In its holiday edition last Thursday morning, the Honolulu Advertiser headlined its lead editorial THANKS FOR WHAT? Given the state of the economy, the world and the Union, it seemed a reasonable question. But by nightfall a considerable group of Hawaiians thought it was the best Thanksgiving ever. After four frustrating years, the big waves—and the big guns—had come at last to Waimea Bay on Hawaii's north shore.
Waimea Bay is one of the most beautiful coves in the Hawaiian coastline, and also a theater of the grotesque. Most of the year, and always in summer, it is flat as a pond. But on relatively rare occasions the Aleut gods of the North Pacific aim their stormy southbound swells in precisely the right direction and Waimea Bay becomes not only a microcosm but almost an exaggeration of the power of the sea. When the proprietors of Smirnoff Vodka moved their World Pro-Am Surfing Championship from California to Hawaii in 1970, they had an eye on Waimea. But for a long time Waimea looked the other way.
"Someday we get big waves," said Sol Aikau, the redoubtable father of two of Hawaii's best surfers, Eddie and Clyde Aikau, who just happen to be lifeguards at Waimea. Someday was last Thursday, but for an agonizing 10 days it seemed more likely to be some year. In the past Smirnoff had allotted from two to seven days for the contest, and it always had been completed in a single day, but never since 1970 in really satisfactory surf. This year the sponsors decided to schedule a two-week alert, with all competitors required to check in on Nov. 18 and stand by until conditions were right. Thirty-six world-class surfers had been invited to Hawaii, six of them women.
At 8:30 on Thanksgiving morning an awesome 35-to 40-foot set swept clear across the entrance to the bay, clear across the beach and spilled into the state park. The surf was up, all right, up as it had never been before for any surfing contest anywhere. Up too high to suit some of the competitors, who were frankly frightened. But the 35-plus set was one of those aberrant phenomena that the ocean produces only haphazardly. It took 45 minutes for the sea to establish a pattern. Then it was clear that the average wave would be 20 to 25 feet, and the sets, though monumental, were well spaced. The meet was on.
The first semifinal heat was only 20 minutes old when Australia's Ian Cairns, the defending champion, met disaster, a ferocious wipeout that sent his board one way and him another. By the time he recovered it, he was out of contention. Hawaii's Larry Bertleman, up on a 25-footer, saw the wave become entirely vertical and his board drop out from under him. Clyde Aikau was the only master of the waves in that heat. He caught half a dozen, rode them with skill and valor, and won, beating Sam Hawk of Hawaii, who also qualified for the final.
The first big surprise came in the second semifinal heat when Peter Townend of Australia, a frail-appearing 21-year-old, beat out Hawaii's James (Booby) Jones for first. Barry Kanaipuni, another Hawaiian surfer, was retired early when the depth-charge force of a wipeout broke his board squarely across the middle. In midmorning two successive sets of 35-foot-plus waves boomed across the bay. Nobody tried to ride them. "Nobody could ride those sets," Meet Director Fred Hemmings said.
The second surprise, one greeted with delirium by the pro-Hawaiian crowd, was a triumph by Reno Abellira, a 24-year-old Sunset Beach board maker, in semifinal heat No. 3. Abellira, who had never before won a major surfing contest, edged Jeff Hakman of Hawaii, just as Hakman had edged him in one of the prelims. In the process Abellira did something few surfers have ever done—he caught and rode a 30-foot wave.
The sun was high and hot by now, and the crowd had swelled to an estimated 10,000, many perched on car rooftops and the rest ranged nervously along the cupped shore—nervously because the giant waves threatened to sweep the whole park. It was a hungry crowd, and it smelled something better than turkey: never before had Hawaii put five men into the final. Only the Australian Townend was there to represent the other countries originally entered (the "other countries," as specified by the Hawaiian who had announced the preliminaries the preceding Sunday, included California, Puerto Rico, Florida and "East Coast," as well as South Africa and Peru).
When the six finalists lined up before the judges' stand for final instructions, they were dwarfed by their gun boards. No fancy-Dan seven-footers here. Not one was shorter than nine feet. "In surf like this," Hemmings said, "only a gun will do it—speed and stability, not flashy cutbacks and loops." Most eyes were on Clyde Aikau, the risen son of Sol, and Booby Jones.
By now the surf was breaking almost straight in, enormous waves, still in the 20-to 25-foot range, that lapped over like milk spilling from a bowl, without the right or left curl that sometimes produces the "green room" tubes beloved of surfing mystics. Such waves made a long ride difficult to impossible. Once up, the competitor had to drive down the almost sheer face of the wave and flee the pursuing white water, sometimes down a canyon between two waves, and then "kick out," or get wiped out. Only a few of the finalists managed to transfer from one wave to another for the swift reverses easily done in lesser seas. But one of them was Reno Abellira, who seemed to catch a wave and somehow fly back for the next one. Halfway through the final an uninformed spectator said, "Looks to me like the waves are kind of petering out." As though in reply, a monstrous boomer snatched Booby Jones and literally blew his board in two.