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Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Liam Wilmott  /  August 22, 2023  /  16 Min Read  /  Surfing

A captain’s log from the biggest swell to hit
O‘ahu’s outer reefs in recent memory.

Too far inside, too far outside, too much in the channel or, worst-case scenario, too deep. Haydo (in red) experienced it all in the adrenaline-charged pursuit that is trying to catch one big wave. Photo: Daniel Russo

The Abundance Mantra

 Large sums of money

Come to me easily

In increasing quantities

From multiple sources

On a continuous basis

In the best interest of all

That I get to keep, use, give and spend joyously.

January 1, 2023

On New Year’s Day, my girlfriend, “Mahina the Magic Manifester” told me that this would be a banger of a year for people with Sun in Capricorn, particularly if you were lucky enough to be born on January 16 at 2:43 a.m., like I was. Why? Because there’s a powerful Libra moon and an ascending Sagittarius in our wheel, Der.

Which, according to astrological wizardry, means, drumroll … we get double dessert!

January 27, 2023 (after the swell settles)

I watch the boys leave for the airport.

The back of Mahina’s truck is sagging under seven huge board bags. Anthony “Kingy” King and Hayden “Haydo” Blair’s silhouetted heads bob through the rear window as they wait for a break in the traffic. They’re probably having Mahina repeat “The Abundance Mantra”—the one she shared with me back on New Year’s Day.

I pull out my phone and read the text again.

Large sums of money, eh. I smile to myself and put my phone back in my pocket. I can’t believe it, but really, I can. I have to. It’s real.

It hasn’t even been a week since the North Shore was gifted with the clacker of all swells. We can say without a doubt that January 22 will go down as the greatest Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational to date and a historic day of surfing on O‘ahu for so many reasons.

It’s been a good run and Haydo, particularly, is urgent to believe in manifesting now.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Head down, couple extra strokes, press to your feet and whooshkha—start mind surfing. Photo: The Liam Wilmott Collection

January 21, 2023

I pick up Kingy and Haydo from Honolulu airport after their red-eye Hawaiian Airlines flight from Sydney, Australia. We load their boards on my van, and they hop in, giddy with gold fever.

“What’s the latest on the swell, mate?” asks Kingy before the car door shuts. It always throws me a little to hear thick Australian accents again, and Kingy sounds like he has a hive of bees in his sinuses.

I tell them the swell hasn’t yet shown on the buoy, but it will. I give them everything else I know and eye them for any nervous ticks or red flags. They’re frothy but not hyper. I’ve seen their Instagrams and know of their abilities, but I don’t know how well that will translate to the outer reefs of O‘ahu. As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

They pepper me from all angles on the freeway. I don’t have much to tell them, and it’s not because I am being tight-lipped; I just don’t know. So I dance around the specifics and do my best to sound like I’ve lived here for 22 years.

Honestly, surfing hasn’t been on my radar lately. I’ve been nursing a sus back for months, and I gave my stomach an all-access pass to the fridge through the Christmas holiday. Plus, I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the fallout from my divorce that happened over a year ago.

We drive north along the H-2. The Saturday lunchtime traffic flows easy, and we settle into the 30 minutes of asphalt in front of us. The radio plays beneath the board straps humming along on the roof. I don’t know Haydo that well. But I do know he’s an Ulladulla boy come Cronulla charger. I met him briefly a few winters back when Wildcat (my uncle) tipped him onto me. I lent him my red 10’6″ so he could catch some big waves. He’s got graying brown hair and a Colgate commercial smile, and we have many mutual friends. He’s wearing a baggy white T-shirt over trendy, blue comfy shorts—every piece of his exposed skin seems like it’s been dipped in honey. I think to myself, “He’s too handsome to be working down in the Western Australian coal mines.” My best guess is Haydo’s 5’10”, 160 pounds, and it occurs to me that I could easily pull him from the sea if he was unconscious.

It’s good to see Kingy. He’s got the same messy mop of blonde hair and piercing blue eyes I remember. He’s a solid unit who moves in gentle sequences. But you can’t let his easygoing nature fool you. Even though he’s the oldest of us, the guy has dormant loose energy. He’s a lifeguard captain on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and has contributed to the BWRAG (Big Wave Risk Assessment Group) courses over the years. I’ve surfed with him at Cloudbreak a bunch, and I know he’s got what it takes. Not that I can talk, but Kingy looks like he’s been spending more time behind the desk than in the water, and I wouldn’t fancy seeing him (or myself) in a pair of Budgy Smugglers. I can’t help but think of the three of us, “butt to nut” on my Jet Ski tomorrow. I wonder if my Nimble Sparrow will have the wings to get us out of a tight spot.

We reach the open plains of Central O‘ahu, the urban sprawl fades back and the head-high fields of California grass blur green alongside us. We roll the windows down. The air’s fresh and clear. We’ve been banking light and variable breezes lately, and the island has a sense of peace about it that only comes with the sustained absence of brutal trade winds.

Internally, I’m praying they hadn’t wasted their money by coming. Yes, the Eddie had been called “on,” but it had also been called “on” then “off” just a week before. During the “almost” Eddie swell, the buoy readings hadn’t reached or sustained 20 feet at 20 seconds—readings needed for the comp to run—and I fear that might happen again.

When the boys bring up paddling the outer-reef waves tomorrow, I play it cool, saying bodhi stuff like: We’ll just wake up and see what the buoys say. If the wave breaks here, don’t be there. If you pull four canisters, you get benched for a spell, etc.

Personally, I’m not even sure where my true north star on big waves is currently, and because of that, I didn’t track this swell like I usually would. And now, at the front of my mind is the fact that I was about to take out two inexperienced outer-reef guys, whom I hadn’t trained with, and they would be under my watch. We have seven kids between us, and I can feel the load of responsibility to our families. Of my regular crew, Nick Christensen was out injured, and his brother Kohl, “Big Ben” Wilkinson and Ramón Navarro would all be at the Eddie.

What if it’s 20-foot-plus!? Do I even want to surf without the crew I trust watching my back?

We get to my place and unload the luggage and boards in the carport. Haydo and Kingy show off their “big” boards to me. But when I pull out my 11’0″ Arakawa, aka the Juan Juan,” for show-and-tell, an audible scratching of heads breaks their silence.

“Fark’n have a go at the size of it!” says Kingy, stepping back to stare at the 11-foot gun.

“I can’t even get me arm around her!” adds Haydo as he wrestles with the board.

We lay our boards side-by-side in the yard and take them in. Two toothpicks and a telegraph pole. I offer Kingy the Juan Juan for tomorrow and he accepts.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Just a couple big boards and one huge board waiting for the storm. Photo: The Liam Wilmott Collection

We run errands in Hale‘iwa and the boys are quick to get their wallets out for my lunch and petrol. I wave it away a couple times, but eventually cave. To refuse would fly in the face of “The Abundance Mantra.”

Will come to me easily … I remember and bite into a carne asada burrito.

We wash the flight off at Army beach. Under a cloudless sky, Kingy grabs two nicely ridden barrels and wins the “heat.” Haydo gets a couple, but mostly spends his time enjoying the sun and staring out over the horizon; I can tell his mind is on tomorrow. There was no way, especially in all that bright sunlight, we could have known Haydo is cursed.

In the surf, they want to know more about the outer reefs and the specific target venue for tomorrow—a wave only Haydo had surfed once before. I found myself downplaying the expectations, trying to get them to be present with the current moment and leave tomorrow’s swell for tomorrow. Maybe it’s for my own good.

The Aussie boys borrow the Rolex (my gold 2001 Toyota Tacoma) and get squared away at Mahina’s joint after our session. I spend my alone time at home refreshing the buoy readings, hoping to see it start climbing. At 5 p.m., it’s still a lackluster 6 feet at 12 seconds. It takes a swell 8–10 hours to arrive at our shore. At this rate, it could be flat at daybreak tomorrow.

I’m having flashbacks to the outer-reef session I had during the “almost” Eddie swell last week. The readings were, on average, 16 feet at 17 seconds, and it wasn’t quite 20-foot on the outer reefs. The “almost” Eddie swell arrived like it was drunk, leaning with a wonk and unsteadiness as it stumbled down the footpath. I had hoped it would sober up by the evening, but it still looked sideways. I felt out my back and gambled I could get one sneaky big wave before dark. My plan failed immediately. Caught inside, I got a one-way ticket on a hypoxic carnival ride as four waves detonated on my head. In the black of the squeezing ocean, I pulled all my canisters underwater like a panicking puppeteer until I was safely swallowing the urge to vomit when I got on the back of the ski.

The boys show back up at my place around dusk. The swell still hasn’t shown on the buoys, but we prepare our equipment anyway—fuel, water, sunscreen, VHF radio, tourniquets, extra leashes, spare CO2 canisters for our inflation vests. I like how we’re gelling as a team. I charge up my Sony camera, and even though I don’t have a water housing, I figure I’ll bring it in a dry bag, maybe snap a few pics of the lads if I get a chance between doing safety. What could go wrong?

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Kingy and I get our equipment dialed. Photo: The Liam Wilmott Collection

The last few months I’ve found myself continually valuing my possessions, keeping a ledger of their worth in my head in case I need to liquidate anything in a pinch. It’s like a knee-jerk reaction to not knowing where my next paycheck is coming from, which has never been my style, and I’ve found it exhausting.

I got the Nimble Sparrow back a few days before. The mechanic, Bruce the Big Bastard, had kitted my ski out with a new twin-impeller, new seats, new wire harness, bilge pump, fresh battery and an oil change, plus added pontoons and a sled. He’d had it for months and I had to near throw a tantrum to get it back. Not to mention, my checkbook was still in shock.

$Juan Juan, $Nimble Sparrow, $Sony camera … Tomorrow’s ledger is creeping high in the risk column.

In increasing quantities, from multiple sources … I calm myself.

Above every material possession is a fear that things might not go well tomorrow, and the Nimble Sparrow, I know, is crucial to that. I cross my fingers it will work, like Triple B promised it would.

At 6 p.m., buoy 1 pops. 10 feet at 17 seconds. High fives all the way around and a wave of relief washes over us—some swell is on its way! We finish our prep with renewed enthusiasm, order pizzas and have an early dinner. By 10 p.m., I’m turning out the lights and see the buoys have climbed to 22.3 feet at 17.4 seconds.


That’s above Eddie readings. I swallow the urge to Google flights to England and fall asleep.

January 22, 2023

I wake up at 4 a.m. for a wiz and check the buoy.

27.6 feet at 19 seconds! My goodness, what are we about to get into?

I get out of bed and turn the lights on.

We’re at the harbor in the dark. And before the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is called a “go” down at Waimea, we’re in the water. It’s 15–20 foot and rapidly on the rise. I ferry the boys out from Lanikai Beach and drop them in the channel. Then I end up bringing other mates out: Dusty, Big Strong Tom and that annoying guy from Jocko’s who’s a little less annoying only because there are way more annoying people who surf there now. I get handed surfers I don’t even know: Nick and Dusty’s mate, Eli, from Kaua‘i with his 16-year-old son; Oli, a one-legged dude from Oz; some Tahitian kid; Kipp Caddy from Cronulla, plus his mate from Portugal, who Kipp tells me “Is the real deal” as he helps himself onto my sled. I’m burning gas at an alarming rate and by virtue of assistance, have assumed loads more responsibility. At the very least, Bruce the Big Bastard was right about my ski—it feels supercharged.

Around 8:15 a.m., an under-gunned old dude squeezes out through the channel wearing no vest and boardshorts. I watch him nab one of the early rides of the day right back to shore. By 9 a.m. there’s 25-plus people playing cat and mouse. A wave just north of 20-feet mops them up—tallying off the first broken boards and leashes of the day.

This is the first sign of Haydo’s black cloud. The set snapped his brand-new Kirk Bierke gun, stripping the fiberglass naked. Then Kingy breaks my leash on the Juan Juan, as he swims under, and I watch my beloved board go over the falls. Dollar signs flash in my vision.

On a continuous basis … I reassure myself.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Waves so good you just want to give them a great big hug! Photo: Daniel Russo

There were three waves in that set. Between the first and second wave, Haydo and Kingy pop up, bug-eyed and board-less next to each other, staring down another massive wave. “We’re in a shit spot here!” said Haydo sounding a little alarmed. “I KNOW!” Deadpanned the Sunny Coast lifeguard before he took off doing his fastest freestyle. I was told later that made Haydo laugh so hard he had trouble holding his breath when the third wave broke on his head.

After the set, it takes me about 20 minutes to locate Haydo. I’d only seen the front half of his shredded purple board in the melee. I was told he was safe, but I’m a little alarmed I haven’t seen him while pulling people to the beach and locating boards. When I finally find him, he’s bobbing out at sea, calm and collected. I apologize and rush him to shore to grab the backup board from the car, my friend Tevita’s brand new, 10’4″ Christenson. I say a silent prayer. I’d forgot to ask if we could use it.

At 10:30 a.m., we’re regrouped back in the lineup.

We watch underground chargers like Mo Freitas, Noa Ginella and Kaiwi Berry grab multiple nuggets. Kipp’s mate, the “real-deal” Portuguese charger, slipped on a drop and did back spins down the face, we didn’t see him in the lineup again. There’s a woman out. She’s wearing a silver helmet and the sun’s bouncing off her noggin’ like a mirror. Between waves, I play with settings on my camera and manage a few rushed photos between rescues. The wind comes on, boards are breaking, and people come and go. The Gudauskas Bros show up as I get caught inside, drowning my camera and nearly losing my ski after trying to bunny-hop a closeout.

When I surface, I hear Moe screaming “GET ON IT LIAM! GET ON IT!” I scramble up the sled with my soaking wet dry bag and U-bolt back to the beach with my tail between my legs. Back out in the channel, I watch Guilherme Tâmega steal the show on his bodyboard with three of the gnarliest rides I’ve ever seen. Poetry in motion.

I’m low on gas by lunchtime and head in thinking about some of the other teams’ lack of safety protocol. They were getting riders out but some of the drivers were too scared or inexperienced to go into the impact zone. I should have sounded them.

I find Oli the one-legged Aussie legend on the inside. He busted his rib and is coughing up blood. Then I grab Dane Gudauskas who’s one-and-done after a thick lip busted his shoulder. I drop them both back to the lifeguard tower.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Kingy on his first and only descent of the day. Photo: The Liam Wilmott Collection

As the day draws out, my crew starts to lose their heads. By now, the sets are consistently 25-foot with a 30-footer every hour. Only Kingy has managed to catch a wave. He wore a lip on his head and spent two canisters in the impact zone. My board was still intact though! We have a good laugh after he pops his last two canisters accidentally in the shorebreak.

“That’s me! Four canisters! I’m done!” he says.

Kingy comes back out on the Juan Juan but retires himself to the channel, dodging closeouts with the ski. Kipp had gotten two waves earlier, and I’m surprised to learn he’s still out with us. Meanwhile, Haydo wants nothing more than to get the monkey off his back and has taken to sitting underneath everyone, dodging Mack Trucks on a borrowed board, trying to line up a nugget. It takes a lot of fucking willpower to stay in the danger zone that long, let me tell ya.

At 3 p.m., the set of the day comes through. I’ve got Kipp on the back of my ski. He’s knackered. I’d heard about Kipp from Wildcat for years, so it’s good to put a name to his face. We’re outside the lineup, having a casual chat as he fixes his board to the sled, when a set stands up. Even though we were 100 yards out from the pack, it looks like it’s going to break on us.

“Haydo’s in there!” cries Kipp as his head swivels around and I start motoring toward him.

As the first 30-foot wave lifts underneath us, we see everyone inside scrambling. Behind them, all alone, is Haydo, long stroking into the shadow of a giant. He surfaces after the first wave, Tevita’s board is a goner, and he wears two more 30-footers on the head.

It was the biggest set of the day. My friend said he saw a tourist family in a hatchback car get barreled on Kamehameha Highway. It also pushed so much water into the corner of Lanikai that for 10 minutes it reversed the shoreline current.

A refill of fuel, Mr. Dark Cloud stubbing his toe, a greasy hamburger and two hours later, we finally locate Tevita’s board. The lifeguards found it smashed up against the rocks at Jocko’s. Every fin is busted, the nose is smooshed and the bottom looks like it had been through a cheese grater.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

It only takes one ride to get the monkey off your back. Haydo finds a little sunshine in his storm. Photo: Hank Photo

After we recover what was left of Tevita’s board, I take Haydo for a joyride on the ski to Waimea, hoping to lift the little fella’s spirits. The Eddie is over and Big Ben is out. He was an alternate in the event and missed out on his dream of surfing it again. When the last heat ended, he paddled out and surfed maxed-out Waimea Bay alone. He’s as pure as they come. From the lineup, we hear the crowd roar as a young local lifeguard by the name of Luke Shepardson is crowned winner of the Eddie. We watch Ben ride two waves beautifully before we slowly make our way back to Hale‘iwa.

On the way back, outside Alligators, a set of giant dinosaur swells come broadside to us. Haydo and I respectfully stop and watch them pass. They stretched impossibly from Lanikai to outside Ke Iki—three of them, moving together at a slow and unstoppable gait. They are incomprehensible in mass; we gawk at them like they’re prehistoric beasts. Even though these swells are so rare and last merely hours, there’s something ancient about them. They put into perspective how insignificant our time on Earth really is.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Every surfer wonders if a new board will or won’t work for them. It’s a whole other level when riding huge boards on waves this size. Kingy nurses the Juan Juan into its first bottom turn, and no doubt has a spike of relief as the board does what his feet ask it to do. Photo: Hank Foto

January 23, 2023

The morning after, Haydo, Kingy and I sit around my little table, drinking coffee, laughing and reliving the day. The memory card from my ruined camera survived. I drop the images to the boys, and we pore over those few photos like they were much needed proof that yesterday had actually happened.

“That’s Laura Enever,” said Haydo, and I instantly remember seeing her sitting on the beach in the early morning fog, waiting for a ride out.

“I reckon she’d buy that, eh,” he adds.

January 27, 2023 (Again)

On Friday, we’re in my dusty carport and Kingy lashes the final strap across the seven board bags in Mahina’s truck bed. It hasn’t even been a week since they landed.

The boys hand me a roll of bills.

“For everything,” they say.

In the best interest of all …

We hug and I say thank you.

We take a group picture, and it’s that awkward moment when things must end. But then my phone pings. It’s a text message from someone in Laura’s camp. They want to do a buyout of the photo of Laura. I immediately share the news with our team, and we high-five and jump like donkeys in the dirt together. Mahina gives me a look, and I end up babbling about the astrological ace up my sleeve before she gives the boys a crash course in “The Abundance Mantra” on the drive.

Abundance and the January Swell Bender of 2023

Brothers in arms. Me, Haydo, Kipp Caddy and Kingy. Big waves have a way of bringing people together. Photo: The Liam Wilmott Collection

February 2023

The January swell bender of 2023 has long sunk into the sands of many shores, and life has returned to its regular routine on the rock. As I’ve been writing this, there’s been days of rain and onshore winds. But there are still lingering signs of the 22’s swell when you go about town: yellow streamers of caution tape at the beach, banks of sand and debris along Kam Highway, celebrational posts of Luke Shepardson on social media.

All said and done, we survived the January 22 swell. Neither Haydo or Kingy had the experience they were expecting but they got a taste of it. We snapped four leg ropes, demolished two boards, bent the reverse cable on the ski and drowned an expensive camera. I considered it a success because no one was injured. When Haydo arrived back in Sydney, his wife gave him some big news—he promptly sent a voice note to Kingy and I on the group chat. They were expecting another daughter. He was so pumped, and I thought about perspective and how perfect life really is.

Even though the swell is gone, we know it will be back someday. Until then, the energy will flow in our blood and bone waiting for its return. When it does, we will look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are honestly ready to roll the dice again.

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