Surfing: Big-money incentive for winter wave-fest

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In the first of a weekly series from Hawaii, where the giant Pacific swells have been made even more explosive by El Nino, Andy Martin (above) eyes the $50,000 prize-money for the person who rides this winter's biggest wave

Eyeing the 8ft 6in tri-fin board I carried over my shoulder, the baggage inspection woman at Honolulu airport said to me, "You here to shoot for the $50,000?"

"It's as good as in my pocket," I said, slipping back into the local Hawaiian dialect, an exaggerated variant of positive thinking. In fact, I had no idea what she was talking about. But it didn't take long to find out.

An hour away at the opposite end of Oahu, the $50,000 (pounds 30,000) prize- money put up by K2 - a mainland sports accessories company - for whoever rides the biggest wave had hit the North Shore with the force of a tsunami. It has become the hot topic all along the 12-mile strip of sand that, for a couple of months every year, becomes the most intense place on the planet, short of a war zone.

The Hawaiian islands are essentially a bunch of volcanoes poking up out of the middle of the Pacific. These are mostly extinct, but the seas here remain eruptive. Hawaii hoovers up huge swells, driven by storms thousands of miles away to the north, which smash into the lava rock, trip up, slip over, and transcribe the mightiest liquid geometry in the world, waves the size and ferocity of dinosaurs, that come here to die and don't mind taking a few humans with them.

Winter on the North Shore is always a wave-fest. But this year, with El Nino adding its touch of hyperbole, the season is liable to see the swell of the century. In most places around the Pacific, people fear the impact of El Nino and see it in terms of nemesis and apocalypse. Not in the upside-down realm of the North Shore though, where extreme weather is embraced like a saviour.

And this is one reason why K2 have launched their Biggest Wave initiative this year: big suddenly got bigger. This is by no means the only big wave show in town. The Pipeline Masters, the climax of a year-long world-round professional circuit, is happening in December.

And we are now in the waiting period for the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau contest, which can only take place when the waves hit a 20ft minimum at Waimea Bay. But there is no question that K2, with their man-against-nature rather than man-on-man format, has stolen the limelight this year.

"It's open and it's objective," said Milton Willis, who has thrown his name into the K2 hat, and as one of the most experienced big-wave men around - riding an 11ft 7in Willis Bros "Phazer" roughly the shape of a church spire - has to be reckoned a major contender. "It's a fantastic opportunity for all those people who haven't had a venue before - the unsung guys without rich sponsors."

Whereas in other contests the field is selected according to criteria that always arouse dispute, in the K2 the players are self-selecting: only the most serious big-wave hunters are going to be in the running. The other object of surfers' wrath is the judge on the beach who watches the waves through binoculars and, whatever he decides, is invariably accused of bias. In the K2, the winner is decided on the strength of photographs of the man on the wave. Hence there is another $5,000 in the pot for the man who takes the winning shot.

And pictures never lie. Or do they? There is widespread anxiety here about the scope for electronic enhancement. There is a recently published book about Jaws (the now legendary big-wave spot on neighbouring Maui) in which - according to North Shore rumour - the surfer has been shrunk in order to amplify the apparent size of the wave itself. K2 have therefore specified that there have to be witnesses too, as well as dates and times and places so as to check the wave off, with some measure of scientific credibility, against the relevant weather charts.

There remain, however, dissenting voices. Gary Linden, president of the Association of Professional Surfers, describes K2 as "not an event at all, but a very shrewd publicity stunt". Ken Bradshaw, who has muscles the way a fish has scales, condemns the whole thing as "ludicrous and dangerous - it's going to pull in all the kooks who shouldn't be out there." The lifeguards are worried they're going to be working overtime ferrying in the corpses of kids hungry - too hungry - for their moment of glory.

Michael Willis, the other half of the Willis Bros team, who plan on splitting the $50,000, dismisses that view. "It's always the experts - the most experienced, the guys in peak condition - who drown."

It's true that coming back to the North Shore, even after a short time, is reminiscent of the relativistic spaceman paradox: a lot of the people you used to know are dead and gone. This year it was Ted Deerhurst, last year Todd Chesser and Donnie Sutherland, and the year before Mark Foo - all of them elite big-wave riders, all of them ashes sprinkled on the breaks they loved and that finally killed them.

In a reaffirmation of traditional paddle-power, K2 prohibits the use of the tow-in technology which has recently opened up some of the more monumental offshore breaks. On the more permissive side, K2 is not restricted to a particular spot, but includes the whole of the northern Pacific in its ambit. This has thrown into sharp relief the struggle for pre-eminence between Hawaii and the West Coast. So far Mavericks, south of San Francisco, is claiming the biggest waves - 20ft plus - and they have the pictures to prove it. The West Coast reckons to have had five 15-plus days to Hawaii's two.

But this winter's game - the quest for the biggest wave - has barely begun. And the Hawaiians don't appear too worried (they hardly ever do). There is always another monster swell on the way. "Andy," said Michael Willis, "this winter you are definitely going to see God. Trust me."