High rollers sweep in and pollute the memory of Eddie

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The Independent Online
Big Sunday, with its festival of big waves, is meeting the big money. The mixture does not seem to work.

I was supposed to be going to church. But I succumbed to the ancient pagan rituals on the beach. It was Big Sunday at Waimea Bay. The much trumpeted 25-foot swell finally pulled in to North Shore Grand Central.

Unfortunately, it timed its arrival for midnight. By dawn, it was down to a marginal 20. The "Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau" big-wave contest, honouring the legendary surfer and heroic Waimea lifeguard, and which stipulates day-long 20-foot-plus conditions, was put back on hold.

This didn't stop about 40 guys paddling out and a huge crowd of spectators watching them at this Coliseum of surfing, as massive breakers rolled in, reared up, and toppled over in a fury of white water. The air was heady with the optimistic scent of wax, but the beach was littered with broken boards. Two jetskis were fully employed ferrying back in a lot of dreamers. Maybe half of the pack were just there to be able to say, "Yeah, I was there".

Although Waimea retains its mythic status as the holy of holies among North Shore breaks, the Bay was being outgunned by the outer reefs, the cloud-breaks like Phantoms and Revelations, where solid beyond-Eddie-sized waves were breaking all through the afternoon. The Willis Brothers, Michael and Milton, board shapers to the elite big-wave aficionados, were towing- in far from the madding Waimea crowd, beyond Backyards, and getting more barrels than a beer truck.

It was too good to last. Before noon, the big money turned up, in the shape of Team Quiksilver. Suddenly, from being Walden Pond with waves, it was more like a Hollywood film set. Two helicopters, a couple of Zodiac boats, nine state-of-the-art waverunners, and about a dozen cameras, not to mention eight or nine of the best surfers in the world had dropped in to commune with nature.

A lot of the Eddie invitees were there, having flown in from other islands, California and Australia to be here for the big day. But the fact is that the Willis Brothers, North Shore veterans who haven't been given a shot by Quiksilver, were more than matching them, wave for wave. One of the Quiksilver crew, being paid a bundle just to be there, took off on a particularly heavy wave, but pumped for the shoulder, while Milton Willis aimed straight for the most dangerous core of the wave and made it out again.

There was one big name who didn't even come close and didn't go back out after lunch. Local knowledge and experience were pre-eminent. But when the pictures and the video come out, I guarantee it won't look that way: global media expertise will win out.

That episode dramatised what has become the problem with the Quiksilver contest: its selection procedure. This is the only contest of its kind in the world, and merely to be in it, let alone win it, is a massive status symbol. And yet the criteria by which the invitations are handed out remain clouded in secrecy. Just as at Waimea on Sunday, of the 24 full-on contestants and their 24 alternates, maybe only 50 per cent would be beyond dispute. As for the other 50 per cent, it is possible to imagine other names, with a greater claim.

The truth that almost no one in Hawaii dares to speak is that the winners of the only two previous completed contests over the last few years are likewise compromised. The first winner - Clyde Aikau - is the brother of Eddie. The second, Keone Downing, is the son of George, the director of the whole event. While both these surfers may indeed have surfed the most radical waves on the day, the fact that they took part let alone went on to win has aroused suspicion. To put the case at its least sensational, selecting and judging are insufficiently transparent: justice is not being seen to be done.

"The whole thing is a sham" is Milton Willis' more dramatic way of putting it. "The concept is fantastic. I don't question the idealism or the memory of Eddie. But let's take the sheepskin off the wolf here - people are being duped."

Quiksilver sportswear stand to make an immense amount of money out of this event, even though it happens so rarely. The North Shore is quick to criticise what they see as minimum investment, maximum hype.

Tellingly, two of Quiksilver's living legends are flying out to Australia, despite promising lows stacking up all the way to Alaska. One of the sceptics spoke for a large constituency when he said that "Word is they don't want to have any part of the monster swell that's coming."

Big business and big waves don't mix.