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by Jontue A. Martin, Etcetera editor


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 the family.

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 Eddie dared.”

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 Vietnam.

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.

 

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