Date: March 16, 1978
Place: Off the coast of Lānaʻi, Hawaiʻi
The Moment: Eddie Aikau paddles for help from a capsized Hokule’a to save a group of stranded Hawaiian leaders – never to be seen again.
“Eddie was a really, really warm hearted person. Really big heart. He’d do anything for you. You know he saved so many people. I mean he didn’t have to. Shoulders and arms. That guy was like a tugboat. Like you can tie four people to him and he’d swim them in. That’s the kind of strength he had in swimming. Real strong.” – Barry Kanaiaupuni
There are few surfers whose personal narratives have unequivocally transcended surfing. Eddie Aikau is one of them. The fearlessnesses and compassion for his peers wasn’t a one-time act of bravery, but rather a long-lived principle best represented by the surfers’ motto: “Eddie would go.”
His full name, Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau, makes it seem as if he was born for his life’s journey. Makua Hanai literally means “feeding parent” in Hawaiian, usually in the description of a fostering parent who nurtures those around them — not only one’s kin, but the community they hold close. And Eddie loved his community: his people; his Hawaiʻi. And it was Eddie’s love for both that led him to paddle out of a maelstrom and into the open sea towards Lānaʻi for help.
But before he went on the courageous rescue mission, his legend was already growing on the islands. Born in Maui, his family moved to Oahu when he was 16, and shortly thereafter he was a North Shore local surfing the gnarliest breaks, his favorite being Waimea Bay. With a recognized prowess as a waterman, he was appointed lifeguard of the beaches between Sunset and Haleiwa, an appropriate role for the big wave surfer as he often swam into 30 foot swells. During a nine-year tenure as protector of the hallowed coastline, he attempted over 500 rescues. Not one attempt failed.
What made Eddie different was, without a doubt, his selflessness. Surfing is a very individualized sport: it’s an exploration of one’s own limits — physical, mental, and spiritual. And while he himself embodied all the values needed to be among the North Shore’s best, riding the biggest and heaviest waves around with a intense passion for the pursuit, he wanted to help others do the same. Rather than hide Hawaiʻi from the rest of the world, he wanted to share its natural beauty, and teach everyone why it was so necessary to appreciate the native roots that were often ignored and cast aside by non-natives, namely developers in Waikiki. And as lifeguard and cultural ambassador, he was able to do that.
In 1978, a 31-year-old Eddie, weathered but energetic as always, joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s 30-day, 2,500-mile journey from Hawaii through Tahitian island chains, following the route once taken by then-Polynesian migrants. An homage down to the watercraft, the manned Hokule’a left the Hawaiian islands on March 16, 1978.
The double-hulled voyaging canoe developed a leak in one of the hulls and later capsized about twelve miles (19 km) south of the island of Molokai. In an attempt to get help, Aikau paddled toward Lanai on his surfboard. Although the rest of the crew was later rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Cape Corwin, Aikau was never seen again. He removed his lifejacket since it was hindering his paddling of the surfboard. The ensuing search for Aikau was the largest air-sea search in Hawaiian history.
It was a tremendous loss for the surf community, but it was an even bigger loss for Hawaiʻi, and, tangentially, the United States. The foremost champion of the newest state was taken from the community he loved much too early. The North Shore was devastated. However, from the devastation arose the community Eddie held so close, strengthened by its resolve to not only remember their hero, but celebrate him.
In honor of Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau exists the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau surf competition, affectionately known as “the Eddie.” To open the waiting period, surfers, both ASP tour champions and born-and-bred locals, paddle out to a recreation of the Hokule’a that went under 36 years ago. Holding out for a minimum of 20-foot waves, the competition doesn’t happen every year, and, in fact, has only happened eight times since its inception in 1985. The most recent victor was Greg Long in 2009, with Hawaiian Bruce Irons preceding him in 2004 with an epic shorebreak barrel. Kelly Slater and Eddie’s brother Clyde are also among the honored winners.
One year, when the waves met the height requirement but appeared too dangerous to surf, organizers considered calling it off. Mark Foo turned to a cameraman who was capturing the surf check and said the now-revered slogan: “Eddie would go.” And they did.