The Legacy of Eddie Aikau

Written by: 
Eric Hachenberger

The life, death and legacy of Eddie Aikau includes his dedication to family life, humble lifesaving and fearless surfing. It has left an everlasting impact on the Hawaiian community and the BYU-Hawaii ohana.

A canoe capsized leaving a crew hanging on during a stormy cold night. Launched flares went unnoticed. With no sign of help or improvement, Aikau, the experienced and fearless lifeguard he was, knew what he needed to do. With confidence, he took off on a surfboard to paddle 12 to 15 miles to the nearest island for help.

Aikau, born in 1946, grew up in a time of racial tension in Hawaii, as depicted in the movie, “Hawaiian – The Legend of Eddie Aikau.” At that time, locals were not welcomed near the new tourist hotels and Hawaiian culture was in a deep depression.

Nonetheless Aikau grew up in a warm environment. “His family was LDS,” said Isaiah Walker, professor of History. “His father was raised in the church and most of the Aikau family are members. But his mom was Catholic so his dad had him go to church with [her]. Still, because of the LDS influence, they had very tight family bonds.”

Seeking his place in a changing world, he was drawn to surfing early in his life. The ocean was where the Hawaiian culture could still survive. The Waimea waves could give Aikau the chance he was looking for. Soon he was known as the fearless Hawaiian, dropping with his red gunner board into 30-to-40-foot waves.

“He respected and learned about the ocean,” said Tey Hali’ilani Wilson from Laie, who is working for the Science Department. “That gave him all this passion and the love for this place. It is scary those waves he caught, but he was natural at it. You could just tell.”

A local acquaintance of Aikau recounted in the movie, ”I got out of school, caught the bus up and I was rounding that corner on the top there [at Waimea] just in time to see Eddie take off on a 40-foot wave, freefalling about 20 feet down and having the worst wipe out I have ever seen.”

Walker said, “Eddie’s life goal was to win the surf competition The Duke’s Invitational.” In 1973, he and his younger brother, Clyde, were in the competition together. When Clyde ended up winning, Aikau’s great personality showed. “He graciously congratulated his brother and bragged about how awesome it was that he had won,” added Walker.

Now the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is held in his honor only when the winter waves at Waimea Bay are over 20-feet high and was last held in 2009.

Despite his rising fame, he was of a humble and loving character. “He is most known,” said Walker, “for his record in saving people from drowning. He would save more than anybody else–over 1,000 people. But they said every time he would drag somebody out of the water, he would just quietly walk away. He wouldn’t talk much. It was his persona....There are many stories of people going up to him, trying to thank him, and he would just say, ‘No problem.’” It is said he would save people during swells when nobody else would go out there.

In all of Aikau’s dedication to life, culture and family, he still faced great challenges. “One of the hardest things that he faced in his life is his brother dying in a car accident. Actually at Pounders Beach, right at that corner. And you could tell how much his family meant to him, because when he lost his brother, it plunged him into a deep depression. He would go out to the cemetery, where the brother was buried, and he would sleep on his grave. It was pretty dramatic and a low point in his life.”

Then at the age of 31, an opportunity arose for Aikau that he could never turn down. In 1978, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was seeking volunteers for a 30-day, 2,500-mile (4,000 km) journey to follow the ancient route of the Polynesian migration between the Hawaiian and Tahitian island chains. Aikau joined the voyage as a crew member.

Walker said, “His cultural connection to his Hawaiian history was through the ocean. He went to surfing to being a lifeguard, and then when the Hōkūle‘a was built, every part of him wanted to be part of that project.”

On March 16, 1978, the Hōkūle‘a left the port in Honolulu to start a journey that would change Aikau, his family and the culture he and the canoe represented forever.

A leak developed in one of the hulls within the first five hours of the voyage. The canoe capsized 12 miles out from Molokai Island. Without success, the crew was trying to call out for rescue. The emergency radio reached no one to help. The launched flares went unnoticed by passing aircraft. For the rest of that day and the following night, the crew clung to the swamped ship.

Getting sucked out farther and farther by the tides and currents, Aikau made a decision representative of his character. By midmorning the second day with faith in himself and the ocean, he left on a surfboard to paddle back to shore in an attempt to get help for his crew.

“One of the things that stood out to me,” said Kawika Wise, a sophomore from Kapolei, majoring in Hawaiian Studies, “was this last act that he did: Leaving to go and try to save his crew on the Hōkūle‘a. I also had the opportunity to sail on the Iosepa and hopefully this upcoming semester I get the opportunity to go again. Just knowing his story, willing to sacrifice himself for others, that helped me. When you are on the canoe, everything you do has a big impact on how the canoe is run and the safety of others. He motivated me to do my best and sacrifice myself for my crew because I love them.”

The crew was eventually rescued later that day, but Aikau was missing.

Afterwards, a local newspaper quoted Eddie’s brother Clyde, saying, “We want to check all the islands even if there is only an outside chance. We want to be able to sleep knowing we’ve done everything. Every rock, beach and cave has to be checked.” Despite the greatest and most extensive land, air and sea search, Eddie was never found again.

His mortal life might have been lost, but his legacy spread far beyond his short but full 31 years.

“Interestingly, ultimately he rescued the canoe and Hawaiian culture,” said Walker. “Because after his loss and passing, it garnishes a lot of support from the community. They see that because the canoe is so valuable to him, it has to be valuable to us. They paid money to fix the canoe,” remembered Walker. “Because of that incident the Hōkūle‘a has a much larger movement after his loss. The Hōkūle‘a is currently sailing from South Africa to Brazil and is spreading Hawaiian culture throughout the world. They still recognize his presence on the canoe on this voyage. He is still spreading the Aloha Spirit through the stories they share about him.”

The image and memory of Aikau has in many ways been deified. Walker added that in some ways he was a comparison to Christ. “That is very traditional in Hawaiian culture.” In ancient Hawaiian culture, most of the gods were humans at one point then elevated to a godlike status because of their outstanding character and morals. “I think we have done the same thing with Eddie,” he said.

The story of Aikau was more than just a story of sacrifice. “When you think about what the canoe represented,” said Walker, “the canoe itself was the vehicle for bringing Hawaiian culture back of its obscurity to a new era of renaissance. The canoe sinking was, in Eddie’s mind, I think, a metaphor of his culture dying.”

He added the fact Aikau would give his life to save the people, the canoe, and the culture and that he was never found, adds to the deification. It’s “like Moses walking off into the mountain never seeing him again,” Walker said. “Most people realize that he is gone, though some like to think maybe he just paddled into the eternity.”

Uploaded Feb. 4, 2016