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Big-wave thrills attract throng


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POSTED: Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Waimea Bay was vibrant yesterday as the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau invitational surf contest got under way for the first time in five years.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people flocked to the bay to watch skilled surfers catch towering waves. Many residents as well as contest organizers described it as the largest crowd to ever watch the prestigious surf contest, which celebrated its 25th anniversary yesterday.

The contest was the eighth Eddie Aikau event held since its inception.

“;It is like no other surfing event in the world,”; said Randy Rarick.

Thousands traveled to the bay by foot, bike or car. Onlookers filled “;every nook and cranny,”; said spokeswoman Jodi Young Wilmott. People packed the beach and lined the cliffside as well as the rocky edge on the Kahuku side of Waimea Bay. Some camped overnight, awaiting the much-anticipated contest, while some North Shore residents anticipated throngs of cars, charging $5 to $50 for parking space.

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As expected, the big surf brought big traffic and had safety officials worried about waves reaching the highway.

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A live webcast of the contest on Quiksilver's Web site was available worldwide, and Oceanic Cable carried the contest statewide on channels 250 and 1250.

The crowd cheered and roared as they watched the contestants, including Kelly Slater, Jamie O'Brien and Andy Irons, charge the waves.

Major traffic congestion occurred on Kamehameha Highway as a continuous stream of residents and tourists headed to the bay. Beverly Jucknath of Fort Myers, Fla., and Julie Thiel of Atlanta said they drove from Waikiki in a rental car to watch the contest, also for the first time. They paid $30 for parking at a grassy lot near Foodland.

Both said they did not mind paying to see the rarely held contest.

“;How often can I do this?”; said Jucknath.

At least one area school reported students showing up late because of the traffic jam on Kamehameha Highway, the only major highway in the area. Office workers at Kahuku Elementary School on Pualalea Street off Kamehameha Highway said students were late on Monday and again yesterday. “;There were about 60 or 80 tardy students today (Tuesday),”; one office worker said.

Haleiwa Elementary School on Kamehameha Highway reported no problems yesterday. Many parents brought their children early because of a planned field trip.

Ala Moana resident Austin Deng called his boss, taking the day off at the last minute to watch the contest. Deng, 30, a computer programmer, said watching the event was like watching the Super Bowl.

“;I can't miss this,”; he said. “;It was worth it, what the hell.”;

North Shore lifeguards constantly warned onlookers to stay off the wet rocks on the Kahuku side of the bay as massive waves crashed.

Lifeguards on Oahu conducted nearly 10,000 preventative actions and numerous assists, according to Bryan Cheplic, spokesman of the Emergency Services Department. At Makaha Beach, lifeguards rescued four people after their canoe flipped over. One who appeared to be in his 30s suffered injuries and was taken in serious condition to an area hospital.

Forecasters predicted waves to drop to 25 to 35 feet today from yesterday's 30- to 40-foot heights, with occasional 50-foot waves. A high-surf warning remains in effect until 6 p.m. for north and west shores on Niihau, Oahu, Kauai, Molokai and Maui.

The contest is named after Eddie Aikau, the first official lifeguard at Waimea Bay, where he saved countless lives. He died in 1978 after he paddled for help from the capsized Hokule'a voyaging canoe.

Family members were touched by the overwhelming crowd yesterday.

“;It's very humbling for the family that everybody can respect Eddie after so many years,”; said Aikau's brother, Clyde, who competed yesterday.

He won the Eddie Aikau event in February 1987.

Aikau's sister, Myra Aikau, added, “;For us it's a great honor to see all these people here and seeing them all respecting Eddie for what he was and still is today. He's an icon.

“;His spirit is definitely here,”; she said.

Star-Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako contributed to this report.