Massive winter waves aim for Hawaii, putting pro surfers on alert

The director of the Eddie Aikau big-wave contest, which happens only if waves are consistently 20 feet, said the timing wasn't right.
Image: Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational
A surfer rides a wave at the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2009.David Gregerson / Getty Images file

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By Dennis Romero

A massive winter swell is aiming for Hawaii, but the timing isn't right for a legendary big wave contest in Waimea Bay, organizers said.

The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational alerted invitees Friday that the coming swell meant the competition could be held this week. But on Sunday, contest director Liam McNamara said the swell's nighttime peak wasn't right for competition on the North Shore of Oahu.

The waves are the result of a powerful storm in the northern Pacific that's moving east, forecasters said. The swell, pushed by powerful wind, will eventually reach California, they said.

Kevin Wallis of the private forecaster Surfline wrote Saturday that it could be "the largest swell of the year" for some spots in Hawaii, particularly the island of Oahu, the traditional winter home of big wave surfing.

"We are all waiting for the call if the Eddie is gonna run," Keala Kennelly, one of 32 elite surfers invited to battle in the competition at Oahu's Waimea Bay, said by email Saturday night, before McNamara made his announcement.

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"We were hoping that the swell models would have the peak arriving eight to 10 hours earlier," McNamara told NBC affiliate KHNL of Honolulu.

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The event isn't held often, because it requires a forecast of sustained 20-foot surf. The last one took place in 2016.

"We are likely going to see the swell in Hawaii building through the day Monday and peaking Monday night into Tuesday morning," said Matt Foster, a meteorologist at National Weather Service's Honolulu office.

The invitational describes itself as "the premier Event in the sport of Surfing — The Super Bowl of Surfing." The contest is named for the famed Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau, who was lost at sea after a sailboat he was on became distressed and he paddled off on a surfboard in search of help.

Foster said the storm creating the swell has produced hurricane-force winds. The result for Oahu's North Shore and for its Westside will likely be the weather service's highest-level alert for waves, a high surf warning, Foster said.

The weather service was predicting wave-face heights as great as 35 feet. Despite inviting water temperatures in the high 70s, such a swell means that getting into the ocean is recommended "for experienced professionals only," Foster said.

"If you get caught in those waves, it could be deadly," he said.

The swell will continue its march east and strike Southern California with 8- to 10-foot waves late next week, weather forecasters in San Diego said, with water temperature in the high 50s.

"Any people going out to surf in this are hearty, brave souls," said Brandt Maxwell, a weather service meteorologist based in San Diego.