Surfing: Waimea's mobile Niagaras kick sand in the faces of legends


When waves larger than houses began pounding Waimea Bay, surfing's biggest names hit the beach determined to be the men who dared tame the monsters. However, the battle with the awesome force that flung itself against Hawaii's coast never got started - nature's power proved too dangerous.

I finally got to see God. Big Wednesday was the biggest day of the winter, bigger waves than anything seen on the North Shore for the last 30 years. It was so big - maybe 40 feet - that all those old reliable epithets - epic, awesome, all-time - feel small and pathetically inadequate to do justice to the full magnitude of this phenomenon.

It was big enough to wash cars off the Kam Highway and flush all the furniture out of one apartment - leaving the trunk of a coco palm in its place - and close Haleiwa harbour. And crucially, after years of waiting, and periodic bouts of scepticism, without question, it was big enough to hold the 20-foot minimum Quiksilver Eddie Aikau big-wave contest. There was only one snag: it was too big.

During the previous 24 hours, Eddie invitees from the mainland and the other Hawaiian islands had been flocking in to Honolulu airport. Shortly before dawn, George Downing, the contest director, called the event on. The buoy readings showed 25-foot-plus waves holding all day. The star of the greatest show on earth, Waimea Bay, was pumping out perfect, mobile Niagaras that started straightening up and feathering a mile out and died, exhausted, in an explosion of whitewater on the beach.

Traffic was backing up all the way to the freeway as thousands of people called in sick to work and cancelled classes and drove up to the North Shore.

Randy Rarick, the senior official, announced the first heat for 10.30 and asked the contestants to report in. But not everyone wanted to report in. "Will Johnny Boy Gomes please report in," came the repeated and increasingly anxious message over the PA. "We know you are in the area." A rumour circulated that Johnny Boy - this year's Pipeline Master - was saying he wasn't going out, no way, not in that surf. Ken Bradshaw, another contender, was throwing doubt on whether those majestic waves were actually makeable. "But the real problem," he said, is how the hell to get out."

Eric Haas, a veteran big-wave operator, had a mind to show how it could be done and he set off for the take-off point at the north end of the Bay.

"That guy is a legend," Sue Stewart, the only woman lifeguard at Waimea, said, "if anyone can do it he can." But he lost his board even before he got off the beach when a rogue wave surged up the river channel just as he was crossing it and blasted him.

The legend recovered his board, ventured down to the edge for a spell, and then backed away again.

Undeterred, the Willis brothers, Michael and Milton, left off the list of starters, signed up to fill any vacancies left by no-shows. "There's no such thing as too big," said Michael. "I pray for it to get even bigger."

Milton already had his game-plan formulated: to sit outside, deep, and wait for the biggest possible sets to roll through. "It's safe out there," he said. The lifeguards, on the other hand, argued that since the Bay was "closing out" - breaking from one side to the other - there was no channel for them to operate their jetskis in. It would be surfing without a safety net.

At 10.30 Downing called the contest off, declaring that "it is too dangerous". The famous motto of the contest, "Eddie Would Go," (i.e. he would paddle out no matter how big the waves) was in danger of declining into "Eddie Wouldn't Go".

"Eddie would not go out in conditions he couldn't deal with," Downing said, defending his decision.

Downing is a laidback philosopher among surfers, who says he is going to write a book one day on patience, but is determined not to rush it.

Milton Willis, frustrated by the call, impatiently strode up the hill to pick up his boards and cut dead his girlfriend, Mandy. "I'm not stopping to talk to girls today," he said. "It's too big. I've got to stay focused."

From a vantage point I saw the two Willises, Cheyne Horan, Sam Hawk, Ken Bradshaw and Dan Moore pioneering a secret outer reef spot in the vicinity of Log Cabins. They were riding waves bigger than anything at Waimea, well into the category which the late Mark Foo described as "the unridden realm", waves of the order of 35 feet and beyond, around 10 metres, tsunami-sized, one of the most powerful forces on earth. The tubing shorebreak alone was about 20 feet high and sending up geysers of whitewater a 100 feet into the air.

Maybe this was the biggest day ever ridden anywhere on the planet. It was humanity playing tag with the infinite. It was the surfing equivalent of putting a man on the moon. I should add, though, that this was technology- assisted. These surfers were relying on jetskis to tow them into position on the wave and tow them out of the way of the one coming up behind.

Meanwhile, back at Waimea, before sundown, one man was determined to make an attempt to paddle in solo, relying on just his arms. The 25-year- old Jason Majors had been warned by lifeguards and hefty members of the Oahu Civil Defence Agency that the beach was now officially closed - off- limits to surfers. But he went out anyway.

This outlaw in baggy shorts made it into the middle of the Bay and then a massive close-out set came through. The crowd gasped as he flew over the lip of a wave pouting like the deck of an aircraft carrier and vanished into the trough. The next time we saw him he was looking over the ledge of another monster and then pulling back. When he tried to take off he plunged straight down into the abyss.

"While he was under water, he said he saw his father - I think he meant God - and himself as a baby," his friend Garrett Macnamara told me.

I could not speak direct to Majors, because he was in the back of a police car. As he staggered up the beach Hawaii Five-0 pounced and cuffed him. "They let him go on the surfing charge," Macnamara said, "but they nailed him around $900 (pounds 562) in unpaid traffic tickets."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Recruitment Genius: Nursery Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Nursery Manager is required t...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Windo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before