There were five other surfers in his heat, including former world champion Kelly Slater and big- wave expert Darryl (Flea) Virostko. But Bruce Irons wasn't thinking about those guys when he saw his wave coming in. "I'm watching this big old swell hump up out there, and I was like, O.K., this is it," Irons says. "Fear gave me the adrenaline to paddle into the biggest wave of my life."
The call had gone out the day before to 24 of the world's best big-wave surfers: The Eddie was on. Quiksilver's In Memory of Eddie Aikau is contested at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, where Aikau saved scores of lives as the beach's first full-time lifeguard before he became a mainstay of the pro scene. Aikau, who died in 1978 in a boating accident at age 31, made his bones on huge days at Waimea. To this day bumper stickers in Hawaii remember him and issue a challenge: EDDIE WOULD GO.
Part of the Eddie's cachet is that it has been contested just seven times in 20 years. Event organizers don't bother to hold it unless swells in the bay are 20 feet tall (the face of the wave can be up to twice as long). Morning broke on Dec. 15 with 25foot swells under sunny skies with a light, offshore breeze. "Conditions were perfect for every heat," said Peter Mel, who'd flown in from Santa Cruz, Calif. "Everybody had an opportunity to win."
Mel, 35, was one of many seasoned watermen, but at 25, Irons was a relative pup, having surfed just once before at Waimea, on a much smaller day. Known for his jaw-dropping aerials in more moderate surf, Irons had--unlike his older brother, Andy, the defending three-time world champion--not done much lately. At the Pipeline a day earlier he'd bumbled through "the worst heat I've surfed in my life. I was superbaffled and bummed."
Then he was up--on a 25 footer that had 20,000 spectators screaming. Slicing down the 40foot face, Irons rode the beast across the bay, into the gnarly Waimea beach break that had kept lifeguard Aikau so busy. Once there, he doubled back, grabbing his rail and pulling into a perfect closeout barrel. The crowd went berserk. Irons was awarded the only perfect score of the day.
"I'm trashed," he said the next day. "This one wave I ate, I hit the water so hard, my eyelids peeled back. It feels like I've got needles in my neck and back and shoulders." Oddly, he could not stop smiling.
Eddie would have been proud. --Austin Murphy
Bill Scheft is on vacation.