Yesterday, Hawaii’s legendary big-wave spot, Waimea Bay, reared its head for the first time this season. Early December there is when the world’s best heavy water surfers flock to the island, called to the surf Mecca as if in a trance. This was Eddie Aikau’s time, when he showed the world that Hawaiians would again lay claim to their traditional surf spots, beating back the invasion by mainlanders and Australians, who’d arrived on Oahu in the postwar years to find a population that had largely stopped surfing the big wave jewels in their backyard. A fitting week to remember Aikau, so please, enjoy this piece from the AJ archives. – Ed.
A genius marketing slogan: Eddie Would Go. In lightning speed, Eddie Aikau’s big wave prowess and gutsiness were memorialized on bumper stickers and in the collective consciousness of anyone taunting their buddies to go a little harder, a little bigger.
But “Eddie Would Go” was never intended for marketing and Eddie Aikau can’t be limited to one interpretation of those three words that captured the world’s attention. He did go, and he went big. He was one the best ever in big wave surfing and small wave style. For a time, he was ranked twelfth best surfer in the world. Yet, you can’t separate his athletic achievement from his advocacy for the Hawaiian Islands, and the dignity and cultural heritage of the native people. He was also literally a lifesaver, willingly putting himself in the most intense surf as as a lifeguard. “Eddie Would Go” is about much more than sending it.
Aikau was born Edward Ryon Makuahanai in 1946. More inspired by the ocean than academia, he quit school early and went to work canning pineapple so he could afford to live and to surf. He was a young man who knew what he wanted, but the arc of his life seems remarkably predestined by his ancestors.
The Waimea River flows through the tropical green hills of the Waimea Valley on Oahu’s North Shore, and feeds into the ocean at Waimea Bay. Aikau’s great great grandfather was appointed as the steward of the entire Waimea Valley by King Kamehameha. Four generations and 150 years later (give or take), a 22-year-old Eddie Aikau would carry on the family legacy by becoming the official caretaker of sorts for this legendary paradise.
In 1968, Aikau was named the first lifeguard for the North Shore of Oahu, including Waimea Bay. For a time, he alone covered the entire coast between Sunset Beach and Haleiwa, a distance of seven miles by road. He worked hard to earn the job, and he proved every day that the City and County of Honolulu made the right choice in hiring him. Throughout his tenure, Aikau made over 500 rescues, many with the aid of his brother, Clyde. They didn’t have fancy rescue gear–only a surfboard and fins. In Eddie’s 10 years of service, there wasn’t a single fatality.
The fact that surfing was exploding globally in the 1970s meant extra fun and exposure for Aikau, but the increased interest didn’t make his job any easier.
By the 1970s, surfing had become a full-fledged industry, with money, sponsorship, and fame waiting for the best of the best. With those promises, a new bravado of talent emerged. Caught up in the chaos was the homeland of surfing: Hawaii.
The North Shore was the siren song for aspiring and accomplished riders, as well as the massive influx of curious tourists. Famous for its reliably enormous swells, the North Shore became a temptation for those whose egos outsized their skills, and a proving ground for those who were genuinely on the leading edge of the sport.
Aikau was busy rescuing the former contingent, even as his own position in surfing was firmly in the latter. His excellence, though earned through hard work and innate talent, was inextricably linked to his proud identity as a Hawaiian. Hawaiians invented surfing, after all. There aren’t many activities that humans, as a species, have created purely for fun. Most of our modern modes of recreation evolved from practical or tactical origins. Not so with surfing. It was created as a non-gendered, age-irrelevant way to play in and with the ocean.
Aikau carried this ancient sense of joy with him every time he stepped into the water. It was expressed as pride in his heritage and in his capacity to share the love of the ocean with everyone. And yeah, it was also expressed in his comfort and skill on the world’s biggest waves.
An Advocate and a Diplomat
Aikau’s life experience shaped his world view as much as his passion for the water. His family had survived poverty and tragedy. He watched as tourists flooded to Oahu and native Hawaiians were pushed aside to make way for towering hotels on Waikiki Beach. He endured blatant and institutional racism, even within the world of local surfing.
As a native Hawaiian, Aikau had reason to be angry, and he wasn’t immune to moments of frustration. Even so, he seemed to internalize the complexity of the era and the personal challenges in his life. According to family and friends, he kept any sadness and struggle close to his chest. What he demonstrated to the world was diplomacy, bravery, and a pure love of Hawaii and surf. By all accounts, Aikau was a gracious and powerful presence in any setting.
Some even credit his presence with saving professional surfing in the ’70s. Tempers were on edge and the threat of physical violence was real when the local Hawaiians had reached their breaking point with the over-inflated egos of visiting professional surfers. The worst offenders were showing little to no reverence to the other surfers in the lineup, not to mention through the media. Surfing was becoming factionalized in the very waters where it began. Aikau wouldn’t have it. In Hawaiian tradition, he called all the surfers together for a family-style meeting, and he eased the tensions. It was a monumental turning point toward unity for everyone who loved surfing, and those in the room report that he was the only person charismatic enough to pull it off.
His charisma transferred to the water. In November 1966, he took his first big ride at Waimea Bay. He had been on big waves at Sunset Beach and other breaks, but this was brutal, beautiful, ancestral Waimea Bay. The wave was 40 feet high. Certainly other Hawaiians had attempted to surf Waimea prior to Aikau’s ride, but the surfing media at the time was obsessed with haoles. When Aikau, the native Hawaiian, dropped in on a 40-foot face, the media took notice. It didn’t matter that he wiped out; it mattered that he dropped in.
Despite the near comprehensive appreciation of Aikau’s talents and his high ranking, his competitive spirit seems to have been led by a mission bigger than just results: respect for Hawaiian culture.
In 1966, at 20 years old, Aikau finished sixth at the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. He was the highest placing Hawaiian. It doesn’t appear that the middle of the pack finish was as upsetting to him as the fact that no other islanders finished higher in this intensely Hawaiian event. Eleven years later he would be satiated.
In 1977, Aikau won the competition. He was 31 and the oldest surfer in the water. Upon winning, he dedicated the win to his deceased brother, Gerald, and his family. “I love them. And I did it for all the Hawaiians,” Aikau stated.
Aikau died as he lived: trying to save lives and honoring the Hawaiian spirit. In 1978, he was selected to be part of an elite crew to follow the path of the ancestral Polynesians who first reached Hawaii. By way of a double-hulled voyaging canoe (essentially a two-hulled canoe with sails), called the Hokule’a, the goal was to retrace the 2,500-mile migration route between Hawaii and Tahiti. The crew would navigate by stars and rely only on paddle power and winds.
The Hokule’a voyage would have been a culmination of Aikau’s messages of dignity and respect for his culture and for the ocean. Tragically, the Hokule’a took on water approximately 10 miles out and capsized. Stranded without an operable radio, the crew waited with the vessel and Aikau unlashed his surfboard and began paddling to land to get help. It was March 17, 1978. All of those who stayed with the Hokule’a survived. Despite the biggest air and sea rescue effort in Hawaiian history, Aikau was never found.
Eddie would go.
Aikau was a man whose intense pride never veered into the territory of hubris. His skills backed up his goals, which says a lot when you’re talking about dropping into 40-foot waves and putting your life on the line to rescue people in need. In 1984, Quicksilver honored Aikau with the creation of the Big Wave Invitational in Memory of Eddie Aikau. The event was held at Sunset Beach the first year. The next year it was moved permanently, and rightfully, to Waimea Bay.
“The Eddie,” as its known, is never a sure thing. It’s only held when swells are big enough to warrant the call. Only 28 of the strongest surfers are invited to participate, and they are on their own through two rounds of competitions. There are no tow-ins. Winning comes with the implicit understanding that participation and coming out on top is an enormous honor. (“Eddie wouldn’t crow,” some say).
Though the conditions have only been fit to hold “The Eddie” 20 times since its 1985 inception, it has become one of the most prestigious events in surfing. No one is entirely certain where it came from, but most give credit to Mark Foo for coining that famous phrase during a discussion about the event. Swells were enormous and the organizers were contemplating closing the competition for safety. Whether he had seen Aikau out surfing in similar conditions, or he saw him make a rescue as a lifeguard, or maybe it was just the spirit of the man coming through, Foo looked out at the surf and quietly, factually, stated, “Eddie would go.”
Eddie’s brother, Clyde Aikau, explained a bit of the mystery around the three words. “I think the phrase ‘Eddie Would Go’ is really a phrase that would ultimately say that one would put themselves out there for the betterment of others. That could relate to anybody–a person from Waikiki, a tourist, or some extreme surfer. Just helping out somebody else is what ‘Eddie Would Go’ is about.” Isn’t that, ultimately, the most meaningful definition of a badass?
For more on Aikau’s life, pick up a copy of Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero, by respected Hawaiian surf historian, Stuart Holmes Coleman.
And if you’re looking for the best surf history book ever written, one of the best sports histories, period, please check out Matt Warshaw’s History of Surfing.