HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Traffic slowed to a crawl on the North Shore Wednesday as hundreds flocked to Waimea Bay to witness what forecasters are calling the biggest swell of the season.
"I think it's one of the most famous big wave surfing spots in the world -- and being in the middle of the winter on the North Shore right now, people just can't resist the temptation," said Kerry Atwood, an Ocean Safety lifeguard at Waimea Bay for the past 26 years.
By late afternoon, nearly two dozen surfers paddled out to brave the 25-foot sets -- waves with 50 foot faces. Waves of 35 to 45 feet were expected on the North Shore late Wednesday.
"The conditions out there are for manly men," quipped big wave surfer Dave Yester. "It's friggin' giant. It magnetizes me. It attracts me. These big waves make me nervous still, but it's just an amazing show."
For the first time, Ocean Safety positioned two Jet Skis stationed at Waimea Bay. Typically, there's one.
There are also nine lifeguards on duty -- and several off-duty and retired Ocean Safety personnel who stand ready if they're needed.
Winds made conditions favorable Wednesday morning. But by noon, the sets were getting so big they started closing out. Lifeguards say only the very
experienced should be out in the water, but even they faced some trouble with the massive waves and strong currents.
"We've done about 25 assists where we've had to assist surfers in because they could not paddle back themselves -- the surf was that big," Atwood said. "The current was that strong and the surf was that big that they had to be brought in with our rescue craft."
On Maui, emergency responders also had to make several rescues in which surfers, bodyboarders, snorkelers and stand-up paddle boarders had trouble getting to shore due to strong rip currents, the Maui Fire Department said. Officials have closed Hookipa Beach Park due to the high surf.
Yester surfed in the Eddie Aikau in 2003, and says Wednesday's waves are even more massive.
"This is just remarkable to see it this big and this consistent," he said. "The last time it was like this I think was 1998 when we had another El Niño."
Surf photographers lined Waimea Bay in hopes of capturing the perfect shot.
"It's pretty gnarly," said Leonardo Dale, who has been taking pictures along the North Shore for the past seven years. "It's getting even more epic. I've seen some really, really big waves and brave people out there the crowd is starting to thin out a little bit today."
For those willing to take the risk, at times there was great reward.
And for others, a stinging dose of reality.
"You can get so scared that you know, I mean really fearful before it comes -- so it's better not to think of it too much. It's better to like take it in stride," said Craig Chapman, a big wave surfer.
Ocean Safety officials say the public is welcome to come down to Waimea Bay Beach Park, but no one should be in any areas where the sand is wet and they shouldn't venture out onto rocks. Also, only park in marked stalls; police are ticketing and towing illegally parked vehicles.