By Léo Azambuja
Throughout the winter, iron-fisted storms punish the North Pacific, generating large open ocean swells that travel as far as 3,000 miles until reaching Hawai‘i’s north- and west-facing shores.
What happens next is one of the greatest shows on Earth; a fierce display of bravado and skills by the world’s best big-wave riders. As the big-surf season unravels, the surfing world turns its attention to O‘ahu’s North Shore.
Some of the finest surfers on Earth — who have pushed big-wave surfing to new levels — come from right here on the Garden Isle. The names stack up: Titus Kinimaka, Emery Kauanui, Byron Wong, Max Medeiros, Sion Milosky, Braden Dias, Keala Kennelly, Rochelle Ballard, the Irons brothers, Terry Chung, Carl Ragasa, Laird Hamilton and many others.
“It’s not a surprise to me that Kaua‘i boys are out there, there are good surfers from every island,” said Kala Alexander.
To him, everyone who surfs big waves in Hawai‘i has an advantage over big-wave riders from other places, due to the islands being the most consistent place in the world for large winter swells. But Kaua‘i surfers get an extra nod because the waves here are super challenging and in spots that are far out and dangerous.
“You surf on Kaua‘i, it’s harder, you don’t get publicity, you don’t get a lot of attention, you do it because you love it,” Alexander said.
He, Bruce Irons and Reef McIntosh are the three Kaua‘i surfers included on a handpicked list of 28 proven big-wave riders from all over the world who will compete in the 30th Annual Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau in Waimea Bay on O‘ahu.
The contest is only held when the waves reach 20 feet in the Hawaiian scale, which means 40-foot faces. The long waiting period, from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28, is to ensure just that, but since the contest was first held in 1985, it has only ran eight times, and the last one was in 2009.
“Kaua‘i is just the most amazing place to sharpen your sword, learn to surf all types of different waves because there’s so much variety in such a small place,” said McIntosh, who along with Alexander and Irons surfed in the last edition of the Eddie.
The contest is held in memory of one of Hawai‘i’s most influential watermen, Eddie Aikau, who was lost at sea while trying to save the rest of his crewmates in the voyaging canoe Hokule‘ia. He was 31 years old.
McIntosh inherited the love for big waves from his father, and had a goal early on to surf the Eddie. He consistently surfed Waimea in hopes to be picked up, and in 2009, on his first year on the list of invitees, the contest was held a few days into the waiting period.
“It was definitely one of the most special days of my life,” said McIntosh, adding it feels more like a surf session than a contest. You get to surf twice, and on his second heat, he said he shared a moment with Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s brother and winner of the 1986 contest.
“I told him it was the best day of my life surfing out here with you, for your brother,” McIntosh said.
Irons won the Eddie Aikau back in the 2004 winter, when he scored a perfect 100 on a bomb he rode all the way to the inside, faded left and pulled into to a suicidal tube ride.
His brother, the late three-time world champion Andy Irons, is in the honorary list, along with the late Sion Milosky, a Kaua‘i surfer who in 2009 surfed a wave in Himalayas, O‘ahu, that was considered at that time to be the largest wave ever paddled into.
Two additional Kaua‘i chargers, Danny Fuller and Evan Valiere, are on a list of 24 alternates, and have a shot of being in the contest in case some invitees are not available.
Valiere grew up surrounded by surfing. At 11 years old, he was already surfing the dangerous and hollow lefts of Pipeline on O‘ahu. The time he has put in surfing big waves has earned him a spot in the alternate list for the third year in a row. If the contest is held and he is called to fill a spot, he is more than ready.
“I’d really love to be in, I’d give my all in that event, and I think I’d do well,” Valiere said.
Fuller has been a regular on the alternate list, and two years ago, he was an invitee, picked by the Aikau family, but the contest didn’t run. Sitting on 11th place on the alternate list this year, he said it would be the highest honor of his career to participate in the Eddie.
“Hopefully we get some really big swells,” Fuller said. “I’d like to get out there and show people what I’m capable of, and how bad I want it.”
The winter also brings to the islands the prestigious Vans Triple Crown, a series of three contests sanctioned by the Association of Surfing Professionals. To most surfers, winning the Triple Crown is just as good as winning the world title.
Before the late Andy Irons won the series in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006; and before Kaua‘i’s Sebastian Zietz took the title in 2012, placing first at Haleiwa, second at Sunset and fifth at Pipeline, someone else from Kaua‘i became the first ever outer-island surfer to win it.
“Everything for me was all personal,” said Kaipo Jaquias, winner of the 1996 Vans Triple Crown.
“By focusing so much on what I was doing, I blocked all the stuff that didn’t’ matter,” he said.
A county lifeguard these days, Jaquias was once the most successful professional surfer from Kaua‘i. In the year he won the Triple Crown, he also placed fifth in the world. His performances at big Haleiwa are memorable, and his commitment at Pipeline is second to none, earning him both horrendous wipeouts and deep, long barrel rides.
“I was willing to do whatever it took,” Jaquias said. “The mind is strong, it can overcome a lot of things by taking a challenge of things that are in front of you.”
When January comes, the lineup will get a little more crowded. After a few years out of the water, Kaua‘i County Council Chair Jay Furfaro is retiring from political life and going back to his roots.
“I already ordered my new board,” he said. And it’s not a longboard, it’s a 6’2”.
Furfaro, who spent the last six years serving on the council, started surfing in the 1950s, when balsa boards were the norm. Originally from Makaha, he grew up with the likes of Buffalo Keaulana and the late Rell Sunn, and was the president of Windansea Surf Club Hawai‘i.
As a kid, he spent his holidays on Kaua‘i, mostly at Black Pot Beach, under the wing of Henry Tai Hook. Upon graduating high school, he got a job at Hanalei Plantation and never went back.
“For me, coming from Makaha … you would come charging at the face off the point, and I’m talking 15 to 18 foot surf, and you would get as much speed off the face of the point, come up and then try and go beat around the bowl, same kind of wave as Hanalei,” Furfaro said.
In 1967, surfing for Gordon & Smith, he competed in the then-prestigious Haleiwa Sea Spree, placing second to none other than Clyde Aikau.
Over the years, Furfaro saw many changes in surfing, from balsa boards to epoxy, from no leashes to leashes screwed onto fins in Tahiti to modern-day leashes, from flat bottoms to v-bottoms to all kinds of concaves, from nose-riding to side-slipping to aerials, and most significantly, from an amateur sport to a professional arena supported by a multi-million dollar industry.
But to him, surfing “never lost its sense of connection to you being in rhythm with nature.”
“That’s still there, take air, get completely covered, that’s all about you and nature and being in rhythm, and that’s a great feeling to find yourself,” Furfaro said. “I often look at that a lot about my own development as a person.”