Beyond the always crowded parking lot. Past the sticks of showers circling the public restrooms. Far to the south of the command center that is the lifeguard tower in the center of Waimea Bay is a rock jutting into the ocean at the edge of the beach. It’s more than twice my height and where I wanted to be to photograph the surf rolling into Waimea Bay—surf so big that lifeguards had closed the beach to swimming and alerted beachgoers on a public address system whenever ripples on the water’s surface far on the horizon, made their way to shore, hit the steeply rising land, and pitched into the monster surf for which Waimea is famous. The right-breaking waves off the point at the north end of the bay can grow to 50 feet. That’s no small thing. In fact, that’s the height of a five-story building.
“Lady in the black and white swimsuit. Get back from the shoreline,” a lifeguard, his hair cut in a Mohawk, cautioned. “The guy about to get in the water without fins. Yes, you. The beach is closed to swimming today unless you’ve surfed here your entire life.” And “Hey, mom, get your two kids onto dry sand. Go only where you can see footprints. If there are no footprints, you are too close.”
The lifeguards at Waimea Bay Beach Park don’t just kick it–Spicoli-style. They are not just muscle heads more interested in flexing their impressive bodies. They take their responsibility seriously.
The most famous lifeguard in Hawaii was none other than Eddie Aikau, the very first, county-appointed lifeguard at Waimea Bay, hired in 1968. He’s credited with making thousands of rescues, often paddling out when no one else would. In his off time, Eddie pioneered big wave surfing.
In 1978, Eddie made his most daring rescue attempt. While aboard the voyaging canoe Hokulea in big seas some 12 miles south of Molokai, the canoe capsized. Eddie volunteered to paddle to shore for help. Eventually, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued Eddie’s crewmates, but Eddie was never seen again.
After his death, a saying started circulating about Eddie. It implied a certain heroism and bravery. You may see it on t-shirts and bumper stickers around Hawaii. It says: Eddie Would Go.
Eddie is a modern day Hawaiian legend. In his honor, the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay got its start. It’s a big wave invitational tournament that runs only when open ocean swells reach a minimum of 20 feet. That translates to 30-foot or bigger wave faces inside the bay. This is a rare event. The surf competition has only taken place seven times since its inception in 1986, when, appropriately Eddie’s younger brother Clyde won.
According to today’s Mohawk-inspired lifeguard, the waves crashing on shore were 20 to 25 feet. As much as I would have liked to clamber atop the rock at the far end of the beach, known as “Jump Rock” to locals, because in the summer when the waves swing around to the south side of the island, the bay is as flat as a pancake, I didn’t. I could see the spray of the surf as it hit land and long tendrils washed the top of the rock in water, and I didn’t want to hear Mohawk man on his bullhorn yelling, “Hey lady with all the cameras hanging around your neck. Get off the rock, you stupid idiot.”
Instead—and contentedly—I set up on dry sand next to a cliff wall, in the shade, and aimed my camera down the beach with the white tower of Saints Peter and Paul Mission in the background.