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The Great Outdoors

Local Lifeguard Wins Big-Wave Surfing’s Most Prestigious Competition

Hawaiian surfer Mark Healy rides a wave during The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational surfing contest on January 22, 2023, at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by Brian Bielmann / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by BRIAN BIELMANN/AFP via Getty Images)
Brian Bielmann/AFP via Getty Images

As the organizers of the famed Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, better known simply as the Eddie, say, "The bay calls the day." The elusive big-wave surfing competition is not run on a fixed schedule, because clean 50-foot monster waves don't emerge from the Pacific on a predictable basis, and the last time everything lined up for an Eddie was in 2016. Organizers scheduled a 2023 edition on Jan. 10, sending the best big-wave surfers in the world scrambling for Oahu, only for wind conditions to force them to call it off at the last second. Everything finally lined up this past Sunday, and local lifeguard Luke Shepardson took the unlikely win over some of the biggest names in surfing.

When the right swell hits at the right angle, the abrupt ocean floor rise on the surface of Waimea Bay produces enormous cliffs of water. A wave with that degree of verticality essentially eliminates the surfer's margin for error. Charge in too soon or at too precipitous of an angle and you're going to fall five stories and smack into the concrete-like water surface; go too shallow and you'll get churned into the maelstrom and pressed down under the water.

North Shore local Mason Ho went out into the swell on the original Eddie date and left with a gash in his leg from his board's fin. He wasn't going to miss the real thing, though. Competitors and fans alike dropped everything to participate in only the 10th Eddie ever held. (I particularly enjoyed this series of interviews The Inertia conducted with people who camped out overnight to catch a glimpse of the competition.) Some of the 60,000 fans who showed up paid inadvertent tribute to the competitors by getting wiped out by huge waves.

Brian Bielmann/AFP via Getty Images

Each year, 40 big-wave surfers are personally invited by Eddie Aikau's brother Clyde after being voted in by their peers. They attend an opening ceremony in early December to mark the opening of the three-month competition window, and they must be prepared to show up on Oahu on relatively short notice. This year's competitors included surfers from Brazil and Italy, and for the first time in Eddie history, six women.

The participants included many of the biggest names in surfing, including Kai Lenny, John John Florence, and Keala Kennelly. The prestige of the field makes Shepardson's victory all the more impressive. The 27-year-old North Shore lifeguard competed during hour-long breaks from his job, returning to the tower in between heats and assisting with some of the 64 rescues performed during the swell.

A person who spends his days saving beachgoers and surfers from the North Shore's monster swells is as aware as anyone of the perils of big-wave surfing, and it's fitting that Shepardson won the competition named after perhaps the most famous lifeguard in history. Eddie Aikau was a legendary Hawaiian surfer and the first lifeguard hired to work Oahu's North Shore, a post from which he rescued over 500 people. In 1978, he joined a crew attempting to retrace one of the most remarkable migration events in human history and canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti, though the boat capsized. The rest of the crew was eventually rescued after being spotted by a commercial airliner, yet Aikau was lost at sea while trying to bravely paddle the 12 miles to Lanai to seek help.

Six years after his death, the first Eddie was held. The seven-year gap between the 2016 and 2023 editions is the second-longest in Eddie history. Here's a highlight reel from the competition, and below is the best pair of waves from Shepardson's winning sets.

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