A View from the East

Greg Long, making history. Photo: Grant Ellis

Greg Long, making history. Photo: Grant Ellis

I’ve never had the fortune to witness an Eddie Aikau Invitational up close. Never, in fact, had the opportunity to witness the North Shore of Oahu under utter bombardment. As such, I’m very nearly speechless at what I’ve witnessed over the last couple of days.

With what was obviously shaping up as an historic swell bearing down on Oahu, I somehow finagled a free pilgrimage all the way from my home on the coast of Carolina. The chances, it appeared, were at least marginally good that, for only the eighth time in history, that Eddie Might Go. With a massive storm churning over 100,000 square miles of ocean driven to a sea state greater than 30 feet, there was, however a 100 percent likelihood that perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity existed to witness something magical, even mythical. Ther would be waves that would make even the mightiest swells hurled out by the blitzing Nor’easters and hurricane swells of the last couple of Atlantic months seem like ripples on a pond. Waves that would shake the earth and leave even the most jaded Hawaiians howling in amazement. Waves that would turn a skinny, 26-year-old kid from San Clemente into a legend.

At 3AM on Monday morning, I was roused from a bleary, jetlag-fueled slumber by the shriek of a fire alarm at my temporary abode on Kumupali street. There was no fire, but I’m reasonably sure that the alarm malfunctioned because of the heavy mist that hung in the air from detonating swells. Giant, marauding right-handers unrolled at an outer reef that appeared as near as I could tell, way, way, the hell outside of Sunset Beach.

Along Pupukea, the bombardment was almost sickening to watch. Fifty-foot walls of liquid death were bombing the jagged lava reef and exploding in plumes 100-feet high – adding fuel to an ominously overcast. Cars were bumper to bumper along the Kam highway by 7AM, while hordes of foot and bike bound gawkers made their way down towards The Bay. It was a Monday, and no one on Oahu appeared to be at work and no one seemed to give a damn. A swell like this was an unofficial state holiday. Out among the revelers, the famous meshed seamlessly with the anonymous. Occy pushed a stroller along the bikeway with his wife, oohing and ahhing at the explosions. A smiling Buttons bounced along the road towards the Waimea overlook with his infant son strapped into a Baby Bjorn. Flea Virsostko stood alone warily eyeing the waves and shaking out an arm perhaps still not fully healed from the horrible break he endured over year ago. Lord knows what he was thinking.

By 8AM, the fenceline above The Bay was already lined with gawkers while titanic unruly swells lurched onto the reef like drunken sumo wrestlers. Out in the lineup bobbed a surprisingly small cadre of hellmen. It was impossible to tell who you were watching, but for a first time Waimea witness like me, a scene like this was positively surreal. There is no way, no fricking way to adequately put into words what you’re seeing. I’ve been out on the boat at macking Todos and Mavericks, but the scale of this swell, surging and stretching from Waimea, to Outside Alligators and beyond towards the mountains far above Kaena Point, was simply breathtaking. It’s cliche, but it’s a sight you need to see before you die. Trust me.

I spent hours watching surfers, mesmerized, dumbfounded and humbled. A few waves closed out the Bay. One horribly dislocated Tom Carroll’s ankle and broke his fibula. Another set swept a surfer dangerously into the no exit death zone to the east of the guard towers, only the most frantic clawing at the sea saved his ass. Frankly, I don’t see how someone didn’t die.

Out among the beach crowd, I heard a few murmuring questions over contest director George Downing’s decision not to hold the contest. I mean, the waves were titanic and good God, the crowd was there. But Eddie was whispering in George’s ear. “Hold off, brah,” Eddie said. “Just wait till tomorrow. It’ll be magic.”

Downing abided. Eddie smiled, and by seven o’clock on Tuesday morning, it was obvious that the right call had been made. The clouds had been pushed off to the north, seemingly by the strong, chilly breeze that funneled down Waimea canyon and blew a wondrous spray off the tops of groomed lines of mighty swell. The sun soon followed and I don’t know how many thousand sat and stood dumbfounded at the spectacle that followed. How do you even highlight such a day of nonstop highlights? Andy, Bruce, Jamie O’Brien, Ramon Navarro, Kohl Christensen or Kelly Slater’s hideous matador charges for freedom through foaming death slabs of shorebreak? Peter Mel’s vertical hell drop? Glacier gladiator Garrett McNamara’s simple survival of a wicked drop and subsequent pummeling that drove him straight to the bottom? Slater’s his 98 pointer – a wave that would seem impossible to overcome? XXL champ Makua Rothman’s poised, and seemingly impossible drops, or was it the simple fact that at 52 and 60 Michael Ho and Clyde Aikau were redefining what is humanly possible on an aging frame? Shit, I don’t know, because that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what was going on out there.

During the first round, Flea Virostko was liplaunched 40 feet, and piledriven pulling back to give priority to a pair of surfers who had already taken the drop, badly tweaking his neck. I wandered over and asked the three-time Mavericks champ how he was doing. He smiled. “I”m trying to be, maybe a little more cautious than I have in the past. It’s okay to be cautious, you know?” He paused and smiled. “It’s beautiful out there isn’t it?”

By the start of the fourth heat in round one, it appeared that the worries of a few that the swell would drop to a noncontestable level might be warranted. While there were still a goodly number of bombs, some surfers, most notably Greg Long didn’t even get a full wave count. It was easy to write off the kid from San Clemente at this point in particular. I mean, the kid has undeniable credentials – from Dungeons to Mavericks to Cortes, but he had barely even ever surfed Waimea Bay. Chalk this contest, and his one solid score up to a good learning experience. After an hour, it was pretty clear he had no chance.

But Eddie had other ideas for Greg and most of the participants in heat four. From the start of the heats of the second round, it became clear that the surf was beginning to turn. A surge on the buoys began to materialize into astonishing giants which slayed and were slain in equal measure. By the start of the fourth round, The Bay had been transformed. It was now as big as it had been on Monday, but pinch me perfect – colossal, wondrous and terrifying. With the clock winding down, Slater seemed likely to take the crown, while Garcia and Andy Irons were well within in striking distance. But on the beach before the final heat, Gary Linden had offered Greg Long a few words of encouragement and reminded him – “remember, you can still win this. You only need three waves.”

Then kid from San Clemente began a methodical strike. A 77 pointer brought hoots from the crowd on the point, but it was his 100 pointer, a maniacal charge down a heaving mogul field seemed to come out of nowhere. It was a ride I was fortunate enough to have seared into my retinas from a perch at the top of the point. From here, I’ll let Greg’s best friend Grant “Twiggy” Baker tell the rest of the story.

“The Eddie format is fantastic,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like it because it’s not the typical ‘series’ format you usually see, but like the guys say, ‘Eddie will choose when to send the waves and who to send them to.’ Today, Eddie didn’t choose to send Greg waves in the first heat, but the last heat had more waves over 20 feet than the whole rest of the contest. It was Eddie who chose those waves for the last heat. He might have chosen Sunny, Bruce, Greg or whoever to win, but he chose those winning waves to come in the last heat. And that’s the beauty of it. When Greg scored the 77 first off and then had the 55, he still had no chance, and then ‘boom!’ a 100. I looked at the board and said, well, he only needs a 70 to win it. And he still had, like forty minutes to go. Then straightaway, ‘boom’ a ride with 71 points – and he still had a half an hour to go. It’s just unbelievable, unbelievable.”

I’ve had the great honor of getting to know Greg fairly well over the course of the last couple of months. In fact, I’m currently writing a book in which he plays a fairly major role. Greg’s humble, smart, funny as shit and fiendishly committed to becoming the best big wave surfer on earth. His roots in San Clemente and his accomplishments and knowledge as a waterman are in some ways handing him the torch of a West Coast legacy that the Aikau family might well recognize.

I sat frantically typing the keys at a house that contest media organizer Jodi Wilmot had rented above the Bay. Jodi, who spent much of her early life with the Aikaus as essentially an adopted daughter, was finished with her press releases and taking some time to unwind. I asked her what Eddie might think of today’s contest and Greg’s victory. “I think he would have been chuckling to himself and loving it,” she said. “His family was stoked, and in Greg, his legacy is safe.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Chris Dixon is the founder of SurferMag.com and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times.