The Incredible Story of the Lifeguard Who Won the Biggest Surf Competition in the World


“Did you know my brother loves surfing?” Haven asks me.

“Your brother, Wild?” I reply, incredulous. “But he’s a baby! When does he go surfing?”

“My dad took him surfing,” Haven says with a shrug, focusing his attention on a container of Play-Doh.

Luke, too, was raised this way, improbably surfing before he could walk. As a kid, he’d sleep with his arms wrapped around a surfboard. He remembers staring out at the ocean, watching all these surfers he admired riding monsters. He thought to himself, How am I ever going to do it? Everyone in Hawaii surfs big waves. I have to surf big waves.

His Eddie win may have been big news to the rest of the world, but those who surf in these parts always knew what Luke was capable of.

“He’s always been that quiet guy that just paddles out,” says John John Florence, “then, all of a sudden, he’s on one of the best waves.”

Luke thinks he’s a horrible competition surfer. Gets too inside his own head. His theory is that he won the Eddie in the first place because he was working all day and couldn’t think about it too much.“I always overthink it, stress out, get anxious, make stupid mistakes,” Luke says. “I’d just trip over my own feet.”

Back when he secured his lifeguarding job and Haven was born, Luke decided that his contest days were over. This was more than fine by him. For starters, the waves on the competition route kind of suck. Plus, all the money had drained out of pro surfing. Titans like Billabong and Quiksilver struggled after the 2008 financial crisis. Only the top guys—the John Johns and Kelly Slaters—were getting sponsorship deals in the millions, while everyone else lived contest to contest and paycheck to paycheck. “It was always the dream and then it kind of wasn’t the dream….” Luke says, trailing off. “Seeing it firsthand go from everyone’s being paid to nobody’s being paid.”

One time, not long after Haven was born, Liam McNamara offered to pay for Luke’s entrance fee in a local contest, but Luke turned him down, saying that he couldn’t take off from his day job.

“I think he still feels he’s not a pro surfer,” Liam tells me. “But he just won the biggest professional surfing competition in the history of the sport. For him not to be considered a pro surfer is just crazy.”

Once breakfast is finished, we all pile into the new Tacoma and start cruising down the hill to the coast. Though the North Shore is just an hour north of Honolulu, it might as well be a different country. Luke rarely goes, preferring to stay in what he calls “the North Shore bubble.”

This bubble, where Luke was raised, is its own Eden. Ancient green mountains with a halo of clouds on one side, a coast lined with bucket-list surf spots on the other. Waimea, yes, and Pipeline and Rockpiles and Chun’s Reef. Wild chickens roam the parking lots and outdoor restaurants, crowing at all hours. Carefree, unsupervised kids pedal their bikes to the beach. If the North Shore had an official shoe, it would be the flip-flop, which is about as formal as it gets. In every situation I find myself in over the course of a week, I am the most-dressed person present. (I’m wearing jorts.) Everyone knows everyone and has known everyone since way, way back. As Luke’s mom put it after the Eddie: I changed first- and second-place’s diapers.

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The Incredible Story of the Lifeguard Who Won the Biggest Surf Competition in the World

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