Waimea Bay on Oahu held center stage in my thinking during the early 1960s. Each photo of that beast made me wonder if I would ever paddle out and face a wave over 25 feet, especially at the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.
I never did, but instead contented myself by riding waves 6 feet and under. While that admission is sometimes embarrassing, I am comforted by the words of a small-wave specialist, the late Miki Dora. “I don’t like being hurt and big waves hurt me.”
During my so-called prime, I topped out at around 10 feet, even then hoping the waves would drop to around half that size.
I did paddle out a couple times when Aleutian-driven swells were devouring large portions of the coast. Once in the lineup, one look was enough to send me paddling back in to catch my breath on the beach.
My closest brush with big-wave surfing was in the early 1970s when I rode vicarious through my then-roommate, Ken Bradshaw. Unlike most of us, Bradshaw quickly outgrew even San Diego’s biggest swells. Still in his teens, he had his sights set on surfing’s mecca, the North Shore of Hawaii.
I had already visited Hawaii a few times when Bradshaw proclaimed that he planned on riding whatever the Islands could throw at him. Turns out, they threw plenty, and he stood tall, riding what was then counted among the biggest waves ever ridden at the time.
He was towed into a 50-foot plus wave far offshore, beyond a Hawaiian break called “Log Cabins.” Other friends of mine to distinguish themselves in big surf were Charlie Walker and twins Michael and Milton Willis.
Over the years, whenever I was in the company of big-wave surfers like the Willis brothers, Bradshaw, Greg Noll, Ricky Grigg or Pat Curren, I became uncharacteristically silent simply because I had nothing to add to the conversation.
The only time I shared the ocean with the aforementioned chargers was when we crossed paths as I paddled in because the surf was getting too big, while they paddled out because the surf was getting big enough.
Few will ever know the rush of dropping into a wave like the ones that creased Waimea Bay for the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. The event is named after legendary Hawaiian waterman and Waimea lifeguard who lost his life attempting to save fellow crew members of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hokule’a.
And so, it seems fitting that Waimea lifeguard Luke Shepardson won the 2023 Aikau event while on breaks from his lifeguarding duties that day.
For reasons I have never understood, Hawaiian waves are measured from the back. By that standard, the waves at Waimea on Jan. 22 of this year were in the 25– to 30-foot range, while wave faces sometimes topped 40 feet.
While I doubt anyone’s comfortable in surf that size, it continues to amaze me that anyone can hold it together, spin around and take off when a set wave capable of destroying a city the size of Honolulu rises to block out the sun.
While all who compete in such conditions are winners, first to sixth place trophies were held by: 1, Luke Shepardson; 2, John Florence; 3, Mark Healy; 4, Bill Kemper; 5, Kai Lenny; 6, Zeke Lau.