Brock Little would have absolutely loved this. The epic drops, the brutal carnage, the rowdy crowd, and the big-wave brotherhood gathering at Waimea Bay for just the ninth running of The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, the same sacred event that made him famous.
On Thursday it certainly seemed that Brock Little, who made his journey into the spirit realm last week, had done some powerful lobbying with the surf gods upon his arrival. His beloved Waimea Bay, which he was valiantly defending as still worthy of respect in his final days, was absolutely massive. Maxing out massive. Nearly too-big-to-go massive. And that's just how he would have preferred it.
The seriousness wasn't lost on 66-year-old Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother. Eddie, he reminded everyone, was a lifeguard, the original lifeguard at Waimea Bay, and he never once lost a single life there while on duty. And as far as the Aikau family was concerned, Eddie was on watch, and safety was paramount. Surfers in danger were told they would be approached if they didn't give the "okay" sign (a tapping of the head) after wiping out.
For Clyde it was an emotional day. The former champion decided this would be his last time competing in the event, and knowing that he didn't hold back. Matter of fact he cartwheeled down the face on his very first wave. Rescue crews rushed to pluck him out of the impact zone in the aftermath. But on the way out Clyde jumped off the sled -- before his rescuer would have liked -- and paddled back to the lineup on his own power. He nabbed a few more good drops before the heat was over, much to the delight of everyone watching. The old lion's courage, style and Aloha attitude drew some of the loudest cheers of the day.
That bravado certainly spilled into the rest of the 28-man field. With plenty of waves on tap, and so many incredible big-wave talents, this was unquestionably the most competitive Eddie in history.
Adding to the tension was the unique format. Each seven-man matchup is a can't-miss because the prestigious event can be won during any single hour-long heat. While each surfer got two cracks at the lineup, their final score was comprised of their top four rides of the day (waves are judged on a 1-100 scale). Not only is it possible for a surfer catch four big waves in any one-hour period, that's exactly how Greg Long sealed the deal in his win at the last Eddie (in 2009), and that fact wasn't lost on any of the competitors.
Ross Clarke-Jones, the Australian charger who won the event 15 years ago, got off to a great start in Round 1. The stocky 50-year-old demonstrated he's still plenty comfortable pushing himself over the ledge, and jumped out to an early lead with a 71 and a 67 in his first round heat.
Jones was sharing the lineup with Shane Dorian, who got off to a slow start in Round 1. But in Round 2, Dorian came out firing, bagging scores of 93 and 78 and earning the lead.
Clarke-Jones wasn't done. He came firing back in the waning moments of the next heat with a massive 96 and a friendly 44 that put him back on top of the leaderboard.
While the top spot on the leaderboard was on lock for much of the day, the list of standout rides was voluminous. Jamie O'Brien and Mason Hoboth caught waves that looked strikingly similar to Brock Little's famous 1990 bomb.
Koa, the youngest attendee, was sharing the lineup with his older brother Makuakai during Round 1 when Makuakai got tangled up in one of the worst wipeouts of the day, as he and Kala Alexander collided on takeoff and tumbled down the face.
Meanwhile, John John Florence brought his casual style into the massive surf, and surprised many with how comfortable he looked in the ruthless conditions. He was taking off deep, steep and late, and while he got caught behind a few during his first heat, he nevertheless nabbed a 65 and 59, which was a solid foundation to build on.
Kelly Slater was his usual solid self, and while he only had a 60 to show after his first round heat, his final tribute to Brock Little was a mid-size wedge that hit the boil cleanly, opening the door for him to stall mid-face and get completely barreled. It was the only real tube ride of the day, and Slater was misty-eyed when he hit shore thinking about his friend.
In the final round, John John Florence took to the water needing some big scores to overtake Ross Clarke-Jones. The young Hawaiian paddled deep behind the boil for his Round 2 heat and got busy. His first wave was a steep drop that buried him in the foam, but he came out clean and earned an 89. With less than 10 minutes he still needed something in the 60-point range. He delivered with an 88.
After that, it was nail biting time for Florence. With Makukai Rothman, Ian Walsh, Peter Mel, and Nathan Fletcher all in the final heat of the day, no lead was really safe.
The last threat to Florence was Makuakai Rothman, who was within striking distance midway through the final heat of the day. But as time ran out all eyes turned to Florence, who was stunned more silent than usual by the magnitude of the moment.
That Florence won the Eddie, becoming the youngest ever to do so, shouldn't really surprise anyone. He's been attending the Eddie ceremony since he was 12. But that he's won the Eddie before taking a Pipe Masters crown? Well, yes. That's surprising.
For now it seems fitting that John John Florence, arguably the best surfer on the planet, bleeds the type of humility Eddie Aikau would be extremely proud of. It's also fitting that he seems to have all the bravery of Brock. All in all, not a bad day for Hawaii.
Final Results of the 2016 Quiksilver in Memory of Edddie Aikau
1. John John Florence (HAW)
2. Ross Clarke Jones (AUS)
3. Shane Dorian (HAW)
4. Jamie Mitchell (AUS)
5. Kelly Slater (USA)
6. Makuakai Rothman (HAW)