Clyde Aikau awoke Thursday morning greeted by news of the best, biggest, contestable swells to ever show at Waimea Bay. When he reached the beach he was greeted by 28 of the world's best big-wave riders, all of whom were nervously pondering the huge closeout sets still sweeping through. The Bay was pumping, that was clear, but it was also teetering on the brink of too big.
After assessing the conditions Clyde and his family immediately calmed their nerves. They told them that Eddie, Waimea Bay's first lifeguard, would want to be sure they're safe, and the best rescue crews in the world would be on hand to help anyone in distress. With that assurance, Clyde, joined by the rest of his family, called the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau competition ON for just the 9th time in 30 years.
For 66-year-old Clyde, this would be his last time competing.
Clyde is no stranger to the Bay. He and Eddie began surfing it regularly in the late 60s, and they were both lifeguards there in the 70s, when Waimea Bay was a favorite R&R spot for soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War. The pair saved hundreds of lives, and while they also shared many memorable sessions his most vivid is Big Wednesday, November 19, 1967, which he considers the heaviest day ever. According to Clyde, that was the day Eddie caught the biggest waves ever ridden.
To put Thursday's conditions in perspective, as Clyde called the contest ON, he described the waves as the best he'd seen in more than 40 years, harkening back to Waimea's golden era.
Clyde's relationship with The Bay runs deep, too. In 1986, when Clyde won the first Eddie Memorial event ever held at Waimea Bay, he told others afterward that his brother led him to victory. Eddie, the story goes, appeared as a sea turtle in the lineup.
But around 1977, the year before Eddie was lost at sea, only one turtle routinely showed up on big days at Waimea. Clyde and Eddie joked about it, figuring it for the late Jose Angel, a legendary North Shore surfer and waterman who had died during a free-diving accident in 1976. Angel was one of Waimea's original pioneers, and close friend.
After Eddie's 1978 death Clyde was so devastated he didn't surf Waimea for a couple years. But during his first surf back he noticed a there were suddenly a pair of turtles in the lineup. The realization stunned him. And during the 1986 event, two turtles kept popping up in front of Clyde, guiding him to the perfect takeoff spot after each of his rides. "So I looked at these two turtles, and I followed them..." he told Leslie Cox of PBS during a sit down in 2014. "And this is where everybody sits down, all five guys, and I would follow the turtles past them, and go deeper than all of them, about a hundred feet out. And as soon as I got to that point, the biggest wave of the day would just pull right in, and I'd jump right on it. And just rip it up, come all the way in, and I'd paddle out, and the turtles would be there again. And I'd follow these turtles."
On Thursday Clyde Aikau, the oldest lion in the event by a dozen years, let it be known that this would be his last time competing in the event. His participation was one of the most inspiring stories of the day. After all, Clyde is the last direct link to Waimea's original class of legends. In an event so steeped in tradition, that fact wasn't lost on anyone.
And true to Aikau form, he charged.
He took a huge wipeout on his first wave, cartwheeling down the face into oblivion. But he shook it off and got right back out there, catching two more bombs.
He really didn't have to paddle out for his Round Two heat; he'd already made his point. But by then the magnitude of the moment was soaking in. This day was epic. And if Eddie was here he'd certainly go...so Clyde did too. And much to the everyone's delight his last ride was a solid one.
According to the leaderboard, Clyde finished 20th out of 29 who paddled out. But ask any surfer in the event who the true hero was that day, and he was without question number one.