The Eddie was epic by all accounts. There has been bigger days when one giant set rolled through, but no day was as consistently big with near perfect conditions all day. Clyde Aikau, Eddie's brother, said that in his 40 years of surfing Waimea, this is the best it has ever been.
I arrived at my grandma's house at 2am to meet up with my uncle, George Kam, who works for Quiksilver. I made sure to get there a little early as I didn't want to make them late. But in true Hawaiian-time fashion I was the first one ready. We made a few stops picking up supplies before heading to pick up George Downing, Big Wave pioneer and contest director for the Eddie Aikau.
We arrived at the humble Downing compound located in Aina Haina with Keone Downing smiling ear to ear. The afternoon before had swells tracking on the buoys that were too big, then too small, then too big. Now, at about 4am, it was just right. He knew that we would have 8+ hours of perfect conditions.
Earlier in the month, the Eddie had been called off the day of the event, sticking to the strict criteria of 20+ feet (Hawaiian Style) of Waimea long enough to last 8 hours of surfing. They had caught flak from what George Downing referred to as, "non-believers," who felt there were swells and conditions well enough to hold the Eddie. The last Eddie was in 2009 and many feared that this year's contest window would close yet again. But this time around, they knew this swell would show why you had to have patience.
We split up in three separate cars, loaded up George Downing, and headed off to Waimea. Everyone was anxious to get to the bay and see the ocean conditions first hand. As we made our way to the bay, Glen Moncata, The Eddie Event Director, called with great news, "The waves washed up all the way to the scaffolding."
As we drove into the North Shore, we could see the mist in the air and sand on the road by Laniakea. It was still only 5am yet cars lined up all the way past Chun's reef while spectators walked along Kamehameha highway towards Waimea Bay.
We pulled up to the restricted parking lot and straight to the Quiksilver tower in which George Downing was going to watch over the event. "Today will prove who the best waterman is in the world." And with that, Uncle George reclined and took a nap. The bay had called the day.
I couldn't even sleep last night I was so amped up for the Eddie, yet with a few hours before the first heat, he was able to doze off. It must've been the years of big wave surfing Makaha that made this a walk in the park.
George gained his notoriety as one of the original Hawaiian big wave pioneers. Introduced to big wave surfing by Wally Froiseth, George became a master of the ocean. He had an analytical mind, studying tides, reef formations, swells and board designs.
"I had a way of separating fact from fiction," He said after the Eddie was pau, "this one guy told me that Hawaiians used to surf banana trees. I knew enough of shapes and designs to call bullshit" Taking a long pause he continued, "but I said, 'I'll test it. I told him, 'I'll take a banana tree in the water and try it out.' I took it to Pupukea tried paddling it all around. By the time I came out of the water, the leaves were all over. I told the guy, 'I held up my end of the deal, now you clean this up.'" I asked George, "Did the banana tree even really float enough to surf?" "Fuck no!" was the response coupled with laughter.
It was a funny story but showed how an analytical mind led him to become a true big wave pioneer. In those days, He'e Nalu, literally meaning "wave sliding," had to be rediscovered after an oppressive ban from missionaries that attempted to destroy Hawaiian culture. As ridiculous as surfing banana trees sounded, it needed to be tested.
As the event neared, George Downing awoke to his son, Keone, holding the Judge's meeting. It had been discussed that they wanted today to be as "pure" as possible. Watermen must be able to paddle through the giant white water and into the lineup. The surfing was only one part of the equation.
Next, Keone reminded the judges that "suicide" drops should not score as high as a successful drop and ride to completion. If you get wiped out, even if it was a monster wave, you shouldn't get the max score.
The first heat was set to start at 8am, with each heat lasting an hour. Over the next 8 hours, surfers charged. It was simply nuts. Watching guys charging 20+ feet (Hawaiian Style) walls like Kala Alexander gets you amped up the same way a championship fight does. It's that fine balance between great risk & great reward that makes you feel alive.
As surfers passed our tower, they'd turn to Uncle George and give him a thumbs up. Clyde Aikau waved to George and said, "I'll catch a big one for you!" Then they'd go into the shorebreak to battle the white water that protected the lineup.
John John Florence was able to lock in the $75,000 check after overtaking Ross Clarke-Jones with a few clutch monster waves making him, at 23 years old, the youngest ever to win. The final results had Shane Dorian in third, Jamie Mitchell in fourth, Kelly Slater in fifth, and Makuakai Rothman in sixth.
After the awards ceremony we hopped back in the car with Uncle George. He wanted to hang out a little bit more before heading back to town. At 87 years old and having been up since at least 3am - he was obviously exhausted, yet he still wanted to soak in the day. Surfer after surfer came up to his window, shook his hand, and said thank you for paving the way for Big Wave surfing.
At one point George said, "Who is that guy leaning against the tree?" It was a guy who claimed to know George Downing from delivering Clark Foam to his shop off of Waialae. He was obviously intoxicated and looked a little ragged from the day of drinking.
He came up to the window and introduced himself in long slurred sentences, saying that he had delivered foam to Uncle George. George thought he might have been a higher up dealer and asked if he had paid him a fair price. The delivery guy then corrected George and said no, "I was just a delivery guy, I only delivered the foam."
An aunty interrupted and said hi to George Downing and gave him a kiss. After she did so, George immediately said, "Sorry about that, continue, where were you?" He asked him, "Did I treat you fairly? Did I treat you with respect?" Even though the delivery guy had a few too many he remembered clearly, "You and Ben Aipa were always so cool! The other guys, not so much" With that George responded, "Thank you."
After the Clark Foam guy left, Uncle George said, "It's always important to make sure you treat people fairly and with respect." That's what he was most concerned with, he could have easily blown this guy off, especially when the aunty came in to say hello. Instead he apologized for the interruption and asked him to continue making sure that he had treated this guy fairly. Even as a "surf god," Downing still respected the delivery guy just as well as any other person.
Finally we loaded up and said our goodbyes, one last time. We pulled onto the highway and rounded the top of the Bay. From the top we could still see the walls of waves rolling in, "It was a great day," George said. We asked him, "but was it the biggest?" "Fuck no!" he replied. "There have been bigger sets but not a bigger day, right?" we asked. A simple "yes" was his response. We all laughed, it was the age old surfing tale about which were the best days.
As we passed by the pineapple fields and Waialua Coffee trees, an exhausted George Downing broke the silence, "Imagine when this gets all developed."