Sports // Bruce Jenkins
The lure of Oahu’s North Shore is a powerful force in surfing. It’s the ultimate test of a person’s limits, and for four hardy members of the Northern California community, this has been a month to remember.
Peter Mel, known for his mastery of Mavericks, competed in a Hawaiian contest for the history books. San Francisco’s Bianca Valenti spent nearly a month immersed in personal challenges and brought home a significant award. Zoe Chait, the 16-year-old Half Moon Bay surfer with big plans, made a huge impression. And Ocean Beach-based photographer Sachi Cunningham had the full experience, which inevitably means a bit of trauma along the way.
One can only marvel at Mel’s fitness and long-standing reputation as he eases into his early 50s. The Santa Cruz surfer is a legend at Mavericks, scoring a massive tube ride two years ago that raised the bar of excellence, and he’s been a fixture in the prestigious Eddie Aikau big-wave contest, at Waimea Bay, since he got his first invitation in 1997.
What happened last Sunday was an event of such magnitude, some of us divided our attention between the 49ers-Dallas divisional playoff game and the Aikau webcast. It was just that spectacular.
This was a day of sunshine, favorable offshore winds and a giant swell that registered in the 20-foot range (peaking at 27.6) on the overnight buoy readings. That meant 50-foot waves were headed for Waimea, some of them bigger, and it turned into “without a doubt the biggest and most incredible day we’ve had in the contest,” Mel said in a telephone interview.
“Also the most terrifying.”
Most of the time, when visitors come upon the spectacle of Waimea Bay, it looks like a lake. The normal wintertime surfing day is only mildly dramatic from a distance. When it’s 40 feet, the place truly comes alive, but even at that size, even on the good days, it’s extremely rare to see a wave close out the bay, breaking violently across its broad expanse. On Sunday, that happened about once every half-hour, sending surfers and jet-ski rescue operators in retreat. Each of the 40 surfers competed in two separate heats, “so any time you went out there, you’d have to deal with that,” Mel said.
More for you
- Bob Wise, San Francisco surfing pioneer, dies at 74
- Bottlenose dolphins have migrated to the Bay Area for the first time, adapting to the changing environment
The greatest surfer in history, Kelly Slater, got a look at Waimea that morning and took a pass. He’s won this contest before (2002), but “I just wasn’t feeling it,” Slater, who turns 51 next month, said in a local television interview. “That’s happened to me on different swells over the years, where I just don’t feel comfortable. I talked to Tony Moniz (a storied surfer of years past) and he told me, ‘Then don’t go. And don’t feel weird about it.’”
Slater decided to give up his spot to veteran surfer Chris Owens, long respected for his surfing and long-distance paddleboarding, and Slater’s gracious gesture was roundly appreciated. “Chris had never surfed the Eddie, and I’m super happy,” he said. “We hugged it out. He was almost crying.”
There’s nothing in the surfing world like “The Eddie.” It has run only 10 times since its inception in 1986, for it must meet the highest standards and get officially called that morning, not the day or week before. It honors the legacy of the North Shore’s first lifeguard, who died at sea in 1978 in a valiant attempt to get help for people stranded on a storm-ravaged canoe.
Some 50,000 people crowded the beach and highway vantage points. It felt like a scene from some other time, with no scores posted on the webcast, no scoreboard for witnesses to follow and little financial reward. When you can’t promise when or if something will take place, big-time television revenue does not exist. “We’re gonna run this event even if we’re surfing for coconuts,” said meet organizer Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s younger brother, at the opening ceremony two weeks ago.
“I didn’t find out until about midway through the day that they’d come up with some prize money,” Mel said, “and they wound up giving something to everybody ($10,000 to winner Luke Shepardson, trickling down to $1,000 for fifth through eighth place, then $500 for everyone else). And nobody cared. We were honoring Eddie, his life, his purpose in surfing, his spirit. I think we were all humbled in that regard.”
On the surfline.com website, esteemed journalist Nick Carroll called it “surely the best event in surfing history.” It was decidedly cool that the victorious Luke Shepardson was an on-duty Waimea Bay lifeguard granted one-hour breaks to surf his heats, pushing the great John John Florence into second place. The likes of Twiggy Baker, Keala Kennelly, Billy Kemper and Kohl Christensen were among those taking free-fall wipeouts that were frightening to behold. Unbridled heroics ruled the day, and for Mel, who finished a very respectable 14th, the last of his three successful rides was the best.
Negotiating the elevator-steep drop to reach the bottom, Mel found himself alongside Shane Dorian, a big-wave mainstay he’s known since Mel’s first trip to Hawaii in 1984. A Waimea wave can be shared, with the proper expertise, and they wound up gliding together to joyously lock hands as they eased out the back.
“We’re both like 50 now, we’re both still doin’ it,” Mel said. “It was a big wave, radical drop, and we’re screaming at the top of our lungs right next to each other. That was the pinnacle.”
For the first time in contest history, there were six women in the heats: Kennelly, Paige Alms, Andrea Moller, Justine Dupont, Emi Erickson and Makani Adric, each finishing in the 31-40 range in the final tally. Valenti dearly wanted to join them, but she was the No. 1 alternate and the opportunity never came.
“Disappointing, for sure, but I’ve had a great month over here,” Valenti said Thursday night. “Surfing spots all over, including one day at Waimea when I caught five really nice ones — best day I’ve ever had there. It’s been non-stop, just weeks of great conditions, and I’ve been going hard. I’m ready to come back and just sit up in the mountains for a couple of days.”
She’s likely to find some kindred spirits there. Valenti was recently inducted into the California Outdoors Hall of Fame, honoring those who demonstrate “exceptional breadth of skills and commitment and have touched many thousands through their passion, inspiring future generations.”
It’s an award generally bestowed upon hikers, fishermen, parkland guides, photographers and the like. About a half-dozen people get inducted each year, and Valenti’s honor reflected her leading since its inception in 2002, including some familiar names: Greg Lemond, Shaun White, Ansel Adams and former Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra. The list includes the late Jack O’Neill, who invented the first wetsuit for surfers and scuba divers in the 1950s, and surfer-climber Yvon Chouinard, who founded the Patagonia company, but Valenti is the first to be honored strictly as a surfer. She will be well remembered as leading the global fight for equal prize money in surfing, a decadelong dream that became reality in 2018 when the World Surf League (proprietor of the pro tours) made the commitment.
“It’s so gratifying to be recognized as someone who’s made a difference,” said Valenti, who wasn’t able to attend last Saturday’s induction ceremony (the Aikau was held the following day) but sent a video in appreciation. “This is really a huge honor.”
Like Valenti, her idol and mentor, Zoe Chait wanted an extended experience on the North Shore. Over three weeks this month, she drew from the adrenaline rush she experienced on her first wave at Mavericks and truly stood out. Instagram posts show her surfing with panache on a 12-foot wave at Haleiwa and emerging from a tube at the treacherous Backdoor Pipeline, and she caught several good waves at Waimea.
“Just an awesome trip, beautiful,” Chait said this week from Sunset Beach, where she shared North Shore accommodations with Valenti. “I’ve learned a lot, and I’m excited to bring what I learned back home.”
Sachi Cunningham is held in awe by Northern California surfers, routinely swimming into the maelstrom at Mavericks and big Ocean Beach to shoot the action up close. She is taking an unpaid leave of absence from San Francisco State, where she is an associate professor, to complete a film on women’s surfing, SheChange (shechangethefilm.com) that she’s been working on for eight years.
Cunningham spent a good part of January in Hawaii, surviving life-threatening conditions at Pipeline and a scary experience at Waimea (during the Backdoor Shootout contest) and Waimea Bay to get some memorable shots. She’s a world-class swimmer, but the North Shore always has a surprise in store.
Veering off-course on a Waimea swim back to the beach, she found herself swept into the rocky west corner, a place no one ever wants to be, where swirling, thunderous whitewater makes it almost impossible to swim out or in. “Fortunately, the North Shore lifeguards are heroes,” she said via email Friday. “I had to take a few giant shore-pounds on the head, but I felt safe knowing I had so many skilled rescue eyes on me, and they got on the horn and talked me through it. I’m sorry that I put them in that position, but I learned a lot about the dynamics of the Bay.”
During a vintage month of North Shore surf, she had distinguished company.
Bruce Jenkins writes the 3-Dot Lounge for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Bruce_Jenkins1
Top of the News
- Should you ‘forever’ mask in some settings? Here’s what UCSF’s Wachter says
Dr. Bob Wachter recently shared on Twitter that while he’s open to taking more risks as COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area come down, he’ll almost always mask up in some situations — forever. His risk...
By Danielle Echeverria
Wife’s statement, video lead to charges for man who drove Tesla off cliff
By Matthias Gafni
49ers’ Brock Purdy suffered torn ligament in NFC title game, source says
By Eric Branch
Self-taught baker makes some of the best bagels. Her first shop is opening
By Elena Kadvany
After Supreme Court ruling, S.F. approves rare concealed-carry gun permit
By St. John Barned-Smith