Interview and photos by Mike Latronic
Never before had the world seen such a consistent big swell focused so perfectly at Waimea Bay – not for any free surfing day nor any event day. Sunday January 22, 2023 is a big wave surfing date that will go down in the history books. It was a day the surfing world once again celebrated fallen hero Eddie Aikau and with nearly 50,000 people crowding the north shore of Oahu to watch the action, it was literally just another day of work for 27 year old lifeguard, and eventual winner, Luke Shepardson.
You have been on some of the biggest bombs of the year the past few years. Why do you do it?
I do it because I love it. I love the thrill. The adrenaline rush is one of the best feelings in the world. I do pay attention and I know my limits and I know when I can push my limits when there is the proper safety around. I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable because when you think you’re comfortable, Mother Nature will slap you down and show you that you’re very small in the ocean. Just always be aware of your surroundings and that’s the one thing I love about the ocean is it makes you be in the present moment. You’re not thinking of 10 seconds ago.
It makes you focus on what you have to do to survive. The most alive you feel is when you’re so close to death and when you make it back to shore safely, it’s a great feeling.
What is it that you think compels some surfers to test those limits?
Um, I don’t know. It’s kind of human nature to see what your body can handle and explore the limits of possibility. ‘Cuz I mean like 50 years ago they’re pushing the limits at Waimea and evolution is everyone just keeps pushing their limits to find what is possible. It’s curiosity and the thrill of the unknown.
How did you feel when you found out you were invited to this prestigious event?
The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is like the pinnacle of surfing. I think it’s like the biggest, most prestigious contest there is. I was invited for the first time and it was just mind-blowing. It has been the biggest dream of my life to surf in it. The opening ceremony gives me the chills every time. The chants and the pule they do and all the history that they explain about is awesome and then being out in the water, you definitely feel the mana of the place and the energy and all that’s around it. It’s a really humbling thing to be a part of.
When I grabbed my jersey for the first heat, I started crying. I was like, it’s really happening. It’s a dream come true. And then winning the thing is beyond my wildest imagination.
The surf was massive with offshore wind and consistent 40-50’ sets. What was going through your mind?
I wasn’t thinking of winning at all (laughs). I was just thinking of going out and having fun and surfing Waimea with only seven other guys in the water. It was a lot of fun and to be out there with so many legends, it’s like, it was really, really cool. I was just tickled.
That morning traffic was so bad, I barely got to the tower in time to be ready for work and it was super busy. Having to compete and work on the same day kind of kept my mind off of the contest. I was more focused on what was going on with the spectators, trying to keep people safe, keep everyone back.
Let’s talk about the ocean that day. People were calling it the best ever.
I would say that was the most consistent closeouts that I’ve ever seen at Waimea but also with beautiful shape to the waves. The offshore winds and everything came together magically to make such a beautiful day. I think I couldn’t have asked for a better combination of everything.
In both my heats we got out into the lineup and I was surrounded by legends and and I was just like, ‘Thanks! I’m super stoked to share a heat with you guys.’ and everyone was super stoked and there were really good vibes in the water.
How was it trying to line up with those monster sets!?
I have my lineup I was sitting on and then everyone was way deeper than me. I was like, ‘Oh, I hope I don’t look bad, like sitting on the shoulder. I hope it doesn’t look weird from the beach.’ But this is my lineup that I always sit in and I know the waves that I’m looking for and where I like to be so that I can make the waves. And I was like, okay, I’m just gonna do me and do what I do.
You absolutely charged some of the biggest waves ever ridden at Waimea. What goes through your mind after dancing with those monsters?
I was very grateful. The waves came to me and then in one of my heats I was sitting on my lineup and like about 10 feet away from me a huge turtle popped up. I was kind of by myself, away from the crowd. It just looked at me for about 10 seconds and then it went under and bailed. And then I got the chills from that. I was like, whoa. That was something.
You caught two or three of the heaviest sets of the day so how were you feeling about that before they announced the results?
Before my second heat, because it was the last heat of the day, I knew I had two good scores and then a couple people told me I had a good chance to win this thing. People told me, ‘Go get one really, really good wave and you’ll be the champion!’ I was just like, whoa, like don’t put too much pressure on me! (laughs) But then, yeah, I got out for my second heat and I was sitting in the lineup on my mark and like a minute or two into the heat just this, a beautiful wave came to me I whipped it to go and Mikey Red yelled me into it and it felt like one of the best waves I’ve ever had. Seeing the clip later, it doesn’t look like too much of an airdrop, but it felt like it was an airdrop and then a huge explosion. When I came out of the explosion, I was thinking that was a really good wave. So I claimed it and then just got cartwheeled right afterwards. (laughs) I wasn’t paying attention but I was thinking that might be it. That might be what I needed. And then went back out the back and I was just super stoked and I was like, like I’ve competed in an Eddie. I was just tripping out. And then another wave came and I just had a nice chip into it. I was able to ride it and kick out and that one felt like a good one too.
If you had to put it in a nutshell, what should any surfer know about Waimea Bay?
Really get to know your limits. Just because it looks like a drop and people are going straight, it doesn’t mean it’s simple. The crowd when it’s the 10 to 15 foot size is very, very, very dangerous. People are out there kind of not knowing where their lineups are and not knowing what to do and they get caught and then there’s all the boards and that craziness, which is really, really scary. Then when it does get the 15 to 20 foot size, the ledge is really gnarly. If you’re out there on a big day and you’re trying to get a small one, probably best to not be out there at all. Try to stay out of people’s way and not be a hazard.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I would just like to thank the whole Eddie Aikau Foundation and the whole Aikau ohana for putting on such a magical event and continuing the legacy of Eddie. Thanks to all the fans and the supporters that came down to watch and thank you to everybody that helped me get to where I am. Thank you to my family and friends for all the support. To my co-workers and boss, thanks for the leave time for the heats. And a huge thank you to the Hawai‘ian Water Patrol for doing what they do. They are guardian angels. Their ocean knowledge and knowledge of how to use a jet ski and get in and out of crazy situations and rescue people is just special. I’m so thankful for them.
And the result?
Yeah, when they called all eight of us up onto the stage. I was like, well, I’m at the top. That’s crazy. And then they announced a bunch of placings getting down closer to the end, and then it was me and John John. I was like, whoa. And then I don’t even know how to describe it. I was so stoked. I just started crying.
Do you think perhaps Eddie’s mana was sending you good energy, lifeguard to lifeguard?
I don’t know if it was if he was sending me the waves or whatnot for being another lifeguard, but, um, he was a real life superhero and what he did is amazing. To even be close to follow in his footsteps is really humbling and it’s really cool.
If Eddie was lifeguarding that day and there was no contest, would Eddie have closed the Bay to surfing?
I didn’t know him personally, but I’m sure he would’ve been out there riding the waves. Eddie would go .
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