For many surf fans around the world, Luke Shepardson may not have been a household name a week ago. In fact, unless you live on the North Shore of Oahu, you may not have heard of him at all.
After all, he doesn’t have any big sponsors and he isn’t a monthly fixture in your favourite surf magazines. He’s a humble, understated, blue-collar charger who supports his family and his love for big waves by lifeguarding the heaviest beaches in the world, but he’s not the sort of guy who will tell you how gnarly he is. In other words, unless you’ve been paying attention, it’s not a big surprise that you didn’t know him before Sunday.
But those in the big wave community have been aware of Luke for a quite a while now. Luke grew up on the North Shore, attending Sunset Elementary School and Kahuku High.
His first session at Waimea was on a 9'4" single fin when he was 13 years old and he spent the next seven years quietly honing his big wave game. But it was only when he paddled what was arguably the biggest wave ever ridden at Waimea in 2016 (on a day when Slater didn’t even make it out through the shorebreak) that the 20-year-old publicly stated his intentions to someday compete in the world’s most prestigious big wave event—although he did so in the humblest way possible, letting his surfing speak for itself.
Luke received his first invitation to The Eddie the next year and has been a perennial invitee ever since—a fact that has sort of blown his mind.
“It is the OG big wave surf event and probably the most prestigious too,” Luke says. “To me, it’s the biggest thing in surfing and I am still baffled that I’m involved in it. I was super stoked to get an invite because it was a dream of mine for a long time to be in the event and to surf it.”
But after a lengthy flat spell and a global pandemic saw the event fail to run for seven years, he had yet to realise his dream of surfing the Bay in a jersey.
That all changed this past Sunday, when Clyde Aikau called The Eddie on in the biggest, best, most consistent conditions we’ve ever seen at Waimea Bay. It was the day of days at the Bay, and young Luke finally got his chance to charge on a global stage.
But while the rest of the competitors spent the day mentally prepping for heats and recovering after sessions, Luke was busy keeping 50,000 spectators safe at a maxed-out Waimea Bay. Like the contest’s namesake Eddie Aikau, Luke makes his living lifeguarding Waimea, and he was on duty all day Sunday. In fact, he had to use earned leave time to surf his two hour-long heats in the middle of his shift, a request his captain was happy to approve.
On a day that had half of the world’s best big wave surfers severely stressed out, Luke didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that he had to do double duty as a lifeguard and competitor.
To him, it almost felt fitting, particularly considering the fact that the contest is a tribute to one of his personal and professional heroes. “Eddie Aikau has always been a big inspiration to me,” he explains. “From being the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay and making surfing the Bay look so effortless to the selfless act he made on the Hokulea to try and save the rest of the crew, he’s a real life superhero to me.”
On Sunday, Luke joined Eddie Aikau in earning superhero status, handily winning what was likely the greatest big wave contest in history. He surfed against numerous world champs (both big wave and small), past event winners, and one of the most stacked fields we’ve ever seen in some of the heaviest, most perfect conditions surfing’s original big wave venue has ever dished out, and his demeanour in the water was so casual and non-self-aggrandising that he might have gone completely unnoticed—except for the fact that he put on the performance of a lifetime.
His demeanour in the water was so casual and non-self-aggrandising that he might have gone completely unnoticed—except for the fact that he put on the performance of a lifetime
When asked about the conditions, his response is as understated as ever. “The waves were amazing that day—the wind was perfect offshore and the swell found its way in to Waimea really good. It was super challenging on the ledge, but a few of the big ones had chip-ins and I luckily got a few.”
It was only after I pressed him that Luke admitted that Sunday “was one of the best days of my life, next to the birth of my kids. And to have my family and friends there made it super special.”
He then quickly turned the attention away from himself, acknowledging all of the people in his life that he credits with supporting him in his journey to the top of the big wave world.
“I just want to thank the Aikau ohana for putting on the event and the Hawaiian water patrol and ocean safety lifeguards for all the outstanding work they do all the time. And I want to thank my family and friends for being there for me all these years and supporting me.”
The gnarliest guy on the gnarliest day, winning the heaviest big wave contest ever while keeping everyone on the beach at Waimea safe, then spending his moment in the sun acknowledging the people in his life that he appreciates, rather than talking about himself.
If there’s anyone out there who embodies the legacy and spirit of Eddie Aikau, it’s Luke Shepardson. How perfectly fitting that he’s the winner of the ultimate Eddie.