HONOLULU – One of the world’s most prestigious and famous surfing competitions is expected to take place Sunday in Hawaii for the first time in seven years.
And this year female surfers will compete alongside the men for the first time in the 39-year history of The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.
The event – alternatively known as The Eddie – is a one-day competition held in Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore except when the surf is consistently high during the winter surf season from mid-December until mid-March. The wind, tides and swell direction must also be just right.
“Big enough” means 20 feet by Hawaiian measurements. That equates to about 40 feet when measured by methods used in the rest of the U.S. Before this year, the conditions have been aligned just nine times since the inaugural tournament in 1984.
Organizer Clyde Aikau said at a news conference Friday that he expected waves to reach 25-30 feet according to Hawaii measurements or 50-60 feet on the national scale.
“Yes, the Eddie will go on Sunday,” he said.
Other places around the world have big surfing events: Mavericks in California, Nazaré in Portugal and Peahi on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. But author Stuart Coleman says The Eddie is distinguished by how it honors Eddie Aikau, a famous Native Hawaiian waterman, for his selflessness, courage and sacrifice.
“The most unique thing about this tournament is that it’s in memory of a special person who transcended his time and place when he lived,” said Coleman, who wrote “Eddie Would Go,” Aikau’s biography.
Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau rose to prominence as the first lifeguard hired by Honolulu to work on Oahu’s North Shore and was credited with saving over 500 lives during his career. He is also famous for surfing high waves that no one else would dare to board.
Aikau died in 1978 at the age of 31 during a trip to sail a traditional Polynesian travel canoe from Honolulu to Tahiti. Just hours out of port, the large double-hulled canoe known as the Hokulea took on water and capsized in stormy weather. Aikau volunteered to paddle several miles to nearby Lanai Island on his surfboard to get help for the rest of the crew but was never seen again.
The US Coast Guard managed to rescue the remaining crew a few hours later after being alerted by a commercial plane that spotted the canoe.
Coleman said The Eddie represents the best of surfing and the best of Hawaiian culture.
“They always say at the opening ceremony, where they come together to launch the tenure, ‘This is not just a competition. We are not surfing against each other. We’re surfing in Eddie’s spirit,” Coleman said.
This year the organizers have invited 40 competitors and 18 alternates from around the world, including Kelly Slater, who has won 11 world surfing titles. John John Florence, who hails from the North Shore and has won two back-to-back world titles, has also been asked to join.
Keala Kennelly of Kauai, the women’s surfing champion, is among the women invited.
Mindy Pennybacker, surfing columnist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and author of the upcoming book “Surfing Sisterhood Hawaii: Wahine Reclaiming the Waves” said Waimea has long been thought to be too dangerous for women to surf there.
She said they had to fight to be included and in the meantime she showed they could handle big waves in spots around the world.
“To see women — not just women surfing on Waimea but women and men sharing the same event together, with respect and equality — I’m really happy with the idea,” Pennybacker said.
The competition is expected to attract thousands of spectators to the two-lane highway that runs through the North Shore and the small coastal towns.
Kathleen Pahinui, chair of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, said it will be good for businesses, restaurants and shops. She encouraged visitors to carpool and take the bus because the roads will be congested.
“I wish all the participants the best of luck,” she said.