INTRO: Honoring the formidable and wickedly talented women who choose to pursue big wave surfing as a career is no easy task. These females are some of the most powerful water athletes on the planet and they are charging boundaries that, until now, have been dominated only by male surfers. In recent years, there have been serious inroads made into this hallowed ground by a small, but fiercely competitive pack of women who are making their presence known in giant surf. At long last this year, at the 34th annual Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational held at Waimea Bay, with the buoy reading 29’ at 19 seconds on the morning of January 22, 2023, six women invitees and their six alternates were invited to paddle out with the men for the first time in this time-tested and world renowned surf contest. It was quite a day.
The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, held at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu in Hawaii is commonly referred to as "The Eddie” and is one of the most prestigious big wave surfing competitions in the world. It’s also known as “The Super Bowl of Surfing,” and is named after the first lifeguard on not only Waimea Bay, but the entire North Shore. Eddie Aikau was a legendary, fearless Hawaiian surfer who charged some of the biggest waves and saved over 500 people in his short-lived 31 years.
In 1978, Aikau was part of a crew on a traditional Hawaiian canoe called the Hokule’a, sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti. Aikau was serving as the navigator and lifeguard on the Hokule'a's maiden voyage which was intended to replicate the ancient Polynesian voyages that first settled Hawaii. When the canoe encountered rough seas and began taking on water, Aikau put himself at risk in order to protect the others by paddling away on a surfboard to seek help, hoping to reach the island of Lanai which was the closest landmass. However, he was lost at sea and never seen again. Sadly, even a massive air and sea search was unable to locate him, and his body was never recovered. His disappearance has become part of Hawaiian folklore.
The idea for “The Eddie” surf contest was first proposed in 1984 by the Aikau family and their close friend and fellow surfer, Mark Foo, as a way to honor Eddie's legacy and showcase the skills of Hawaii's incredible big wave surfers. Much like Eddie himself, the competition was created to be unlike any other at the time. In order to receive the green light to run, it was to be held in the largest waves possible with 20-foot waves as the minimum height. The Eddie has only been run 10X since its inception back in 1984, and each subsequent year everyone waits with anticipation to see if Waimea will deliver a big enough swell. The most recent contest was held this year on January 22.
2023 was unlike any of the previous nine competitions at Waimea Bay. Historically, only men had been invited to The Eddie, but this year six women also received the call to compete among 40 of the most elite big wave surfers in the world. Paige Alms (Hawaii), Makani Adric (Hawaii), Keala Kennely (Hawaii), Emily Erickson (Hawaii), Justine Dupont (France), and Andrea Moller (Hawaii) received this historic invite to compete alongside the men.
The Eddie contest is known for its intense and dramatic moments with surfers often putting their lives on the line in pursuit of the perfect wave. Waves on Waimea Bay can reach up to 60’ in height during the contest, and the competitors must be able to navigate these treacherous waters with skill and bravery.
“Our family has a very spiritual connection to Waimea Falls and the valley going back 150 years," says Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother, 73, and Director of the Eddie Aikau Foundation. "So the whole connection, the whole spirit, the whole mana energy was immense this year. Everyone, even those not living here, could feel it. It was just tremendous. To see the women walking out onto the sand with their competition jerseys on was truly amazing. Then, on top of that, the waves provided that day were out of this world!”
The women did not disappoint. From enduring gnarly crashes to charging epic 50 plus footers, this group of heavy lifters surfed themselves proud right alongside the men in front of a crowd of 60,000 rowdy, charged-up fans.
“Eddie would be very proud of these women, and he would want them to be out there.” Eddie Aikau’s wife, Linda Ipsen states. “Clyde was the one who said we would start inviting women, back when the family took over the management of the contest in 2017. It was Clyde who said we need to get the women out there! And so Keala Kennelly was the first female invited in 2017. Unfortunately the event was canceled that year due to the late withdrawal of the lead sponsor. After that, the Aikau family started looking at all the women big wave surfers to see who might be invited. That’s when it all came together, and we're very grateful and proud of all the surfers. They are all fabulous athletes and deserve this recognition.”
There was one commonly held belief by all the competitors, not just the women, in the 2023. That to be invited was one of the biggest honors you can receive as a big wave surfer.
“If you get invited to The Eddie, there’s no way you are going to say no,” states Andrea Moller, a professional big wave surfer from Brazil, who moved to Maui in 2002 to pursue her dreams as a professional water woman. When not in the water, Andrea is also a paramedic, coach and mom.
“When you get invited to this contest it’s because of your life achievements. We all appreciate being invited to be a part of the event. From the six of us to each alternate who was chosen, we all absolutely want to give credit to The Eddie Aikau Organization for including us this year. This was the first big step for women’s big wave surfers,” claims Moller.
Moller brought her own 19-year-old daughter Keala Bouwens, and one of her surfing students, 16-year-old Chrislyn “Sissie” Simpson-Kane, to witness history in the making. The two groms also held the prestigious job of being her board-caddies. “You’re really going to go out and surf that?” Sissie asked Andrea in awe of the size of the waves that morning at Waimea. Andrea has been coaching Sissie in big waves for years and wouldn’t have let her miss this event for the world.
“To see the women paddling out that day was a monumental feat, " remembers Clyde Aikau. “Let’s put it this way, Kelly Slater came up to me that morning and said, ‘Uncle, I'm not feeling it today. There's a lot of water moving out there, Is it ok if I give my slot to the alternate?’ I said, ‘No problem.’ So, put it in that perspective. The world's greatest rider didn't feel comfortable paddling out, and yet all the girls went out. It was immense.”
2023 wasn’t Keala Kennelly’s first invitation to The Eddie. “I was the first woman to ever be invited back in 2017, but the event wasn’t run until this year due to a lack of significant swell.” In the intervening six years, five more women were added to the invite list which shows how far women have come in the world of surfing. And that made this year’s event even more special. It was one of the biggest honors of my life to compete in The Eddie,” says Kennelly who is a Hawaiian surfer who has been competing in big wave events for over a decade. She was the first woman to win the overall title at the Big Wave Awards in 2018, and has surfed some of the most challenging waves in the world, including Teahupo'o in Tahiti and Mavericks in California.
When asked about the contest Keala recalls, “I had mixed feelings about surfing in heats with the men. On the one hand it was very motivating to be out there with the best male big wave surfers in the world, and they were very supportive and encouraging. On the other hand, it made it almost impossible to get the best waves because the boys were always on them.
When the event was over, they announced the winners (who were all men) and brought them up on the stage, but there was no mention of any of the women athletes. I honestly think that was just an oversight. The event has been run the same way each year, and I don’t think it even occurred to the organizers that the 60,000 person crowd and everyone watching online would have liked to see some kind of acknowledgement of the women and who were the top scoring female athletes in this event,” says Keala who placed third amongst the women riders that day..
Clyde says he made the decision regarding the heats. “The women were treated like every other contestant in the water,” he stated. “They weren't treated special, even though it was monumental to be a female and surf in the event. My approach was to treat them like anybody else. There were a couple of contestants, legitimate male big wave riders, that never caught one wave that day and I think all the girls caught at least one. I know Paige Alms caught three.”
These women inspire not only local Hawaiian surfers, but girls, women and people around the globe. The size of the waves, whether watching from shore in person, plus their formidable power is almost impossible to capture on a television or mobile device. There is something about being on the sand, feeling the spray, hearing the pounding of the surf. To witness the energy and the height of those waves is indescribable.
Even Clyde Aikau, who grew up watching the waves at Waimea remembers the sight of the first heat being called into the water for this year’s competition. ”To see the women out there, just paddling out, was a monumental feat. The biggest obstacle in surfing Waimea Bay, everytime, is the shorebreak. If I can get past the shorebreak, I can ride the waves no matter what. But getting through it is a battle. All of the women and all of the men did a great job with that this year. It was impressive.”
The 2023 Eddie was like being a part of history for these women, an “honor”, a “challenge” and “a day we will never forget”, said Paige Alms, the women’s first place winner. She remembers her last heat of the day. “It was like the glistening, beautiful sunlight out of a movie, and the waves were just pumping. The last person out in our heat was Ross Clarke-Jones, (Men’s 10th place winner). I mean seriously, how old is that guy? “ Paige laughs. (He’s 56, he’ll be 57 June 6th, 2023.) “I’m like where do you come from, just out of nowhere, full send!? He caught this wave with Uncle Mike, this huge set and they party waved it together. Then it was just wave after wave, pounding after pounding and he just kept charging.”
“And then there’s Luke Shepardson,” continues Almes, “The Waimea lifeguard who’s performance got him a 10 point ride in the final. He got a 9 and a 10 in that heat! I was paddling back out when he got the biggest wave, and it was just incredible. I’ve seen a bunch of clips of him, and I’ve seen him surfing, but that particular wave was just amazing. To see this underground guy just fully send one of the biggest waves of the day in the final heat - in my heat! - was really cool.. As he paddled back everyone’s like, “Sick one Luke!” and he smiled and just calmly said, "Hey, thanks!” I’m like, “Luke! That wave was freaking HUGE! You got chip shotted into that one!” He laughed and was like, “Ya, I got into that one really easy. It was awesome!” Paige said to herself, “I want one of those'', just as Shepardson was thinking, “I gotta get back to the lifeguard tower and back to work.”
Paige continues, “The whole experience, getting to take it all in with my husband, Sean Ordonez, and having my mom there with me, I thought, wow, this is The Eddie. I’m really proud of myself.” Winning first place for the women in this day of days on Waimea Bay, Paige Alms should be proud.
Even Kai Lenny chimed in about the significance of these women competing in the largest waves on the planet alongside the lineage of men who have - up until now - made up the narrative of big wave surfing. He says, “Every session of every season the women are pushing the limits of what they’ve done before. I believe The Eddie was the culmination of everything they’ve done leading up until now. I have a feeling they will be reaching new heights like never before next winter.”
It seems, with the help of the Eddie Aikau Foundation, we’ve unleashed the dragons.