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Local lifeguard Luke Shepardson claims historic win at 'The Eddie'

Luke Shepardson, 27, takes on a large wave at Waimea Bay on Jan. 22, 2023.
Matheus Pacheco
Luke Shepardson, 27, takes on a large wave during The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay on Jan. 22, 2023.

An Oʻahu lifeguard was declared the winner in one of the world’s most prestigious and storied surfing contests held in Hawaiʻi over the weekend for the first time in seven years. Surfers faced towering wave faces and a gigantic swell that grew throughout the day.

Honolulu Ocean Safety lifeguard Luke Shepardson, 27, won The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay, while John John Florence — the winner of the event in 2016, the last time it happened — was named runner-up.

Shepardson scored 89.1 points out of a possible 90, returning to his lifeguard shift between heats. The first lifeguard to win "The Eddie" joins a short list of victors including Florence, Bruce Irons and Kelly Slater.

In third place was Mark Healey, followed by Billy Kemper, Kai Lenny, Ezekial "Zeke" Lau, Landon McNamara and Kealiʻi Malama.

Among the 40 invitees, female surfers competed alongside the men for the first time in the 39-year history of the event — alternatively known simply as "The Eddie."

The Eddie is a one-day contest held only when the surf is consistently large enough during the winter big-wave surfing season from mid-December through mid-March. The wind, the tides and the direction of the swell also have to be just right.

“Large enough” means 20 feet by Hawaiʻi measurements. That’s equivalent to about 40 feet when measured by methods used in the rest of the U.S. Before this year, conditions have only aligned for it to be held nine times since the initial competition in 1984.

Matheus Pacheco

Organizer Clyde Aikau said at a news conference Friday that he was expecting waves to reach 25 to 30 feet by Hawaiʻi measurements or 50 to 60 feet on the national scale — and the conditions were meeting expectations.

On Sunday, the sets were already big, with the swell expected to grow as the day went on, and an estimated 60,000 people packed the beaches and surrounding area to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. One huge wave swept onto the beach and hit a family, sweeping a baby under a house, but the child was not injured, Hawaii News Now reported.

“We’ve been looking at 30-foot to 40-foot wave faces for the most part, (and) the biggest waves of the day are going to be in excess of 45 feet. By local scale, they’ll call those waves 25 feet — and we’ve seen a couple sets like that already,” Kevin Wallis, director of forecasting at Surfline.com, said by phone Sunday morning.

“It’s amazing, it’s really cool to see and it’s such a rare and prestigious event, and there’s a lot of energy and a lot of buzz around, for sure," he said.

Other places around the world have big wave surfing events: Mavericks in California, Nazare in Portugal and Peʻahi on Maui. But author Stuart Coleman said The Eddie is distinguished by how it honors Eddie Aikau, a legendary Native Hawaiian waterman, for his selflessness, courage and sacrifice.

“What makes this contest the most unique is that it’s in memory of a particular individual who really has transcended his time and place when he lived,” said Coleman, who wrote “Eddie Would Go,” a biography of Aikau.

Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau rose to prominence as the first lifeguard hired by Honolulu to work on Oʻahu’s North Shore and was revered for saving over 500 people during his career. He is also famous for surfing towering waves that no one else would dare ride.

Local lifeguard Luke Shepardson, 27, competes in The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational on Jan. 22, 2023. Shepardson took home the win Sunday afternoon while still actively working guarding shifts.
Matheus Pacheco
Local lifeguard Luke Shepardson, 27, competes in The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational on Jan. 22, 2023. Shepardson took home the win Sunday afternoon while still actively working guarding shifts.

Aikau died in 1978 at the age of 31 during an expedition to sail a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe from Honolulu to Tahiti. Just hours out of port, the giant double-hulled canoe known as the Hokulea took on water and overturned in stormy weather. Aikau volunteered to paddle several miles to nearby Lānaʻi on his surfboard to get help for the rest of the crew but was never seen again.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued the remaining crew a few hours later after being alerted by a commercial plane that spotted the canoe.

Coleman said The Eddie is about the best of big-wave surfing and the best of Hawaiian culture.

“They always say at the opening ceremony, where they gather to launch the holding period, ’This is not just a contest. We’re not surfing against each other. We’re surfing in the spirit of Eddie,' ” Coleman said.

Keala Kennelly of Kauaʻi, a women’s big wave surf champion, was among the female invitees.

Mindy Pennybacker, a surf columnist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and author of the upcoming book, “Surfing Sisterhood Hawaiʻi: Wahine Reclaiming the Waves,” said there has long been an assumption that Waimea was too dangerous for women and they couldn’t surf there.

She said women had to fight to be included and have meanwhile shown that they could handle big waves in spots around the world.

“To see women — not only women surfing Waimea but women and men sharing the same event together, with mutual respect and equality — I’m just really thrilled at the thought,” Pennybacker said.

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