June 2007

It Could Be Worse: Eddie Aikua

Author: Craig Hysell

What do you get when you combine one of 20th century Hawaii’s most courageous lifeguards, a much hyped voyage on a leaking sailboat and bad weather? You guessed it. You’ve just arrived for work on the day when your job couldn’t get any worse.

Eddie Aikau
Edward Ryan Makua Hanai Aikau was born May 4, 1946, the third of six children. An A/B student, “Eddie” dropped out of high school to go work at the Dole cannery on Oahu so he could surf on his morning work breaks along the legendary seven-mile stretch of the North Shore.

Nowhere else in the world are more world-class surf breaks packed so densely together than along the shores of Oahu. Off The Wall, Backdoor, Sunset Beach, The Banzai Pipeline, they’re all there. But Eddie’s favorites were those giant 30 to 50 foot faces that would roll into Waimea Bay during epic winter swells.

Eddie’s younger brother, Clyde, who has surfed some of the biggest waves in the world recounts Eddie’s prowess in monstrous surf. “He’d take off on a big, big scary wave and he’d be sliding down it with the biggest smile on his face you ever saw. The rest of us were nervous. Eddie belonged out there. It was home.” But Eddie’s reputation for guts easily extended past death-defying waves.

He became known as a humble and level-headed mediator on the beach and would charge selflessly into raging ocean conditions nobody else would dare trifle with in order to save someone in trouble. Despite not having his high school diploma, Eddie was made a Waimea lifeguard. He saved dozens of lives and, because he despised filing reports, the number of his rescues is probably much larger. The substantial fact of it is; nobody ever drowned on Eddie’s watch. He was voted Lifeguard of the Year in 1971.

In the mid-70s the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) was seeking volunteers for a 30-day, 2,500-mile roundtrip journey which would follow what is believed to have been the ancient migratory sea route between the Hawaiian and Tahitian island chains. The voyage would take place on a traditional sailing vessel, the Hokulea, and be performed as in the old days—with no instrumentation and giant coconuts—exactly the kind of trip Eddie loved.

The Hokulea, named after the zenith star of Hawaii, resembled a giant catamaran. She had two 62-foot wooden hulls lashed together by decking and two sails; she weighed eight tons and could make twelve knots in strong winds. The PVS had already successfully completed a similar journey during the nation’s bicentennial. But, before 1976 the last time a trip of this nature was believed to have taken place was in the 12th century. This was no everyday event. Needless to say there was the added intensity of heavy media and political pressure to an already perilous journey.

On March 16, 1978, with the governor and a myriad of news cameras and press present, the Hokulea and its 10 crew members (including Eddie) left the harbor under the pretense of rough weather. Herb Kane, one of Hokulea’s designers said they took off that day because they felt they must. “But,” Kane added, “the weather wasn’t right. When you have to conform to someone else’s schedule, you have to accept risks.”

A few hours after launch, the ship began taking on water. She was eventually broadsided and flipped by a subtle flick from the Pacific’s mighty hand, twelve miles south of Molokai. All night, the crew clung to the Hokulea’s floating carcass. Distress flares went unanswered and in the morning light, as the islands seemed to drift further and further away, Eddie decided to do what he always did—go where everybody else was scared to go.

He strung some oranges around his neck, grabbed a portable strobe light as well as a life jacket and attached the leash of his surfboard to his ankle. He guessed that in the rough seas and gale force winds he could make the island of Lanai in about five hours. Then he began paddling.

Later that day the Hokulea crew was spotted by chance and rescued. Despite the most massive air-sea rescue effort in Hawaii’s history, Eddie was never seen again. He was 31 years old. His humble courage, his smile in the face of 50-foot walls of death and his absolute unselfishness in the face of any danger are most oft remembered in one simple phrase throughout Hawaiian and surf culture: “Eddie would go.”

Since its inception in 1984, The Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau—simply known as The Eddie—has only been held seven times. The Waimea Bay swells must have a minimum face of over three stories, just like Eddie loved, in order for the contest to take place. The invitation-only event brings the best big wave riders in the world to the North Shore.

Clyde Aikau won the very first Eddie ever held in 1985.

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