and then Clyde begins calling the invitees up to speak.
Keala Kennelly is called, near the end. She stands, holding the mic and shares,
Eddie Aikau transcended what it meant to be human. He charted uncharted territory and headed, smile-first, into the dangers of the unknown. “Eddie would go” because Eddie did, and he kept going. It’s part of why his legacy has persisted for so long: his faith in human ability to transcend who we are so we can become who we are meant to. Because heroes, real-life heroes, lead us by example. We love our heroes because they are masters of themselves and their shortcomings. They do not hide from themselves; they show up fully and completely to rise to the challenges of life.
We understand that we likely won’t ever measure up but, I think, they also show us we are not so special as to be entirely without meaning ourselves.
There is good to be done.
There is life to be lived, waves to be surfed, love to be shared, and good to be done.
Heroes are not inhuman, in fact, they are the purest expression of what it can mean to be human, and that is why we love and need them. We need heroes like Eddie to remind us of how much can be possible when we embody our humanity.
Eddie unravels the mythology of surfing in the sense that he was so especially human. Because to call him inhuman gives us permission not to rise to the occasion of life ourselves. We are not separate from Eddie as much as we are consistently striving to be more like him.
Kohl Christensen, when it’s his turn, walks up and says, “It’s not just a surf contest, it’s a celebration.” And it truly is.
Big Wave surfers are a league of their own, but they are not a separate breed. In the saltwater, these humans place themselves at the boundaries of human limit. Eddie kept putting himself there, on that outer limit. Eddie would go. Polly Ralda rises to speak, saying,
We have finished with the introduction of each invitee and alternate, and a closing prayer is spoken. The contestants, Clyde Aikau, and anyone else with a board ready themselves to paddle out. Each board, laid out in rows at the outskirts of the circle, lies waiting and ready to return home.
I happen to see Clyde break away from the pack faster than the rest of us. His black board shorts look even darker in the gloom, contrasted with the bright white plumeria lei around his neck. His massive board is bright red, long, sturdy, and almost visibly hungering for a wave.
He stands at the edge of the shore, watching the waves come in, as he has done thousands of times before, surveying the sea and its power. Surveying the place where his brother rests. I can’t possibly imagine what’s going through his mind, but I hope deeply it is peace, joy, and a memory of his brother sliding down a massive wave with a smile on his face. Clyde rushes forward, diving in and scrambling through the shore break. He heads out towards the horizon to start the circle.
Everyone else makes their way down the beach in a stream of colorful polyurethane, sweatshirts, cameras, and tī leaves.
Mason Ho laughingly shouts, “I’m not paddling out over there, I’ll get wrecked.” It’s a playful joke, within a crowd of elite athletes, to cop to the potential danger. But there is always danger, and Mason’s utterance, however lighthearted, touches that raw nerve of awareness of human limit: no matter how experienced we are, no matter how brave and prepared, the ocean does not discriminate. Even someone like Mason Ho can get hurt. Even someone like Eddie. The ocean takes, seemingly indiscriminately, because it is a power so far beyond human comprehension.
We can’t seek to overcome it, only to push ourselves within it. That’s why I love the ocean so much, and I wonder if maybe Eddie and I have that in common. If maybe, whether you’re a decorated athlete or a beginner, that’s something all us surfers can share.
Each invitee heads toward the water’s edge. Each of them takes their moment of pause and reflection at the water’s edge, as they have thousands of times before. Each of them is waiting for the right moment, based on the internal metronome all surfers have.
One by one, they shiver their shoulders, pick up their boards, and go.