We are in Hawaii and this is the story of Luke Shepardson, a lifeguard who has accomplished an incredible feat. In fact, he asked his boss for permission to temporarily take a break from work to take part in the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, one of the most iconic contests in the surfing world, he got off his perch on the beach and went with his board to meet the ocean giants. As if nothing had happened. And after his shift, he went back to work. Although he had accomplished the feat of feats: he won the contest, beating the most important professional surfers in the world, people like John John Florence, two-time world champion, or Kay Lanny, multi-titled surfing star.
The lifeguard hero
While, on the other hand, he lost it in 1978, during an expedition organized by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which had sought volunteers for a journey to the ocean that was to retrace the ancient migration routes of the native Polynesians towards Hawaii and Tahiti. A 30-day mission, covering about 2,500,000 miles by canoe, which however was not lucky. The canoe had reported a leak, had taken on water and capsized, Aikau – who had joined the expedition as a member of the crew – had tried to reach an island with his surfboard to go and raise the alarm and save his comrades. The crew was then rescued by a US Coast Guard cutter, while nothing more was heard of Aikau. The largest Hawaiian search operation had been mounted, but it had been in vain. Eddie Aikau was missing. He was 31 years old.
To remember and celebrate him, in 1985 the sportswear company Quicksilver sponsored a surf competition, a special invitation-only contest reserved for the champions of giant wave surfing. An event that has only been held ten times since then, because for it to be staged there must be the guarantee of average waves of at least 20 feet, i.e. about 12 meters in height. That’s no small thing, because unlike other spots, such as Nazaré in Portugal, at The Eddie surfers have to reach the tops of the waves with only the strength of their arms, “rowing” and not being towed by jet skis.
The lifeguard who enters the legend
Luke Shepardson is the other lifeguard to become legendary. He is among the surfers invited to The Eddie 2022/2023. He is one of the magnificent 40. The green light opens, in the light of the weather forecast giving a storm with flakes. But then the light goes out. Disappointment, skipped trips. Surfers who are not in the area wait for the last minute to leave, catching a plane on the fly. But then the green light comes on again. There will be giant waves. And they’re going to be really big: 30 feet, 50 maybe even bigger. Let’s say from 15 meters up, come on.
The big day arrives. Champions such as John John Florence, Kay Lanny, and among the women the French Justine Dupont take to the water. Luke stays on the beach, he works hard to keep the spectators – tens of thousands present, a million they say on the web – out of danger zones. “I had to earn my free time to be able to surf in my heats (two heats)”, he said. He had asked his boss for permission, he had carved out a few hours off from the service.
The contest starts at 8 in the morning and never stops. As the waves get bigger and bigger. Florence, Ross Clarke-Jones, Landon McNamara, Zeke Lau. There are those who break planks, those who return to the beach bleeding, someone inflates their chest because they already feel they are victorious, others withdraw.
After noon, the Ocean grows again. Casual Luke, the lifeguard of the new legend is called this by now, did an excellent first heat / heat. Then, while the 39 other surfers rested, he went back to work. He also stitched up the wounds sustained by two other riders. And then, around 3 pm, he takes another break and goes back to the water. And he does the job. He has the strength, the patience, the intuition to wait for a second wave, which takes him straight to Olympus. Maybe Eddie – Luke is a family friend of the legendary – is with him.
In the end Shepardson wins the contest and enters history. There are about ten surfers who can claim to have won The Eddie. Casual Luke shows up at the award ceremony with the yellow lifeguard t-shirt. He collects the prize ($10,000 the purse) and goes back to work to finish the shift. Behind the lenses of the sunglasses, the tears.