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Pacific heights: North Shore of Oahu hits the jackpot

Waimea Bay's waves are legendary but yesterday brought the biggest swell in years and a dramatic surfing contest. Andy Martin reports from Hawaii

What's happening?" yelled a woman leaning out of a gridlocked car. "Waves – huge and incredible waves!" replied one of the thousands of spectators lining Waimea Bay on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. "Awesome!" said the woman.

For once that adjective really was justified. The "Eddie" was finally happening. The "Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau" to give it its official title is a big-wave surfing phenomenon that takes place only when the waves at Waimea Bay remain at a sustained 20ft-plus (measured Hawaiian-style from the back of the wave, or 40ft from crest to trough). The last time it happened was in 2004. Until yesterday. It is less a sporting contest than a riotous celebration of a freak of nature.

The Hawaiian islands poke up out of the Pacific. Every winter, storm-generated swells spin down out of the north and collide with volcanic rock and reef to throw up giant waves. Every so often – 1969 was an instant classic as was 1998's "Big Wednesday" – the North Shore of Oahu hits the jackpot.

This is one of those winters, combining an El Niño event with a typhoon that originated somewhere up near the Aleutian Islands. In Hawaii, where surfing was invented, big is beautiful. Waimea Bay used to have a monopoly on big waves. Now tow-in surfing, where the surfer is "towed" by jet ski to the wave, has opened up "outer reefs" and still bigger waves like "Jaws" in Maui. But the Bay, as they call it here, a natural arena, remains unsurpassed for drama, theatre and intensity.

There were police signs flashing along the Kamehameha Highway warning: DANGEROUS HIGH SURF. But news of the huge swell had flashed around the globe, attracting surfers from as far away as Brazil and Japan. In Hawaii schoolkids play hooky en masse when this happens. Grown-ups down tools and head towards the North Shore. Many were camping out on the beach or sleeping in cars for miles around.

On the beach as the contest finally got under way yesterday after days of anticipation and wave measuring, I ran into a bunch of soldiers from one of the local bases with their distinctive buzz cuts and way of sunning themselves and yet remaining at attention at the same time. "That is insanity!" exclaimed one of them as another gigantic wave exploded in the impact zone. "I wouldn't go out there." He was reluctant to give his name or serial number. "To be honest with you, I think I've gone AWOL," he said. One of his comrades said: "You're looking at a deserter right there!"

One way and another we were all deserting. But we were answering a higher call. A couple of Californians, both called Josh, had responded to the internet drums beating. "There was a lot of purple, man!" said one of the Joshes, who put his job at Facebook on hold to come over. He was referring to the colour of the satellite charts that indicate waves in excess of 30ft measuring the back of the wave.

"It's been hyped," said the other Josh, "but it's still bigger than anything I've seen in California."

Captain Cook first arrived in Hawaii in 1778 during the period of Makahiki, a season-long festival and holiday and religious ritual. This great tradition has carried right through to the present day in Hawaii. When the big waves hit Waimea Bay it's like midsummer at Stonehenge. Here the myth of great foaming monsters rising up out of the sea becomes real. Not to mention young men – and occasionally women – going out to do battle with them.

The Eddie Aikau event was named after the native Hawaiian and iconic Waimea lifeguard who sacrificed his life, paddling away on his rescue board to find help when the Hokulea, a Hawaiian-style double-hulled canoe, went down in a storm on a voyage to Tahiti. The contest slogan, "Eddie Would Go" i.e. he would go out and surf regardless of how huge and gnarly the surf, has become a synonym for heroism and bravery. The Eddie contest has become a source of pride among Hawaiians. "This is the wildest thing I've ever seen," said Amelia, who lives up in Pupukea Heights on the cliffs that hang over the Bay close to the ancient Hawaiian temple or heiau where people still go to pray for big waves.

Mark Foo, a famous Waimea surfer who drowned in 1994, is now an "honorary invitee" of the Eddie. His sister, SharLyn, runs the Backpackers Hostel and argues that the waves and the Eddie have helped to invigorate an economy in the doldrums. "In November Backpackers was virtually empty", she said. "Now I'm full to bursting."

Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic though. Surfers excluded from the 28 who are official "invitees" bitterly dismiss the event as a "circus". Some locals object to the chaos and the crowds and the traffic snarled up half-way to Honolulu and the tourist coaches offering "Obama Presidential Tours". One local resident says the very name Eddie Aikau fills him with "horror". But he also paints portraits of surfers resembling gods. A British surfer, the late Ted Deerhurst, once said surfing at Waimea is like jumping off the top of a three-storey house – and then having the house chase you down the street.

The Bay has seen its share of death and disaster alongside all the epic exploits. Yesterday lifeguards, buzzing around on jet skis, and a search and rescue team with two helicopters, have been kept busy. Tom Carroll, an Australian surfing champion, was due to compete but he crashed out early with a shattered ankle.

"Sunset Suzy", who was watching as another surfer was being dragged towards the rocks known as "Coffin Corner", said, "This place is like a Coliseum". And there is a certain undeniable excitement in the "wipeout" as the riders are thrown – sometimes brutally – from their chariots. The Mark Foo memorial at Waimea Bay carries this epitaph: "To get the ultimate thrill you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price."

The writer is a fellow of the Cullman Centre at the New York Public Library and the author of Stealing the Wave