This past January, which saw the most remarkable, concurrent big wave sessions the sport has ever seen, something extraordinary happened.
Not John John Florence’s performance at Waimea Bay on a legit day during that month’s first week, where he rode with the casual aplomb normally reserved for overhead Pupukea sandbar (even riding switchfoot on one wave). Nor a return to the remote Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast in international waters, where HBO’s The 100 Foot Wave production team scored eerily glassy, 40-to 60-foot perfection, with UK plumber-turned-big wave pro Andrew Cotton and Frenchwoman Justine Dupont dropping into the waves of the day. Nor a startlingly immaculate Peahi session and Izzi Gomez’s come-from-behind barrel or Laura Enever’s towering Himalayan peak, sparking talk of the biggest wave ever paddled into by a woman. Or the biggest Isla Todos Santos ever seen, with Greg Long waiting for hours to catch and successfully ride the day’s biggest set (surprise, surprise), nor even the fact that “The Eddie” was held at Waimea for only the 10th time and in the most epic conditions in the event’s history.
No, all this incredible action, extensively, and in some cases breathlessly chronicled in the surfing media, was only to be expected when an impressive battalion of North Pacific storms aimed their basement-level millibars straight at today’s army of well-prepared, well-equipped and equally well-motivated big wave Special Forces teams. What couldn’t have been predicted, however, was that less-than-a-handful of waves ridden on one particular day (if we surfers are capable of any sort of meaningful self-awareness) modified the entire concept, not just of big wave riding, but what it means to be a surfer. Let me explain.
In a sport often characterized as self-indulgent [read: selfish], big wave riding is every bit of that, but on steroids. Conventional surfing obsession can be managed, folded into a reasonably integrated lifestyle. Surfing before school or after work, planning for the weekend or scheduling a summer surf trip; the ritual dawn patrol at your local spot or scoring that low-tide session after dropping the kids of at soccer practice; maintaining a passion for “normal” surfing needn’t mean prioritizing it above all other aspects of daily life.
But given the relatively fleeting amalgamation of meteorological conditions necessary to produce giant, rideable waves, fully committed big wave riders have to be there whenever and wherever it happens. This self-imposed necessity takes obsession to another level completely. For example, with a camera crew in tow, I once followed a prominent professional big wave surfer from Southern California as he chased a purple blob all the way to a wild offshore bommie in Western Australia in hopes of connecting with the peak of the swell during a specific three-hour— three hour —tide window. He missed it by an hour and after only a single wave ridden and hardly a single “bummer, man,” he was back on a plane the next morning, flying off to Puerto Escondido, or someplace. This sort of relentless drive very understandably requires the blocking out of any extraneous attachments or responsibilities; life becomes all about getting that wave.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any big wave specialists out there working hard to balance their obsession with meaningful relationships (family, friends, pets) and practical responsibilities (vlog production and Instagram posts). It’s just that what they do can’t help but be all about them. Especially considering that big wave riding is no longer the lone samurai movie it once was. Today’s heavy water experts take their place at the sharp end of a collective that includes trainers, shapers, filmers, ski drivers and safety teams, all deployed with the single purpose of making sure their surfer gets the ride he or she is looking for; that they have a good time out there. Because make no mistake, despite the apparent daredevil thrills and purported life-or-death drama out in the big stuff, nobody’s rushing into burning buildings here. Just like the rest of us in the waves we enjoy surfing, big wave riders are basically just fucking around.
Which brings me to the most amazing thing that happened during the most incredible three weeks of big wave action the sport has ever seen. Which, of course, was the moment that on-duty Waimea Bay lifeguard Luke Shepardson lifted his first-place trophy at the 2023 Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational. By now virtually the entire surfing world — and plenty of the civilian population — knows how the 27-year-old Honolulu City and County lifeguard received permission to compete in the event between performing his normal duties, which on this spectacular day included keeping more than a few of the 50,000 enthusiastic contest fans out of the Bay’s killer shorebreak and even administering on-the-sand first aid to injured fellow competitors.
In the midst of his otherwise busy workday, Shepardson’s three-wave score of 89.1 out of a possible 90 points bested a field of the world’s top big wave riders. Yet through his example of balancing the sport’s inherent self-interest with a committed lifesaver’s selflessness, Luke Shepardson elevated himself above the single-minded pursuit of riding big waves, displaying more than simply the right stuff like nobody since…well, since the contest’s namesake.
“Waimea was his beach, his bay,” says Linda Ipson of her then-husband Eddie Aikau in the 2014 documentary Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. “And it was so dangerous at times that it was like his goal in life to make sure that everybody who came to this beach went home safely to their families.”
After climbing down off the winner’s platform and then finishing out his shift in the tower, Luke Shepardson headed home knowing that on this day he did the exactly the same thing. Extraordinary, indeed.