(For more background, including my failed attempt to attend the Eddie a couple weeks ago, go here..)
“He was a life saver,” started the announcer when talking about Eddie. “He’s a legend, he’s a demigod. There are so many things you can find in his life and put in yours to make your life better, and we hope that by people watching this live feed and coming here to the bay, they can learn a little from the phrase, ‘Eddie Would Go’.”
Waimea Bay is still considered the premier big wave surf spot in the world. It’s where Eddie saved hundreds of lives, people who would consistently underestimate the pull and power of the waves. It is, essentially, a place where the transcendent is possible, but frailty is very near. A place where a poor Hawaiian boy risked his life daily for tourists who did not understand. And today, it is where man pretends he can be as much at home in the water as he is on land. It is where the organizers and the surfers and the fans watch the weather maps praying for the big, destructive waves.
And this year they have been destructive. Two days ago the North Shore saw possibly the biggest surf that it has ever seen. It has been taking out roads and houses. Even on the way up, spots on the Kamehameha highway spoke to this winter’s unique danger, as the large surf hit my car a couple of times and my tires ran over sand instead of asphalt because of the amount the waves kicked up. I even had to swerve to avoid a few good sized stones that had been washed up on the road.
Surfing is an adrenaline sport, and run primarily by young men who thrive on danger. But it is also run by Clyde Aikau, 66 year old brother of Eddie, who is still surfing the big waves, and who won it 20 years ago. He surfed this year as well, finishing in 21st place; his last Eddie. He, along with the other surfers, believes that Eddie’s spirit is alive and working in the water. The surfers believe that if they are to win, Eddie will send the wave, just like an ocean deity. Perhaps it is a natural progression of a hero who disappeared in the vast Hawaiian ocean with his surfboard, and was never seen again. He must be somewhere, so he will of course be here, where he was most at home, using his influence in the waters where he spent much of his life.
Transcendence is true here, more so than in almost any other sport. Football is man against man, baseball is man against physics, and chess is mind against mind. But it is not true to say that surfing is man against the ocean. It is man with the ocean, part of the ocean, accepting that the ocean might give him the power to master it for a while, or it might not. And if some of the power is not given, the ocean wins every time, often to the point of death. If not to the point of death, then always to injury. Surfers can lift weights and practice underwater and surf until they have done all they can do, but it does not prepare them to be slammed under 40 foot waves, again and again and again.
But Waimea Bay is also a place where Hawaiians are indelibly Hawaiian. Where the preferred women’s outfit for a 2 mile walk and a day at the beach is a long flowing dress and free hair. Where people carry their breakfasts to the beach and those breakfasts are often green smoothies, and the hastily set up food stands only offer organic coffee, and where the spectators lose their slippahs in the waves and it causes them to cheer on the bay even louder. It is where old, shirtless men go out on the roads and paths with old, crooked push brooms to clear the washed up sand off the concrete and where the food trucks are almost exclusively acai bowls, fresh smoothies, and shrimp.
It is so Hawaiian it can make your heart ache with its realness, like all good, exceptionally local things do, like all things when you feel so a part of a place it hurts to breathe it in, to realize everything that has come before you and around you and that it has brought you to this day that you are now a part of, and you know now that you have added to the place, and it has added to you.
On the beach, I did the slow crowd push, where you wait for the person a little in front to move and then you take their place…all the way up to the front, until there was nothing between me and the water, and I was also next to the river mouth where the biggest waves rush through to the Waimea River on the other side. It meant I was also in the place to get overrun when the biggest waves washed ashore, and the announcers more than once asked people to beware; to not get caught underneath something that they can’t control. But, much like the people years ago, no one moved much. Perhaps it means that people don’t change, or perhaps this time it could be excused; we were there to see others in far greater danger than ourselves, and the lifeguards were in full force in their jet skis. So we watched for the big waves and just held up our phones and cameras as they hit us, swirling around us with their agitated foam, as if our electronics were more important than our lives.
The surfers went by to our cheers, to victory and to injury, with our handshakes and shakas as the sun brightened behind us and blew the waves higher and the mists away, and we watched the best surfers in the world struggle to pass the breakers, and the jet skis jump into the air as they hit the big waves, and the rescue helicopters circle overhead, and we breathed it in.
We breathed in this place that lets humans be more than humans, in a sport that was created here hundreds of years ago, that still calls us from around the world to celebrate this vast ocean that we felt on our faces and our feet, and the Eddie competition was far more than we could take in and his spirit was far more than we could ever hope to be.
But for a day, we tried.