US surfer Eli Olsen rides a wave as Hawaiian surfer Jake Maki gets wiped out (AFP via Getty Images)

One of the most prestigious surfing contests in the world returned in Hawaii this weekend for the first time in seven years.

The competition, which for the first time had female surfers competing alongside the men, was greeted with towering wave faces and a gigantic swell.

The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational – alternatively known simply as The Eddie – is a one-day contest held in Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore only when the surf is consistently large enough during the winter big-wave surfing season from mid-December through mid-March.

The wind, the tides and the direction of the swell also have to be just right.

“Large enough” means 20 feet (6 meters) by Hawaii measurements. That’s equivalent to about 40 feet (12 meters) when measured by methods used in the rest of the United States. Before this year, conditions have only aligned for it to be held nine times since the initial competition in 1984.

Organiser Clyde Aikau said at a news conference Friday that he was expecting waves to reach 25 to 30 feet (7.6 to nine meters) by Hawaii measurements or 50 to 60 feet (15 to 18 meters) on the national scale – and the conditions were meeting expectations.

Justine Dupont, left, and Keala Kennelly ride a large wave (AP)

Justine Dupont, left, and Keala Kennelly ride a large wave (AP)

“We’ve been looking at 30-foot to 40-foot wave faces for the most part, (and) the biggest waves of the day are going to be in excess of 45 feet. By local scale, they’ll call those waves 25 feet – and we’ve seen a couple sets like that already,” Kevin Wallis, director of forecasting at, said by phone Sunday morning.

“It’s amazing, it’s really cool to see and it’s such a rare and prestigious event, and there’s a lot of energy and a lot of buzz around, for sure,” he said.

Other places around the world have big wave surfing events: Mavericks in California, Nazare in Portugal and Peahi on Hawaii’s Maui Island. But author Stuart Coleman says The Eddie is distinguished by how it honors Eddie Aikau, a legendary Native Hawaiian waterman, for his selflessness, courage and sacrifice.

“What makes this contest the most unique is that it’s in memory of a particular individual who really has transcended his time and place when he lived,” said Coleman, who wrote “Eddie Would Go,” a biography of Aikau.

This year organisers have invited 40 competitors and 18 alternates from around the world, including Kelly Slater, who has won a record 11 world surfing titles. John John Florence, who hails from the North Shore and who has won two back-to-back world titles, has also been asked to join.

Keala Kennelly of Kauai, a women’s big wave surf champion, is among the female invitees.

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