“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
-John 15:13 (Quote on the Eddie Aikau Memorial Plaques, Waimea Bay and The Hokule’a)
Thirty-one years ago this month, a 31-year-old Maui native became one of Hawaii’s most celebrated heroes, while laying down his life for his crewmen aboard the Hokule‘a, a replica of the ancient Polynesian canoes used by Hawaii’s first inhabitants. But while Eddie Aikau’s death aboard the Hokule‘a may have been an utter tragedy, the stories of the man and the vessel do not end there—nor do they begin there.
Edward Aikau was born in Kahului on May 4, 1946. His Father, Solomon (aka “Pops”), worked as a driver for the Kahului Railroad Company and raised his six children in a small community by Kahului Harbor known as Rawfish Camp. Though the family had little income and few material possessions, Solomon and his wife, Henrietta, instilled in their children the priceless values of their Hawaiian heritage.
From a young age, the Aikau children were taught about their ancestral ties to the sea, and practiced these customs with weekly trips to the harbor. It was here, not far from where the ill-fated Superferry docked, that Hawaii’s heaviest charger rode his first waves.
“We would always go to the beach on the weekends with Pops. We were such a tightly knit family,” remembers Eddie’s younger brother, Solomon III. “When Eddie was about 12 years old, Pops taught Eddie to surf. Who would have known that it would effect his future, and all of Hawaii’s as much as it did?”
In 1958, the future of the entire family was changed when Pops moved them to Honolulu in search of better job opportunities. But while Eddie may have left Maui, Maui never left Eddie. Aikau’s biographer, Stuart Holmes Coleman, explains: “Eddie was always such a humble man. And I think growing up in Maui, spending his childhood in the sea and in the shadows of Haleakala, those images formed a lot of his personality. I really believe the power of the island humbled him, and stayed with him throughout his life.”
On Oahu, the family became caretakers of a Chinese graveyard in exchange for free rent. At 16, Eddie dropped out of school, picked up work at the Dole cannery and became a self-taught scholar of oceanography. The Aikau boys would obsessively fish, canoe, sail and carve lines along the small waves of Waikiki. But even in those early years of Eddie’s surfing career, he knew that bigger things awaited him on the opposite side of the island, in a proving ground where surfers break as easily as the fiberglass they ride—the North Shore.
Before the jet ski replaced paddling, and Maui’s Peahi became the mecca for big wave tow-in surfing, Oahu’s Waimea Bay was the world’s largest ride-able wave. And Aikau dominated the place. In 1967, during his very first session at the bay, Aikau’s big wave grit turned the heads—and won the hearts—of famous surfers Greg Knoll and George Downing. That same session, Aikau won fame on the world stage, landing a photo in Life magazine. He would later go on to win the Duke Kahanamoku Classic and several other professional surfing contests.
The following year, Aikau left the Dole cannery and became one of Hawaii’s first lifeguards. He was assigned to patrol the beaches of the North Shore, the 7-mile miracle stretching between Sunset Beach and Haleiwa. No souls perished at sea under Aikau’s watchful eyes.
But Aikau may have saved just as many lives on the land as he did in the ocean. During the early 1970s, hordes of talented but aggressive Australians were over-flocking the line-ups and ruffling the feathers of locals. This resulted in the formation of Da Hui, an infamous surf club based on water safety but shrouded in allegations of violence and intense localism.
In 1974, during the height of altercations between Da Hui and the Aussies, Aikau became the peacemaker. Aikau was able to subdue the violence by holding an official meeting between the opposing camps to discuss the alarming hostility he saw on the waters he patrolled.
“Eddie Aikau was at once gentle and fearless, fierce and gracious,” says Drew Kampion, editor of Surfing magazine at the time. “He was always an ambassador of moderation, carrying the torch of Aloha through dark days.”
Aikau also sought to carry the torch of his ancestry by sailing aboard the Hokule‘a. In 1975, the Polynesian Voyaging Society constructed the Hokule‘a, the first voyaging canoe built in Hawaii in over 600 years. It was replicated to reenact the discovery of these islands through celestial navigation. Hokule‘a means “star of gladness,” because the ancient Polynesians used this particular star to align themselves with Hawaii. In 1976, the vessel launched its maiden voyage from Maui’s Honolua Bay en route to Tahiti.
Eddie Aikau was going through a painful divorce in 1978 when he was selected to be one of the 16 crewmembers for the Hokule‘a’s second voyage. Sources say he was honored to be part of the revitalization of his culture, and hoped the journey would bring some personal healing as well.
On March 17, 1978, shortly after leaving Honolulu’s Ala Wai Harbor, the Hokule‘a hit rough seas and began to take on water in its starboard hull. Terrified crewmembers attempted to bail the water while 10-foot waves pounded the boat and eventually caused it to capsize.
The crew hung onto the vessel throughout the early morning hours as their hopes of a quick rescue swiftly drifted away. Two crewmembers were going into shock, everyone was suffering from exposure and some began to notice sharks circling. Always selfless, Aikau begged permission from Captain Dave Lyman to paddle a surfboard 12 nautical miles to the island of Lanai, to seek help from the Coast Guard.
At 10:30am, the crew watched Hawaii’s greatest lifeguard and big wave surfer paddle off into the horizon. The remaining crew was later rescued after the Coast Guard had been notified by an inter-island flight that saw the boat in distress. Despite one of the largest air and sea rescue missions in modern Hawaii’s history, Eddie Aikau was never seen again.
But Aikau’s spirit still lives strong. The Hokule‘a continues to sail, honoring Hawaiian culture and the man who dedicated his life to Aloha. Right now, the Hokule‘a is making the return trip from Palmyra, a remote atoll and U.S. territory located halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa.
“We always keep Eddie in mind,” says crewmember Pauline Sato. “One way we honor him is to be sure we are as safe as we can be so that no other person has to make the sacrifice he made.”
The Aikau family continues to support the efforts of the Hokule‘a. “The success and safety of the Hokule‘a and its crew is one of the most important things to my family,” says Solomon III.
This year, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has launched an interactive pilot education program in an effort to bring the Hokule‘a from the seas to the classrooms. Several schools throughout Hawaii are receiving daily coordinates and detailed descriptions of this latest crossing via satellite phone. Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina is a member of the program.
“This program is an excellent way to teach our students about the sacredness of these islands,” says Principal Susan Hendricks. “It’s our school’s mission, and our role as educators, to keep these traditions alive, and this program is strengthening our will to do so.”
Solomon III is doing his part to keep Eddie’s spirit alive. He is the president of the Eddie Aikau Foundation, a nonprofit organization created to share Eddie’s life, contributions and accomplishments while promoting education and the advancement of Hawaiian culture. The foundation holds an annual essay contest, beach clean-ups and has even donated money to the parents of a drowned Ecuadorian surfer when the family couldn’t afford to fly their sons’ remains home.
“We try to do the things that we think Eddie would want us to do,” says Solomon III. “He loved everything about our people. And even though Eddie dropped out of school, it was something he regretted, and he would tell kids to stay in school because it’s important to learn about their culture.”
Organizations like the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Eddie Aikau Foundation are working to bridge the past and the future, and to give the gift of history and culture to Hawaii’s youth. Who knows how many Eddie Aikaus are waiting in the coming generations?
To truly understand some of Hawaii’s greatest heroes, you first have to know the place from which so many of them came. Maui no ka oi. MTW
For the complete story of Eddie Aikau, read Eddie Would Go by Stuart Holmes Coleman. You can also visit the Eddie Aikau Foundation’s Web site at eddieaikaufoundation.org.