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WAIMEA BAY, Hawaii (Reuters) - Boards broke, singlets were ripped clean off surfers' backs, but while 15-foot waves crashed down on competitors at the nearby World Cup of Surfing, the swells were still too small for 'The Eddie'.
Named in memory of a legendary surfer lost at sea in 1978, The Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contest can only be staged when swells tower above 20 feet. Thursday's opening ceremony at Waimea Bay was emotional and spiritual, but the waves were just not big enough.
In 26 years, there have been just eight days of competition.
Eleven-times world champion Kelly Slater was on hand at the ceremony, the most photographed surfer in the world was the one taking snaps -- that is what The Eddie means to surfers.
Slater closed his eyes as the bay was blessed by priest Billy Mitchell.
"Eddie didn't live being afraid to die," Mitchell said, as the weather cleared and bathed the bay in sunshine.
"His spirit of generosity, his spirit of caring, his spirit of helping -- we can all feel that here, we can take it away with us, we can live it,"
Aikau was aboard a double-hulled voyaging canoe on a 30-day, 2,500-mile journey from Hawaii to Tahiti organized by The Polynesian Voyaging Society when it capsized off Molokai.
He grabbed his surfboard and started paddling towards another island, Lanai, for help. His crew mates were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Cape Corwin but Aikau, who had removed his lifejacket because it was a hindrance to his paddling, was never seen again.
The air-sea search was the largest in Hawaii's history, but was unsuccessful.
The window for competition is open until February 28. If giant swells are forecast, emails are sent to the 28 invitees and 24 alternates: "Get to Waimea now!"
Mother Nature's brew has to be just right: an ideal Eddie swell travels 1,500 nautical miles over a three-or-four day journey, out of the north-west. Wind speeds are 50-60 knots.
The north-west swell has to push through the bay's narrow opening of roughly 315-325 degrees. Sunset and Pipeline, only a stone's throw away, can be heaving but Waimea will be only half the size if the mix is wrong. Such a fine line.
Years can pass without a single heat taking place, the last was two years ago, but when the Eddie is on the North Shore comes to a complete standstill as tens of thousands line the headland, taking up every spare inch of sand on the beach.
Eddie and his brother Clyde were Waimea's first lifeguards. In 10 years of duty, without the jet skis and patrol boats of today, they did not lose one life.
"We were proud of that," Clyde said after appearing in a 'talk night' at the Surfer Bar in Turtle Bay Resort.
He strummed his guitar, a lei hung from his neck and a rueful grin came across his face, like people always get when they are remembering someone they loved and lost.
"I'm Eddie Aikau's brother," he said, almost to himself. It felt as if all the North Shore of Oahu had poured in, but you could hear a pin drop.
Eddie introduced himself, and Waimea, to the surfing fraternity November 19, 1967. Waimea shuddered under 40-foot waves but Eddie paddled out alone, catching wave after wave.
"Eddie Would Go" -- the most famous three words in the sport. The surfers' mantra. They say it to shame another who is scared of big waves; "Come on, Eddie would go."
It's on stickers and T-shirts. The University of Hawaii's American football team adopted and adapted it to: "Eddie Would Throw".
The phrase was born during the first Eddie contest in the winter of 1984/85. The waves were wild. As contest director George Downing considered whether to go ahead, surfer Mark Foo deadpanned: "Eddie would go."
The Eddie went ahead and Foo's words lived on.
On Thursday, Clyde, sporting a T-shirt saying "Eddie Would Go", led a paddle out past the point where the greatest "hellmen" in surfing sat in a circle, held hands and one-by-one, told a story about Eddie.
There were 52 stories, then the sun went down.
Editing by Peter Rutherford