Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, March 6, 1998

Eddie: Riding on the crest of the myth

Courtesy of David Bettencourt
Aikau on the day the Hokule'a set sail.

Twenty years ago this month,
big-wave surfer and lifeguard
Eddie Aikau lost his life in
a brave effort to save crew members
of the capsized Hokule'a

By Burl Burlingame


THAT Eddie would go was never seriously in doubt. After a night of clinging to the overturned hull of capsized voyaging canoe Hokule'a, ignored by close-passing ships and aircraft, flares sputtering futilely in the darkness, and islands growing smaller on the churning horizon, in the mid-morning of March 17, 1978, crewman Eddie Aikau insisted on paddling his surfboard for help.

Lanai, he estimated, was only 12 miles away.

But the canoe was being battered by choppy waves and gale-force winds, and the capsized hull rode low in the water, making it difficult to accurately gauge distance. After a conference among the Hokule'a's officers, they decided Eddie could go; indeed, he could not be restrained. Aikau tied the surfboard leash to his ankle and a portable strobe light and some oranges around his neck, and hesitantly tied a life jacket around his waist.

Aikau estimated it would take five hours to reach land. As he paddled away, crew members held hands and said a prayer. Some saw Aikau ditch the clumsy life jacket a few hundred feet from the canoe hull. Others saw him on his knees, paddling strongly, the board riding up and over the grumbling whitecaps, peeking into sight, smaller and smaller as he stroked away. No one ever saw Eddie Aikau again.

Twenty years later, the sacrifice of Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard Eddie Aikau has reached mythic status. "Eddie Would Go stickers dot bumpers everywhere. The Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave International surf meet occurs only when the biggest waves descend howling upon Waimea Bay. A plaque in his memory is lovingly tended by lifeguards and friends at the bay -- which was stolen for the first time on the same day it was dedicated. And "Eddie Would Go," a new play by Bryan Wake, is playing at Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

This sense of mythology is what drew Wake to the subject, his first play, spurred on by the enthusiasm of former HTY director Peter Brosius.

By Dan Merkel
This image of Eddie Aikau, taken by water photographer Dan Merkel,
graces the cover of the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave
Invitational surfing contest.

Myth vs. man

When Wake began researching, however, he discovered that Aikau's celebrity as a cultural hero had begun to chip away at memories of the real man, and worse, were becoming combined in the popular subconscious. "There were kids who were mixing him up with George Helm, with Duke Kahanamoku. I was six when Aikau disappeared, and for years I was convinced he disappeared while rescuing tourists from a boat in Waimea Bay."

The circumstances of Aikau's life fit neatly into the archetype of the mythic hero, the humble person from poor surroundings who masters a particular skill, who saves his fellow man or lifts them from despair, and who then vanishes or dies tragically in such a way that leaves his absence open to speculation and interpretation.

Born May 4, 1946, on Maui, the third of six close-knit children, Edward Ryan Aikau discovered the waves of Kahului -- pre-harbor, it regularly broke two- to three-foot -- by helping father Solomon "Pops" Aikau drag a heavy redwood surfboard to the beach. The family moved to Oahu in 1959, where they took care of a Chinese graveyard.

Eddie kept surfing, fixated on it, dropped out of school and worked at the Dole Cannery so he'd have the morning breaks open for surfing. "He was an A and B student before he dropped out," said sister Myra Aikau.

In 1967, virtually unknown on the North Shore, he showed up at a huge day at Waimea Bay, free-falling down thundering 40-footers, a smile on his face, and was instantly embraced by the professional surfing fraternity.

There are surfers, and there are big-wave surfers. One type uses the wave to propel his board, he's in charge; the other becomes an extension of the ocean, riding on its mighty shoulder.

"I surf some of the biggest waves in the world, I'm the oldest guy in the world surfing the biggest waves in the world, and I've seen lots of surfers take off," said Clyde Aikau, Eddie's younger brother and his best friend. "But none surfed like Eddie. He'd take off on a big, big scary wave, and he'd be sliding down it with the biggest smile you ever saw. The rest of us are nervous. Eddie belonged there; it was home."

That rare skill began the legend. After all, waves coalesce, gathering into a surge all the little wavelets that wrinkle the ocean's skin, the energy roiling into a kind of cyclic engine, pushed by wind and storm and tidal forces and pulled by the moon and then, when the spinning water strikes a rising beach, it rears up, climbing and then collapses, foaming the shore with the vibes of storms far over the horizon. And here's Eddie, so at ease in these immense forces that he smiles when he surfs. Eddie would go, all right.

Aikau became known not just as a superb surfer, but as a mediator and lifesaver, someone who'd leap into the surf to rescue someone in serious trouble, or break up arguments with logic and simple good cheer. In recognition of his special skills, he became a lifeguard at Waimea Bay despite not having a high school diploma.

"It was a special thing that he got an exemption to be a lifeguard even though he didn't have a high-school degree," said Clyde Aikau. "But Eddie had knowledge, not education."

'Only Eddie dared'

Another step in building a legend: doing something no one else has done before or since, purely on the basis of raw skill. Aikau's prowess as a lifeguard became widely known, and a comforting presence on the beach. No one drowned on his watch, dozens were saved, at least the ones we know about, because Aikau rarely bothered to file reports on lifesaving.

"The phrase 'Eddie would go' predates Hokule'a," said Mac Simpson, maritime historian. "Aikau was a legend on the North Shore, pulling people out of waves that no one else would dare to. That's where the saying came from -- Eddie would go, when no else would or could. Only Eddie dared."

His fellow lifeguards voted Aikau Lifeguard of the Year in 1971.

David Bettencourt, attorney and sports enthusiast, met Aikau at a luau when the surfer had returned from a surfing contest match in South Africa that didn't happen.

"He didn't think he was bigger than anyone else. All the surfers I knew talked about him -- Ricky Grigg, Jose Angel -- but when we met I was amazed at how little he said. It's not just that his accomplishments were so well known that he didn't need to talk about them, it's that he was genuinely humble," said Bettencourt, who was "hanai'd" by the Aikau family after suffering a hang-gliding accident.

During the 1970s, Aikau became more interested in his Hawaiian-ness, expressing it through spirituality and curiosity about the then-new Hawaiian "renaissance." Part of it was a reaction to older brother Gerald's death in an auto crash just a month after returning from combat in Vietnam.

Aikau decided that he'd try out for the second voyage as a Hokule'a crew member, and began spending every free moment at the dock, learning everything he could about the voyaging canoe.When the time came, as Aikau waited with other Hokule'a candidates to see if he had made the cut, he played a song he had written for the occasion, which noted, "Hawaii's pride she sails with the wind / and proud are we to see her sail free / Feelings deep and so strong / For Hoku, Hokule'a / For Hoku, Hokule'a ..."

"I don't think there was a dry eye in the room as he finished," recalled fellow candidate Marian Lyman-Mersereau. "I felt great admiration for this man, who was not only a courageous and gifted athlete, but a sensitive and talented musician as well. I looked forward to getting to know him ..."

She didn't get the chance. A few hours after she launched amid officious hoopla at Magic Island, Hokule'a, overloaded, with "watertight" compartments letting in water on one side, and thrashed by choppy seas, was struck opposite and broadside by a large wave, driving a wedge of water under the lighter outrigger and flipping the craft like a pancake.

"People who live on shore simply do not understand that a sailboat cannot be operated like a train. The weather is a factor, the major factor," sighs Herb Kane, Hokule'a designer, historian and artist. "Hokule'a took off that day because they felt they had to. The governor was there to see them off, and had brought news crews. But the weather wasn't right. When you have to conform to someone else's schedule, you have to accept risks."

As Aikau told disc jockey Ron Jacobs in his last interview that day before the canoe left, pressure from "the media and all our families" was becoming "unbelievable from all over, but once we sail out there, we'll be all right. We can settle down and be ourselves." And then he played his "Hokule'a" song live on the air.

The great adventure became a life-and-death struggle. Ironically, only a few hours after Aikau disappeared, the rest of the crew were spotted by chance and rescued. "That's what creates the legend, the all-consuming, selfless act," said Wake. "It's the tragic heroes that become mythical."

The search for Aikau became the largest air-sea rescue effort in modern Hawaiian history.

"Oh, wow, it was tough," recalls Clyde Aikau. "In 1978 I was in Australia at a surf meet when I heard about Eddie, and all through the flight back, I kept looking out over the ocean, just hoping. If anyone could make it, Eddie could."

"I was so sick the day Hokule'a left; strep throat," said Bettencourt. "I went home, and the next day canceled my court stuff. But then I got a call saying Eddie had disappeared. We searched in my plane. (Pilot) Tom Hauptmann put a Hughes 500 (helicopter) at our disposal and we searched for days."

He sighed as well. "We saw the board, I'm sure of it, and about a hundred yards away from the board, something orange in the sea. It's always haunted me. We pulled up to get our bearings -- we didn't have navigation equipment then like we do now -- and lost it beneath us. When we went back down, we couldn't find it, or it was gone. This isn't known, but the helicopter ran up like a $6,000 to $7,000 fuel bill while it was searching for Eddie, which was paid by (singer) Helen Reddy, who just quietly gave us the money."

Eddie would go, and he was gone. The legend ended there and the myth began. "I heard one kid saying that Eddie is the guy who hits the biggest waves, but if he were to walk by today, she wouldn't recognize him," pondered Wake. "There's a real belief out there that Eddie is still among us somehow, still looking out for swimmers. The trick in doing the play was to balance and honor the man, but also to be truthful."

Star-Bulletin file photo
Friends and family of Eddie Aikau at a news conference days after the March 17, 1978 death of the big wave surfer and lifeguard.

Still healing

For Myra Aikau, who's still grieving after 20 years, the loss still aches.

"The hardest part, looking back, the hardest part was not seeing the body," she said. "You can never be sure without a body. Psychics would call us up and say Eddie was over here, or over there, just crazy stuff, and we finally had to put a halt to it. Eddie's gone."

To this day, people still call her to say they'd seen "Eddie standing beside the road on Molokai, or on a hiking trail somewhere, or at the beach, out in the waves. But you know, that's not Eddie, at least not the real Eddie. But it might be Eddie's spirit."

Bettencourt remembers Aikau "as the first Renaissance Hawaiian. He was completely happy to be Hawaiian -- never wished to be anything else -- and he stuck to the basics of behavior and culture, a simple life without a lot of negative impact on others.

The bumper stickers came in the '80s, as did other commemorations. The Quiksilver surf contest always begins with a beachside ceremony celebrating Aikau, and then the contest settles in to wait for Waimea's legendary waves to build properly. As contest director, George Downing's official rules state: "We will wait for that special day when the bay expresses its beauty -- a day that would stoke Eddie."

And so Eddie Aikau, who shrank from being larger than life in real life, became remembered for a heroic legacy that few can comprehend.

"He was heroic when I knew him," said Kamau'u. "The bumper stickers actually do mean something. He had a courage about him that went beyond the physical, it was spiritual as well. He's an inspiration. He gave his life to save his crew -- what more can you say?"

"His legacy is not to live solely for yourself, to help each other, to be of service, that's about it, brah," said Clyde Aikau. "I don't know about this myth deal. He gave his life to save others. That's it. If you're an old person, lived a full life, it's a tragedy when you go, but it's not unexpected. But Eddie was in his early 30s."

One of the things that ran through Wake's mind while writing the play was the sense of aloha that Aikau personified, something Wake doesn't see a lot of any more. "OK, he was a symbol, but he was a symbol of something we're in danger of losing -- aloha, simply being kind to your fellow man. Think about car jackings, people getting beat up on the North Shore. That sort of thing rarely happened in Eddie's day. We've changed, and so our real memories of Eddie Aikau become more and more distant. It's society that has changed, not Eddie Aikau."

Mused Downing, "When I look back, it keeps coming to mind -- and I was trained as a seaman in the Coast Guard -- never, never leave the ship. In Eddie's case, though, the first thing that came into his mind was the saving of lives. It was a natural thing with him, an urge that overwhelmed him, to help, even at risk to his own life.

"But the processes and skills that worked so well for him at the beach were not the same on the open ocean. His decision to go for help was highly emotional, but based on a lifetime of water skill and on the way his family valued life. You have to admire that incredible desire to care for people, to the point where his sense of self didn't matter. Like that guy in 'Titanic' who drowns so that the girl can survive; Eddie was like that. It killed him, but it also created him."

Eddie's story

° What: Honolulu Theatre for Youth's "Eddie Would Go," by Bryan Wake
° When: Four public performances at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., March 14 and 21
° Where: Tenney Theatre,
St. Andrew's Cathedral
° Cost: $10; $7.50 for students; $5 for children 3 to 12 and seniors over 60
° Call: 839-9885 for reservations and information

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