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Women Make History Surfing in the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational for First Time

After a 7-year hiatus, the Super Bowl of surfing returned to Oahu’s North Shore this past week. Here's how the big-wave event went down, and who made history.

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The Eddie” is a famous big-wave surfing contest at Waimea Bay on Oahu — and will only run if waves are only over 20 feet. As such, it’s only run 10 times in its 39-year history. Last weekend, the stars and waves aligned (with surf reaching over 50 feet!), and the Eddie Aikau returned to the North Shore.

Eddie Aikau Invitational History Is Made

On Sunday, January 22, the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational returned to Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu after a 7-year hiatus. Founded in 1984, the contest is run in memory of Eddie Aikau, a beloved North Shore lifeguard and surfer who saved over 500 people over the course of his career. The invite-only contest requires 20-foot waves or bigger to receive the green light, and has only run 10 times since its foundation.

Historically, only men have been invited to the Eddie. The contest first ran in 1985 and was won by Oahu-based surfer Denton Miyamura. The last time the contest ran was in 2016, with then-23-year-old John John Florence claiming the win.

In 2017, former WSL Championship Tour and big-wave surfer Keala Kennelly was included in the invite list, becoming the first woman to ever be invited to the event — but the contest didn’t end up running that year. This year, in addition to 34 men, six women were included on the invite list and another six were included as alternates.

Surfers at the 2023 (34th) Eddie Aikau Invitational.

“It was super emotional,” said Kennelly of seeing women at the Eddie for the first time. “When I was a little kid, our biggest hero of all was Eddie. We knew that anyone who won the Eddie went to instant hero status. I wanted to be a hero like that, but didn’t think it was possible because they didn’t have women. If women are going out there at the most prestigious, dangerous surfing event in the world, I think that will open a lot of doors.”

On the day of the contest, some 50,000 fans crowded the beach and surrounding cliffs in hopes of catching a glimpse of the action. The Bay was calm the night before the contest but come morning, the swell had arrived with waves ranging from 35 to 50 feet — one of the biggest swells in the Eddie’s history.

The contest follows a non-elimination-style format, with each competitor competing in two heats. Each surfer’s four best-scoring waves over both rounds are added up to determine his or her total score.

The crowds at this year’s Eddie Aikau Invitational.

With each passing hour, the waves grew, eliciting huge reactions from the crowd as the surfers successfully dropped in (or wiped out) on massive waves. The Waimea Bay lifeguards were in top form, offering jet ski assists and rescues to the surfers and working crowd control for the spectators on the beach.

“It was such a positive, supportive environment,” Kennelly said. “The crowd was cheering for all of us.”

The Eddie Names a Winner

After over 7 hours of competition, the results were in, and the Eddie Aikau crowned a winner. Scoring 89.1 out of a possible 90 points, 27-year-old Luke Shepardson won the competition.

A North Shore local and lifeguard, Shepardson was actually on duty the day of the Eddie, surfing heats during his breaks, competing in between lifeguarding on the Shore. When Shepardson was announced as the winner, the crowd went wild. It was a harmonious and historic win to watch, given the Invitational is in memory of Eddie Aikau, a North Shore lifeguard and prolific surfer who died in 1978.

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