A couple weeks back, when Oahu was in the thralls of almost-Eddie festivities, I had an afternoon session at Waimea Bay. A lot of guys were in town in case the event was greenlighted, and the lineup was a who's who of big wave legends.
As I sat and chatted with Greg Long about where we were going to chase the swell next, Makua Rothman paddled over and started telling Greg an interesting anecdote that I’d heard once before. As the story goes, the beach at Waimea Bay used to extend much farther out to sea than it does now—some say all the way to the point, practically where we were bobbing in the lineup.
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But supposedly truckloads of sand had been carted away over the years to fill in Waikiki Beach and help with concrete structures all over the island, and the beach had eventually been reduced to its current state.
I’d actually seen a picture of Waimea Bay from the 1930s, and it did indeed appear that the sand used to extend hundreds of metres farther out than it currently does—far enough that it’s entirely possible the wave we now know as The Bay might not have existed 85 years ago.
And that got me thinking. I realised that not only did I not know when the reef at Waimea Bay had been uncovered to create what would one day become the world’s most famous big wave spot, but I also didn’t know who had first surfed The Bay. I’d heard half a dozen different legends and stories, but hadn’t confirmed any of them, so that evening, once I’d made it safely through the shorebreak and onto the sand, I grabbed my phone and did some research.
As it turns out, no one is quite sure who the first person was to surf Waimea. There are rumors of guys having paddled out in the 1930s and ’40s, and we know for a fact that Dickie Cross died there in 1943 after paddling down from Sunset Beach during a massive swell. But the first documented session at “proper” Waimea didn’t come until 1957, when Greg Noll convinced a small crew of lunatics to paddle out with him through the shorebreak. Up until then, Makaha was considered the preeminent big wave spot, with Sunset Beach a close second.
But Noll had been thinking about The Bay for years, and one day, when Sunset was too big and the crew was all heading west, he pulled the car into Waimea and somehow talked the boys into paddling out.
From there, things get a bit murky again. Depending on whom you ask, the first wave that day was either ridden by Noll, 17-year-old Mickey Munoz…or possibly lifeguard Harry Schurch, who some say paddled out earlier in the morning, before Noll and his posse arrived. Whoever it was, the ice was definitely broken that day in November, and by the end of the session Waimea was officially the craziest big wave spot on the planet.
Since that day, Waimea has played host to some of the biggest names and moments in the history of surfing. Eddie Aikau was the first lifeguard at The Bay, and is credited with saving over 500 people at the surf spot that has now become all but synonymous with his name. Brock Little’s “Pressure Drop” during the 1990 Eddie event is still one of the most committed moments ever in competitive history. Bruce Irons’ 100-pointer at the 2004 Eddie started the trend of riding sets to the inside and packing the death shorebreak for the entertainment of the crowd. And John John Florence’s win in 2016 cemented him as the best all-around surfer on the planet.
But perhaps it is the hundreds of lesser-known but just as noteworthy moments that happen there each season that help The Bay maintain its mystique, despite the fact that bigger and badder waves are now being paddled with regularity.
Because every time waves start to break outside of the boil, there is a crowd of chargers out there, pitting themselves against the original XXL bombie. From big wave world champions and visiting pros to underground chargers and 70-year-old Clyde Aikau, at some point, everyone wants a taste of that energy—the same energy that lured Gred Noll and his buddies out through the shorebreak nearly 65-years-ago.
Cover shot by Romu Pliquet