It’s mid-morning on Oahu’s North Shore where I’m waiting outside Ted’s Bakery. The wind is the lightest it’s been all week, so most surfers are still in the water catching short-period wind swell that brought the best waves since Sunday. The parking lot is full of rental cars as the usual tourist brigade pile in for donuts and a slice of coconut cream pie. Soon a gray Tacoma rolls into the lot and I’m betting it’s who I’m waiting for. Sure enough Luke Shepardson steps from the truck, the latest keeper of surfing’s holy grail: Champion of the 2023 Eddie Aikau Invitational. The only reason he isn’t in the water is a recent back procedure; that and his girlfriend has to go to work soon so he has to watch his two keiki for the day. I jumped at the opportunity to have breakfast with the champ and hear his story.
Within steps of his truck two strangers approach him and give him a bow, showing respect to someone who has earned his place atop a subculture of humans who surf big waves. He takes the attention with a smile.
It doesn’t happen again, so I wonder if either nobody else recognized him or those who did treated him the same as they did on January 21 before he vaulted into the limelight. Admittedly I couldn’t say I’d be one of those. If not for witnessing his victory on my computer at home, I’d have just given him a polite smile in passing at best.
For those who don’t know, Luke Shepardson is a local North Shore lifeguard who, only weeks ago, entered the history books by becoming one of only 10 people to be crowned champion in the Eddie’s nearly 40-year history (the event only runs when conditions are just right). “I don’t even know if I’ve ever dreamed of winning it,” he told me as we sat down to wait for our grinds. “I’ve always just dreamed of being in it. But (winning) was a lot of emotions, and it just ended up in tears.”
That dream was one that has brewed since grom-hood. Growing up on the North Shore, Luke had a front-row seat to the action most of his life. As a close personal friend to the McNamara family, he had an inside view of what it takes to shine at The Eddie.
“I forget if it was 2004 or 2009,” he recalled. “But I was with Landon and we went over to uncle Garrett’s in the morning. He was getting ready to surf in it, and we went down with him and helped wax his boards and get set up. We were right there in the thick of it. I have a few waves vividly ingrained in my memory of uncle Garrett taking off soooo fucking deep and getting smoked. Like super gnarly. Ever since then, I was like, ‘wow, this is the pinnacle of surfing.’ From those moments on, I was like ‘I want to be in this contest.'”
What did you have to do to get into the Eddie?
To get into the contest you’ve got to be a standout when the waves are big. You’ve got to stand out above all the other standouts, and there are a lot of them out there. I believe that what got me invited was in 2016. There was a swell that they were going to run the contest in, but the swell wasn’t there when they had to start the contest. It showed up at around 11, so the first set of heats would have been duds. But then I ended up surfing like six hours that day. I got a few closeout sets and came back to the beach, and the whole beach erupted in cheering. I turned around and was like, “oh what’s happening,” and then someone was like “oh, no you killed it, you won the session!” And I was like, “oh, that’s weird. Uh, that’s cool” (laughs). Then two weeks later they had the event and I surfed before and after the event and got some pretty good waves… and yeah, 2016 is the year that got me invited.
What’s it like being a part of the opening ceremony?
Yeah, every opening ceremony I love to be a part of. There’s a lot of mana in the opening ceremony. It’s very spiritual… you can really feel the energy. I always get the chills. It’s something I really enjoy being a part of for their blessings and all that. It’s really cool. Being right there front and center and they’re doing all the chants and they’re praying over you – you really, really feel the mana there. It’s very, very good energy.
What made you want to become a lifeguard on the North Shore?
It’s always been a backup plan for me if I didn’t make it in pro surfing, and I didn’t make it in pro surfing. But I’m here today because of a lifeguard. My dad was knocked unconscious and then revived by a lifeguard before I was born. So if the lifeguard didn’t save his life, I wouldn’t be here today. So that’s always been a plan B, where if I didn’t make it in pro surfing, to be at the beach helping people, and that’s what’s gotten me to where I am today.
And what has been the greatest lesson from being a lifeguard?
The greatest thing I’ve learned is to be very vigilant of your surroundings. Always be aware of what’s going on, not just with your immediate surroundings but the people around you and everything. Like, there’s a bigger picture than just where you’re at and your immediate surroundings. That’s helped me do a lot. And then also the… I don’t know how to explain it….The enjoyment of helping other people has really been accentuated. It feels really good to help other people. I’ve learned is that the more you do it, the more it feels good. It always feels good to help other people.
So how did that help your surfing?
Being a surfer I always had my landmarks and all that, but it also helps to be aware of other risk factors and hazards. How to get in and out of dangerous situations.
The other night at The Twin Fin Hotel’s beach cleanup event in Waikiki, you spoke about an encounter you had with a Waimea local during the contest. Can you retell that story?
It was in my second heat. I was sitting in my area where I like to sit at Waimea. The first wave came within two or three minutes of the heat starting. That was the one that I claimed. The reason I claimed it was because uncle Clyde (Aikau) told me, “You have a 10 and a 9. If you get a 9.5 you have a serious chance of winning this.” That one felt really good, and so that’s why I claimed it. I was like, “That just might have been the winning wave.” But then I paddled back out, you know, just super stoked to make the wave. I didn’t want to eat shit. I was sitting out the back, and everyone was really pushing themselves deep and I was like, “I’m not going to mess with that, I don’t want to go over the falls.” And I’m sitting there and just right in front of me a giant turtle popped up. A huge one. He popped up and just stared at me and I got the chills. I was like, “whoa.” Then the thing went under. But there’s a story that uncle Clyde has told, that when he won the Eddie, he was sitting out the back, a similar thing happened — a turtle popped up, stared at him, and he said he thought it was his brother sending him a message. He went to the area where the turtle was and then he got the winning wave. So I was thinking of that when the turtle popped up, like “whoa is this thing sending me a message?” It was a really, really cool moment. And yeah. Stoked.
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Moving onto the win: what was your kids’ reaction?
I have two sons, a one-year-old and a four-year-old. My four-year-old kind of knew what was happening, but he didn’t even really know. Since the event he’s been hearing people talk about me and he’s like, “hey, that’s my dad!” Now he’s finally understood that I won a big contest and it’s cool, and now he wants to surf more contests. He’s done one little keiki contest and he had a really good time so now he wants to do more. I’m stoked. I’m stoked that he’s stoked, that he’s getting the bug for it.
How does it feel being someone who wasn’t in the spotlight and now all of a sudden is this North Shore hero?
To be honest, it’s a little strange. I’m not the most outgoing, public person. I’m more of a quiet, private person, and my life has been completely flipped. But I’m enjoying the ride, and it’s really cool, I’m getting a lot of cool opportunities and experiences.
How do you want to use this new attention?
I want to help out as many people as I can while doing it. I also want to seize the opportunities to help set up my kids for their future and help them have a better life than I did. That’s what I live life for: to help my kids, my family — make sure they’re doing good. And now I have a great opportunity to set them up for life. Just take all the opportunities that I can get.
What can big wave surfing teach the general population?
Humility and respect. It really humbles you. Being in the ocean when the waves are huge. It makes you feel very insignificant. Like you really don’t matter to the world. It also makes you respect the ocean and respect everyone out there having the same goal and the same drive. It brings you back down to Earth. You can’t get too big headed or the ocean will show you what’s up.
For someone who didn’t know uncle Eddie Aikau but is now part of his legacy as the closest winner besides his brother, as a lifeguard who has followed in his footsteps, what’s that like?
Yeah, it’s a huge honor for me to be following in his footsteps. There are huge shoes to fill and I don’t think I’ll ever fully do it, but I’m going to try my best to be as he was to people. To be a great lifeguard, and enjoy big waves and love charging big waves. It’s really humbling for me, for people to tell me that I’m following in his footsteps, so it creates a little bit of pressure but it’s something I love to do so I’ll keep doing the best that I can.