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."