Edward Ryan Makua Hanai Aikau was born May
4, 1947 in Kahului, Maui, the third son of Solomon and Henrietta
Aikau. Eddie learned how to swim before he learned how to walk.
Eddie’s father, a truck driver, taught him how to surf.
He used his father’s heavy, old 16-foot redwood surfboard
to surf the breaks of what is now Kahului Harbor.
In 1959, the family moved to O‘ahu, where they lived on
and maintained an old Chinese graveyard in Pauoa Valley. Eddie
continued to surf while he attended Roosevelt High School. He
used paipo (short or small) boards, early plywood versions of
Morey Boogie Boards that, despite being hard to stand up on,
were very popular at the time.
Eddie loved the beach and went regularly with his family to Waikiki
Wall, where he mastered the paipo board by standing up on it
after six months.
Eddie progressed to Queen’s Beach to take on bigger waves
and to establish himself as a waterman, a person who does more
than one activity in the water by racing in six-man outrigger
canoes for the Healani Canoe Club in Waikiki.
Eddie looked up to Duke Kahanamoku and hoped to become famous
like him. When surfing at Queen’s Beach, Eddie rented boards
from a notorious beach boy, “Steamboat” Mokuahi.
But unlike “Steamboat” and the care-free “haole” surfers
of that time, Eddie was interested in surfing all day rather
than drinking all night. The boards that he rented were made
from styrofoam and fiberglass, and Eddie liked them so much that
he finally bought his own, raising the money for it by selling
newspapers and shining tourists’ shoes.
Eddie first board was an 11-foot-long red styrofoam and fiberglass
surfboard that was shaped by Dick Brewer; he bought it from a
Hobie Surf Shop and got a great price because his father bargained
a deal with the owner of the store using Eddie’s growing
popularity in the surfing world as a hook.
Eddie graduated to Ala Moana, but his schooling began to suffer.
He dropped from an “A” student to failing the 10th
grade. His father gave him an ultimatum: either stay in school
and stop cutting to go out surfing, or get a job and help support
Eddie chose to drop out of school and got a job at Dole Cannery,
but it wasn’t just for economic purposes. Eddie told his
family that he didn’t like the idea of having to learn
about white people and their history and not his own people’s
history. He also felt that he could learn more from the ocean
than from a teacher or a priest about mana‘o (meaning)
and mana (individual power).
Already well known on the south shore, Eddie graduated to the
North Shore. In November 1967 he thrilled an audience of surfing
greats by surfing the large swells of Waimea Bay. A Life Magazine
photographer, there to film the “surfing greats,” caught
Eddie’s performance and gave him national publicity.
In 1968, Eddie persuaded the City and County of Honolulu to hire
him as a roving North Shore lifeguard. Over the next three years,
he watched over the beaches from Sunset to Haleiwa and saved
hundreds of lives.
Aikau was a legend on the North Shore, pulling people out of
waves that no one else would dare to,” said Mac Simpson,
a maritime historian. “That’s where the saying came
from — Eddie would go, when no else would or could. Only
In 1971, the roving patrol was dispersed and Eddie, who had been
voted Lifeguard of the Year, was appointed lifeguard at Waimea
Bay. In 1977, Eddie won the Duke Kahanamoku Classic, bolstering
his reputation as the master of big wave Hawaiian surfing.
During this period of his life, Eddie seemed increasingly intrigued
by his Hawaiian-ness, which was expressed through a growing interest
in the “Hawaiian renaissance” that was happening
at that time, and in spirituality. His family felt that it was
also his way of dealing with his older brother’s death
in a car accident only a month after he had returned home from
Eddie applied to be a crew member of the Hokule‘a, a double-hulled
replica of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe that had re-enacted
a trip made by the Hawaiians to Tahiti and back. Eddie spent
every day learning about the Hokule‘a. When the day came
for him to try out, he sang a song that he wrote for the occasion,
showing that he was not only a waterman but a musician as well.
On March 17, 1978, Eddie set out on his first and what turned
out to be his last voyage. While sailing the Moloka‘i Channel,
the crew found a leak in the starboard hull that eventually tipped
the canoe over. The crew hoped for a quick rescue, but by morning
no one had come. Because the crew was unable to leave without
help, Eddie decided to paddle to the island of Lanai, 12 miles
away. He left at 10 in the morning with a leash of nylon rope
for his large rescue board.
Eddie Aikau’s last words were, “Don’t worry,
I can do it. I can get to land.” As he left, the crew began
pule, or prayer, and estimated that he would be gone for at least
five hours. While Eddie was gone, a Hawaiian Air jet spotted
the Hokule‘a crew and sent for help. The crew got rescued,
but Eddie was never found.