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The story of Willis Brothers’ 100-foot wave at Devil’s Garden

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In the realm of extreme sports, there are moments that transcend the boundaries of human achievement. These moments become legends, etched into the annals of history, and inspire generations to come. One such legend was born on January 27, 1998, when the Willis brothers, Milton and Michael, rode a colossal 100-foot wave at a surf break known as “Devil’s Garden.” This is their incredible story of courage, determination, and a battle against the forces of nature.

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The Unbelievable Forecast

The day was January 27, 1998, when an unusual and ominous forecast began to circulate among the surfing community. The surf was already massive, but what lay ahead was beyond comprehension. The storm and buoy data painted a picture so incredible that many initially dismissed it as an error. The forecast predicted wave faces exceeding a mind-boggling 85 feet. It was a prediction that would leave an indelible mark on the world of surfing.

Australian spiritual leader Robbie Page, known as Robert Roley, and his friend Donovan Frankenreiter, a popular professional musician, were among the first to witness the brewing spectacle. From Robbie’s beachfront house in front of Log Cabins surf break, they watched as the waves steadily grew throughout the day, accompanied by the mesmerizing sound of the crashing surf.

Joining them were the Willis brothers, Milton and Michael, and Australian surfing champion Cheyne Horan. They had come to enjoy Robbie’s beachfront view, but little did they know that they were about to witness and become part of a historic moment in the world of big wave surfing.

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Outer Log Cabins and the Decision

As the day unfolded, the surf at Outer Log Cabins, located on the North Shore of Oahu, offered well-shaped, peeling waves, consistently reaching 30 feet and higher. Cheyne Horan, with a keen eye for the surf’s potential, pointed to a massive wave peeling perfectly across the Outer Log Cabins Reef and said, “If the surf gets as big as they say it will, I reckon you’ll have a go out there.”

With no other surf breaks on the North Shore offering rideable conditions due to the rapidly rising swell, Outer Log Cabins became the best and perhaps the only option for tackling the impending monstrous waves.

From the Eddie Aikau to Outer Log Cabins to Devil’s Garden

The day following their observation at Log Cabins was January 28, 1998, and it would go down in history as “Devil’s Garden.” The magnitude of the surf that day defied description. It was unlike anything ever witnessed before or since.

For context, the Eddie Aikau big wave surfing contest, held annually at Waimea Bay, invites the world’s best big wave surfers to test their mettle in the most challenging waves on the planet. The minimum wave size required for the contest was typically 20 to 25 feet, equivalent to 40 to 50 feet by today’s standards. Without waves of this size, the contest could not proceed.

On “Devil’s Garden” day, the surf forecast was not calling for big waves; it was predicting waves of truly massive proportions. The waves weren’t just big; they were gargantuan, and they arrived with the fury of an unstoppable force.

Enter the Willis Brothers

The Willis brothers, Milton and Michael, were no strangers to the waves of Waimea Bay. They knew the break intimately and had surfed its biggest waves before. They had even played a crucial role in shaping big wave boards for some of the sport’s legends. However, to their surprise and dismay, they had not received an official invitation to the Eddie Aikau contest, not even as alternates.

This glaring omission was attributed to corporate politics and the influence of sponsors. Despite their impeccable big wave credentials, the Willis brothers were effectively sidelined from an event they were born to participate in.

With the swell forecast indicating waves of biblical proportions, the police officially closed all North Shore beaches due to the extreme danger. However, no one who had received an official invitation to the Eddie Aikau contest was willing to paddle out. Their reasoning? The waves were too big, a stark departure from the spirit of “Eddie would go” famously associated with Eddie Aikau.

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Milton and Michael Take Charge

The Willis brothers, undeterred by the official closures and with the belief that they were meant to be in the water that day, sought out contest coordinator Randy Rarick. They argued their case and secured an invitation to the contest, just as they should have from the outset.

While they navigated the bureaucratic hurdles, a local surfer named Jason Magers took matters into his own hands. Jason, not invited to the contest, paddled out alone into the colossal surf. He embodied the spirit of bravery associated with Eddie Aikau. Although Jason’s ride ended with a harrowing experience, he displayed unparalleled courage in the face of the ocean’s might.

The Unofficial Winner: Jason Magers

Jason’s daring feat earned him the unofficial title of the winner of the 1998 Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Contest. His courage and determination to surf when the invited professionals hesitated spoke volumes about the true essence of big wave riding.

The Unofficial Runner-Up: Greg Russ

Another surfer, Greg Russ, known for his fearlessness and big wave prowess, emerged as the unofficial runner-up. Greg, also uninvited to the contest, was eager to ride the monstrous waves. However, he was stopped by law enforcement from entering the water, despite his qualifications and readiness to face the challenge head-on.

Destination: Outer Log Cabins

With the Eddie Aikau contest officially canceled due to the unprecedented wave heights, the Willis brothers set their sights on Outer Log Cabins, a break that had already proven itself to be a formidable and potentially rideable option. With their trusty Sea-Doo jet ski fueled and tow boards at the ready, they embarked on a mission that would become the stuff of legend.

The Ultimate Challenge: Devil’s Garden

As the Willis brothers approached Outer Log Cabins, they encountered a sight beyond imagination. Towering walls of water, over 100 feet in height, loomed before them. The waves were colossal, their sheer size making Waimea Bay, a renowned big wave spot, look like a shore break.

Michael, at the helm of their Sea-Doo jet ski, guided Milton into the waves. As Milton descended the face of an 85-foot wave, a helicopter filming the scene got dangerously close. The combination of helicopter blades, offshore winds, and Milton’s incredible speed led to a dramatic wipeout that shattered his surfboard. In a perilous moment, Michael executed a heroic rescue just as a massive wall of white water closed in.

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The Descent into Devil’s Garden

Undeterred by their close call, the Willis brothers decided to venture further, heading toward a surf break known as Outer Sunset Beach, or Devil’s Garden. What they encountered there defied belief. Waves reaching 100 feet or more stretched out before them. The waves appeared slow-motion, their size almost surreal.

With unwavering faith and guided by a higher calling, Michael took the plunge into this liquid behemoth. Riding a wave of such colossal proportions required not just skill but sheer survival instinct. Michael’s descent down the face of the wave felt like a skier navigating a mountain at breakneck speeds.

Reference:

https://www.surfertoday.com/surfing/devils-garden-the-story-of-willis-brothers-100-foot-wave

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