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Eddie Aikau surf contest: local lifeguard beats world’s best big wave surfers to take title

Luke Shepardson is more accustomed to saving lives than winning international surf competitions, but on Monday the on-duty lifeguard saw off some of the biggest names in the sport to claim victory at the prestigious Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in Hawaii.

Shepardson had to get permission from his boss to take time out from his day job to compete in the elusive event, which throws professional and local surfers together in huge swells and this week ran for the first time in seven years. The competition, known simply as The Eddie, is held only when waves at Waimea Bay consistently reach 30ft or bigger.

John John Florence, the two-time WSL champion, won the last edition in 2016 and went close to becoming the first two-time champion, but ultimately lost out to Shepardson, who claimed the title in between dashes to and from his lifeguard tower on the beach.

“I told myself, ‘I’m in it because I can win it,” Shepardson said. “It was super scary. The waves were huge, and it was a dream come true just to be part of The Eddie, just to be on the alternate list. I can’t believe it – it’s crazy. I’ve got to get back to the tower to make sure everyone’s OK until the end of the day.”

Shepardson, 27, scored 89.1 points out of a possible 90 to claim the title and $10,000 prize money. As he joined Florence and other previous winners including Kelly Slater, Bruce Irons and Ross Clarke Jones, he was hoisted up in celebration on the beach – still clad in distinctive yellow and red life-savers attire.

Luke Shepardson competes at the 2023 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay in Hawaii.
Luke Shepardson scored 89.1 points out of a possible 90 to claim the title and $10,000 prize money. Photograph: MediaPunch/Rex/Shutterstock

The winner evoked memories of the man the event is named after; The Eddie is held in honour of the late Eddie Aikau, like Shepardson a Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard – the first one on Oahu’s North Shore.

Aikau saved more than 500 people during his career but during a journey in 1978 re-enacting an ancient route of Polynesian migration between Hawaii and Tahiti, the voyaging canoe he was aboard capsized. Aikau paddled away on his surfboard to raise the alarm and the rest of the crew were later rescued. But Aikau disappeared and his body was never found.

The event was first run in celebration of his life in 1985 at Sunset Beach and has been held just nine times since. Eddie’s younger brother Clyde Aikau won two years after the inaugural competition when it was held on Oahu’s North Shore for the first time. Clyde now supervises the event, which for the first time this year saw a woman, Brazil’s Andrea Moller, catch a wave, six years after female surfers were first named as alternate competitors.

Anticipation that The Eddie would run this year had been building for over a week, with the contest briefly given the go-ahead before being put on hold. Big wave surfers from as far afield as Portugal have been consulting forecasters who closely track the huge storms travelling across the north Pacific for signs they will translate into the 30ft clean waves that the contest requires.

As each day passed, and as more data came in from buoys hundreds of kilometres north of Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu, the 40 surfers invited for The Eddie scrambled to get their equipment, support team and mindset ready.

“It felt incredible to surf in this event,” Kai Lenny, a top big-wave surfer, who finished in fifth place. “I know we’ve all had the Eddie Aikau posters in our rooms growing up, so to have the opportunity to actually go out there for Eddie and his ohana [family], the Aikaus, was a dream come true for me.”

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