Hawaiian Legend Eddie Aikau Lives On In A Big New Documentary Film Premiering At The Maui Film Festival

Go to the official webpage of the annual Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau surf contest and you’ll find three curious but telling words: “WHO IS EDDIE?” Clicking on the question takes you to a page full of words and pictures, dedicated to the man whose name now adorns one of the biggest surf contests in the world.

Though the famous waterman and lifeguard from Oahu’s North Shore died 35 years ago, framing the question in the present tense works. A figure of tremendous stature and respect throughout most of his adult life, Aikau’s influence stretches throughout Hawaii to the present day.

“I watched and admired Eddie Aikau out there and decided I wanted to be like him,” Archie Kalepa, the County of Maui’s chief of Ocean Safety a big wave surfer in his own right, said in a Sept. 6, 2012 Lahaina News story. “I wanted to be in that North Shore scene.”

Now, finally, people can see Aikau’s life through the sprawling new documentary Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau. It’s a big production, full of all the color and adventure that punctuated Aikau’s scant 31 years. The film will debut in Hawaii on June 12–the opening night of the Maui Film Festival. In addition, festival organizers are awarding Aikau and Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society their Visionary Award.

Showing the film under the stars on the Wailea golf course as part of the Maui Film Festival is entirely appropriate, given that Eddie and his brother Clyde first began to idolize big wave riders by watching surf films at the Waikiki Shell when they were growing up. “I’m going to catch the biggest waves ever ridden and make our name famous in the surfing world,” a teenage Aikau told his parents after seeing one film of the Hawaiian surfer Kealoha Kaio, according to Stuart Holmes Coleman’s 2001 biography Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero.

Audiences should always be skeptical when words like “legend” and “hero” get stuck to mortal beings, but the film makes clear that Aikau is more than deserving of such titles. Still, how do you tell a story everyone already knows?

Every surfer who’s ever dipped a toe in the Pacific has at least heard his name because of the immense popularity of the Quiksilver contest. And who, in Hawaii at least, hasn’t yet heard or seen the words “Eddie would go” (or “Eddie wouldn’t tow” or any of the other countless variations that crop up to advance this or that cause).

For the makers of Hawaiian (directed by Sam George and produced by ESPN Films, Stacy Peralta and Paul Taublieb), their task is easier. Aimed at Mainland audiences who likely haven’t ever ridden a wave, the film will offer little new insight to anyone who grew up in Hawaii or has at least read Coleman’s book.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing compelling about watching Aikau talking with Jim McKay, or surfing skyscraper waves at Waimea (Without a jet ski! Or a leash!), or seeing Thompson, who was with Aikau on that fateful 1978 Hokule‘a voyage, cry when recalling what it was like to watch him paddle away from their capsized canoe. Hawaiian is packed with colorful film footage of life in postwar Hawaii, but it’s gripping largely because the story of Aikau is so extraordinary.

Possibly because the things he did on Oahu were so big, it’s easy to forget that Edward Ryan Makua Hanai Aikau was born on Maui in 1946. His father Solomon worked at Kahului Harbor as a stevedore, and young Eddie spent his first dozen years in nearby Rawfish Camp (it’s all condominiums now). He went to St. Anthony’s, along with his four siblings. From the accounts I’ve read, his youth was happy, if uneventful. A great deal of it, as remains true with most kids in Hawaii, was spent in the water.

“Eddie spent as much time as he could in the ocean, swimming, diving and exploring the silent world below the surface,” Coleman wrote in Eddie Would Go. “Occasionally, Eddie would see sharks ominously cruising in the distance, but he was taught not to be afraid of them or any other creatures in the sea. The water’s warm, sensual embrace was as soft and comforting as a woman’s touch, and it was the beginning of Eddie’s lifelong love affair with the ocean.”

More than a surfer, Aikau was the definition of a waterman–he surfed, paddled, swam, dove, snorkeled and, ultimately, sailed. From his idol, Duke Kahanamoku, he adopted a relaxed, almost regal approach to surfing. His years in the water brought an understanding of the ocean that made him comfortable around the same ocean currents and sea creatures that terrify so many.

But from nearly the moment he arrived on Oahu in 1958, death took on an ever-increasing role in Eddie Aikau’s life. His father Solomon had brought everyone to Oahu seeking more opportunities, and he certainly found one by moving the family into a Chinese graveyard in Pauoa Valley. There, Solomon and his kids would tend to the tombstones in exchange for rent-free living. Though Eddie would eventually get married and move out, his family would stay in the graveyard for many years after his death.

Riding waves at Waimea, known across the globe for its massive winter swell, brought the possibility of violent death at any moment. What’s more, when he wasn’t paddling out to ride, he was usually on the shore as a lifeguard–the bay’s first, hired despite his never finishing high school.

How many people Aikau saved at Waimea will probably never be known. The film Hawaiian says 500, but that’s just an estimate. According to Coleman, Aikau’s modesty and his strong dislike of paperwork meant he only documented a small fraction of his rescues.

Though it’s often said that no one died in Waimea when Aikau was on duty, the harsh results from taking one too many risks were ever-present in his life. His brother Gerald had spent two years in the Vietnam war, only to die not long after returning to Hawaii in a late night car accident (Aikau would occasionally hop the fence at Punchbowl and sleep at his brother’s grave). A couple years later, Aikau’s close friend Jose Angel vanished after attempting to dive in waters more than 300 feet deep off the coast of Maui in a hunt for valuable black coral.

All that was before he joined the Hokule‘a.

“I think most of us wish if we had a chance to die a certain way, it would be doing something great like he was doing,” surfer Kelly Slater says in Eddie Would Go. “Obviously, it was a sad way to see him go but almost a fitting end to the way he lived his life. Being lost in the ocean is tragic, but it’s also romantic at the same time.”

Politics wasn’t Aikau’s thing, but Coleman wrote that his favorite song was “Waimanalo Blues,” and that points to someone not at all happy with the development of Hawaii and the long history of disenfranchised Hawaiians. The new Polynesian Voyaging Society was the perfect place for Aikau to fuse his waterman skills with his growing awareness of Hawaiian history and traditions.

Aikau was just 31 in 1978 when the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a overturned in rough seas on its second voyage. Meant to travel from Oahu to Tahiti and show the world that Polynesians traveled to Hawaii by way of sophisticated celestial navigation and not dumb luck, it had beautifully demonstrated exactly that two years earlier.

But its second voyage ended just off Molokai when it capsized in bad weather shortly after leaving Oahu. Wet and shivering on the overturned hull with their radio gone, the crew’s hopes faded fast. There was nothing shocking or unusual about Aikau’s request to paddle 20 miles to Lanai to get help. Lacking options, Captain Dave Lyman agreed.

In the early 1800’s, as both Hawaiian and Eddie Would Go make clear, Aikau’s ancestor Hewahewa was a kahuna guarding Waimea–a role Eddie took upon himself, and apparently took very seriously. His relationship with the ocean, expansive ohana and huge circle of friends all pointed to a man dedicated to keeping those around him healthy and happy. Even his own name advertised his destiny–Makua Hanai roughly translates as “nurturing care-giver.”

There are layers of irony surrounding Aikau’s death. He set out to rescue the crew, but in the end the Coast Guard found the crew without him (though Marion Lyman-Mersereau, a crewmember who went on to write Eddie Wen Go, a children’s book about Aikau, says in the film Hawaiian that his paddling out to get help inspired her and the others to maintain hope). Aikau spent his adult life saving people who ventured out into the dangerous Waimea waters, but today he’s largely remembered for paddling out himself into those same waves.

Eddie would go.

Part dare for those of us who hesitate, part honor for he who did not, the famous phrase came from big wave surfer Mark Foo in 1986, during the run-up to the first Quiksilver Eddie Aikau contest. With 40-foot waves waves pounding Waimea Bay, organizers wondered what they should do. “Eddie would go,” Foo told one cameraman, and the rest was history. Eddie’s brother Clyde took top honors at that first Eddie Aikau contest. As for Foo, he took his own advice one too many times, drowning in 1994 during a massive set at Mavericks in California.

Had he lived, Aikau would be 67 years old now. Look at his brother Clyde in the film Hawaiian, and you’ll see how the eternally boyish Eddie might look today. Then again, had Aikau lived, it’s unlikely there would be a movie called Hawaiian. Legends exist, but few among us ever do what’s necessary to become one.

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Wed., June 12, 8pm

Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course

Ticket information available at Mauifilmfestival.com

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Cover art: Harald-M. Lehnardt & Dan Merkel