HONOLULU — One of the world’s most prestigious and historic surfing contests is expected to take place Sunday in Hawaii for the first time in seven years.
And this year, the 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, also known simply as The Eddie, is a one-day contest held in Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore only when the swell is big enough during the winter big-wave surfing season from mid- December to mid-March. The wind, the tides and the direction of the waves also have to be the right ones.
“Big enough” means 20 feet by Hawaiian measurements. That equates to about 40 feet when measured by methods used in the rest of the US. Prior to this year, conditions have only lined up for it to be held nine times since the initial competition in 1984.
Organizer Clyde Aikau said at a news conference Friday that he expected waves to reach 25-30 feet by Hawaiian measurements or 50-60 feet on the national scale.
“Yes, The Eddie will go on Sunday,” he said.
Other places in the world have big wave surfing events: Mavericks in California, Nazaré in Portugal and Peʻahi on the island of Maui in Hawaii. But author Stuart Coleman says The Eddie stands apart in the way it honors Eddie Aikau, a legendary native Hawaiian waterman, for his selflessness, courage and sacrifice.
“What makes this pageant so unique is that it is in memory of a particular individual who truly transcended his time and place when he lived,” said Coleman, who wrote “Eddie Would Go,” a biography of Aikau.
Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau rose to fame as the first Honolulu-hired lifeguard to work on Oahu’s North Shore and was revered for saving more than 500 people during his career. He is also famous for surfing towering waves that no one else would dare to ride.
Aikau died in 1978 at the age of 31 during an expedition to sail a traditional Polynesian canoe from Honolulu to Tahiti. Just hours after leaving port, the giant double-hulled canoe known as the Hokulea was swamped and capsized in a storm. 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 rescued the rest of the crew a few hours after being alerted by a commercial airliner that spotted the canoe.
Coleman called The Eddie the best of big wave surfing and the best of Hawaiian culture.
“They always say at the opening ceremony, where they come together to launch the waiting period, ‘This isn’t just a contest. We are not surfing against each other. We are surfing in the spirit of Eddie,” Coleman said.
This year, the organizers have invited 40 competitors and 18 alternates from around the world, including Kelly Slater, who has won a record 11 world surfing titles. John John Florence, a North Shore native who has won two consecutive world titles, has also been asked to join.
Keala Kennelly of Kauai, women’s champion big wave surfer, is among the guests.
Mindy Pennybacker, a surf columnist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and author of the upcoming book “Surfing Sisterhood Hawaii: Wahine Reclaiming the Waves,” said Waimea was long assumed to be too dangerous for women to surf there.
She said that they have had to fight to be included and in the meantime have shown that they can handle big waves in venues all over the world.
“Seeing women, not just women surfing in Waimea, but also women and men sharing the same event together, with mutual respect and equality, I’m really excited about the idea,” said Pennybacker.
The contest is expected to draw tens of thousands of spectators to the two-lane highway that winds through the North Shore and the small towns that dot the coastal community.
Kathleen Pahinui, president of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, said it will be good for businesses, restaurants and shops. She urged visitors to carpool and take the bus because the roads will be congested.
“I wish all the participants the best of luck,” he said.