The lure of Oahu’s North Shore is a powerful force in surfing. It’s the ultimate test of a person’s limits, and for four hardy members of the Northern California community, this has been a month to remember.

Peter Mel, known for his mastery of Mavericks, competed in a Hawaiian contest for the history books. San Francisco’s Bianca Valenti spent nearly a month immersed in personal challenges and brought home a significant award. Zoe Chait, the 16-year-old Half Moon Bay surfer with big plans, made a huge impression. And Ocean Beach-based photographer Sachi Cunningham had the full experience, which inevitably means a bit of trauma along the way.

One can only marvel at Mel’s fitness and long-standing reputation as he eases into his early 50s. The Santa Cruz surfer is a legend at Mavericks, scoring a massive tube ride two years ago that raised the bar of excellence, and he’s been a fixture in the prestigious Eddie Aikau big-wave contest, at Waimea Bay, since he got his first invitation in 1997.

What happened last Sunday was an event of such magnitude, some of us divided our attention between the 49ers-Dallas divisional playoff game and the Aikau webcast. It was just that spectacular.

This was a day of sunshine, favorable offshore winds and a giant swell that registered in the 20-foot range (peaking at 27.6) on the overnight buoy readings. That meant 50-foot waves were headed for Waimea, some of them bigger, and it turned into “without a doubt the biggest and most incredible day we’ve had in the contest,” Mel said in a telephone interview.

“Also the most terrifying.”

Most of the time, when visitors come upon the spectacle of Waimea Bay, it looks like a lake. The normal wintertime surfing day is only mildly dramatic from a distance. When it’s 40 feet, the place truly comes alive, but even at that size, even on the good days, it’s extremely rare to see a wave close out the bay, breaking violently across its broad expanse. On Sunday, that happened about once every half-hour, sending surfers and jet-ski rescue operators in retreat. Each of the 40 surfers competed in two separate heats, “so any time you went out there, you’d have to deal with that,” Mel said.

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