by Stuart Coleman
photos by Kimo Hugho
Eddie (left) and other crewmembers
on a Hokulea training sail.
Eddie Aikau is a genuine Hawaiian hero. A pioneering big-wave surfer and Waimea Bay’s first official lifeguard, Eddie is today regarded as something of a patron saint to the "men who ride mountains." The world’s premier big-wave competition, The Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, is named after him, and its motto—"Eddie Would Go"—has been proclaimed from thousands of T-shirts and bumper stickers throughout Hawaii and around the surfing world. But even more heroic than the life Eddie led was the way he lost it—paddling away on his surfboard to try to summon help for his crewmates after the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea capsized south of the Islands in 1978. The canoe and the rest of the crew were eventually rescued, but Eddie was never seen again.
In many ways, Edward Ryan Aikau was a complex and paradoxical figure. Growing up in a graveyard that his family took care of, he played in the shadow of death, but he was full of life. He never graduated from high school, but he possessed a quiet wisdom and was close friends with teachers and professors. Although he was fiercely proud of his Hawaiian heritage, Eddie had friends from around the world and was instrumental in resolving local racial disputes. Though he often risked his life surfing huge waves or trying to rescue people from the dangerous surf, he knew his limits and always emphasized water safety. And though he loved the ocean, it eventually took his life.
March 17 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Eddie’s disappearance at age thirty-two. The following passages, excerpted from Stuart Coleman’s recently published biography Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero , recount the events of Eddie’s last journey.
When the Polynesian Voyaging Society announced they were seeking crewmembers for the Hokulea’s next trip to Tahiti, Eddie Aikau was one of the first to sign up, joining hundreds of people trying out for only twelve positions. Eddie hoped to join the voyage because it symbolized the growth of a renaissance in Hawaiian traditions and values, and he saw it as a way to help rediscover the lost pride of his people. It was also a time of personal upheaval for him, as he was going through a divorce from his wife, Linda Crosswhite.
Meanwhile, Eddie had found a new mistress, and her name was Hokulea. The canoe had made its first successful voyage to Tahiti in 1976 without the use of instruments, lending weight to the belief that ancient Polynesian wayfarers were able to traverse the vast Pacific navigating only by traditional knowledge of the stars and sea. The leaders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society had become so confident following the initial voyage that they made the first of many fateful decisions: This time, the Hokulea would sail alone, without an escort boat.
Eddie didn’t know much about deep-sea voyaging, but his reputation as a big-wave rider and lifeguard carried some clout. "Eddie wanted to know everything about sailing the canoe," master navigator Nainoa Thompson recalls. "And he was so full of life. The way he talked, you could see it in his eyes. He said, ‘I just want to see Tahiti come out of the ocean.’"
When the time came to make the final crew selections, Eddie’s name was at the top of the list. People who were close to him recall that, as the day of departure neared, Eddie seemed to be troubled by a sense of foreboding. Solemnly, he took pains to say good-bye to friends and set his affairs in order, including writing a last-minute will and finalizing his divorce papers.
"Maybe he himself had a premonition," says Linda, who remained close to Eddie and his family even through the divorce. "But when Eddie decided to do something, he did it. There was no talking him out of it once he made up his mind."
On the day of Hokulea ’s departure, March 16, 1978, more than 10,000 people gathered at Magic Island to take part in the big celebration and send-off. During the day, the already gusty winds picked up, and the seas grew heavier. But with all the politicians, reporters and friends who had come to watch the departure, there was mounting pressure to leave that day. Neither the captain nor the navigator wanted to set sail, but they eventually gave in. Going against their instincts and reservations, Dave Lyman and Nainoa Thompson made the controversial decision to set sail that afternoon—in spite of gale warnings, gusty 35-40 mph winds and stormy seas in the channels. It was a decision that would haunt them for years.
When the hour of departure finally arrived, the sky was already turning red as the sun began to set. Crewmembers said tearful good-byes to their loved ones, exchanging anxious hugs and salty kisses. With thousands of friends and family members waving from shore, Hokulea departed from Magic Island just before dusk, setting sail in what the Coast Guard would later call "questionable conditions." Cutting across the whitecaps, the heavily laden canoe flew toward Diamond Head and out to sea, followed by a fleet of other sailboats. "As soon as we got out past Diamond Head, the wind picked up, and the flotilla of boats that were out there to watch us leave kind of got left in the dust," crewmember Marion Lyman recalls. "We just went so fast."
The voyaging canoe made good time that night, and half the crew lay down to sleep in the hale, a thatched hut mounted on the platform between the canoe’s two hulls. As they sailed through the darkness, the captain had the crew on watch check the hulls for water-tightness, and they found several inches of water in each one. He had the water pumped out, but the choppy seas kept pouring over the hulls and leaking through hatches which hadn’t been properly sealed.
Dave had the crew check inside the hulls periodically to keep an eye on the water level, and during one check
two of the hatch covers were not replaced correctly in the darkness. As the heaving ocean poured over the hulls and water gushed into the compartments, the canoe began listing heavily. By the time Dave realized that it was not the heavy wind tilting the canoe but excessive water leakage, it was too late. He checked the hulls again and found the starboard side filling with water. The canoe had suddenly become sluggish with the added weight. Fearing they might capsize, Dave shouted, "All hands on deck!"
The sleeping crewmembers stumbled out of the cramped hale, and Dave ordered the sailors to start bailing out the starboard hull, but the water was coming in faster than they could bail it out. The crew was told to put on their life jackets and to clear the hull compartments of any gear to help make bailing easier.
Dave and Nainoa decided to fall off the wind to ease in bailing, but as the canoe changed course, the starboard hull suddenly began to flood, with waves breaking over the gunwales. The crew was ordered to jettison all equipment on the starboard hull and to sit on the port side to compensate for the fifteen degree list that was tilting the canoe sideways.
While several crewmembers tried to take down the sails, waves kept hitting the vessel and she tilted even more. "Within five or ten minutes of hearing ‘All hands on deck,’ a huge swell swamped us," Marion recalls. It was about midnight when the rogue wave hit the windward hull, while a gust of wind pushed on the sails. In a dizzying rush, the canoe capsized, plunging the sailors into the dark, windblown water.
"When it flipped over, everybody was trying to help each other be calm and hang onto the canoe," crewmember Snake Ah Hee remembers. "It was late at night already. The captain was saying, ‘Just hang on! Let’s keep everybody warm!’"
The shivering crew huddled together and clung to the overturned hull, while wave after wave crashed over them. They tried to salvage as much as they could, but the canoe’s emergency beacon and much of their food and equipment had been lost when the canoe capsized. As they floated in the darkness, Eddie volunteered to paddle his surfboard to get help. He had brought the board to surf in Tahiti, but now he hoped to paddle it into the wind across almost twenty miles of raging ocean toward the distant lights on the island of Lanai. But Captain Lyman refused his request, saying it was too dangerous and they should wait until morning.
Through the night, crewmembers took turns cranking the handle of the useless, waterlogged radio, trying to transmit an emergency message. They fired flares at passing planes, but no one spotted them. Cold, wet and scared, they held onto the hull, calling out to each other in the darkness to make sure no one was washed away by the swells that battered them all night long.
By sunrise, the crew realized how far they had drifted out to sea and how sick some of the sailors had become. Hopes of rescue began to fade as they drifted farther out of the flight pattern of planes flying between the islands. Not wanting to wait another day, Eddie knew what he had to do. Again, he asked the captain for permission to go. As a lifeguard, he couldn’t just stay there and do nothing.
Fearing for the fate of his crew, Dave consulted with his officers. After much heated debate, they all reluctantly agreed: Eddie should go. Their decision went against the cardinal rule of never leaving the ship, but the captain and the others believed Eddie was their only chance for rescue. Lanai was now more than twenty miles away and the ocean was seething with gale-force winds and high seas, but Eddie insisted he could make the journey. The crew was depending on Eddie, and he knew it.
Wearing his yellow foul-weather pants and jacket, Eddie was given a bag of sugar cubes for energy, a knife, a whistle and a strobe light. Although he didn’t want to wear one, the captain insisted he wear a life jacket around his waist. At approximately 10:30 a.m. on March 17, 1978, he prepared to leave, and the rest of the crew gathered around to say good-bye. "We all held hands and said a prayer that he make a safe journey," Marion says. "In my mind, I remember chanting, ‘Go, Eddie, go.’"
The day remains an emotional blur, but Nainoa cannot forget the moment Eddie went: "He put a lifejacket on and then paddled off. And I swam out to him. I was so conflicted with this idea, but he was like a miracle man—he could do anything. So if he says he could go to Lanai, he’s gonna go. I remember grabbing his hand and holding it real tight. He said, ‘I’ll be okay. Everything will be okay.’"
Eddie stroked away on his twelve-foot board, heading toward the hazy outline of Lanai. Watching as he crested each wave, several people saw him stop about fifty feet from the canoe and take off his orange life jacket. "I was probably one of the last guys to see him," crewmember John Kruse says. "He was far away, and I remember him turning around and looking at me. I looked, and I saw him take off the vest and throw it away. I think maybe he took off the vest so he could paddle better because it was so bulky, but he also had the kind of confidence like, ‘See ya. No worry, brah, I get ’em.’"
Clinging to the overturned hull of the Hokulea, the other crewmembers continued shooting off flares whenever they saw a plane passing overhead, but no one spotted them. Then, after nightfall, when most of the interisland flights had finished for the evening, the crew saw one last plane headed toward Honolulu, so they fired off their remaining flares. For a moment, it looked like the plane would continue on like all the others. But then it suddenly banked and circled the canoe, coming so close that crewmembers could see Japanese tourists snapping photographs through the portals. The Hawaiian Airlines plane circled the canoe one last time, blinking its landing lights before flying on to Honolulu Airport.
Less than an hour later, a C-130 plane flew over the capsized Hokulea , circled around and dropped phosphorescent lights in the water to light up the area. A Coast Guard helicopter hovered above the canoe and lowered down a metal cage to rescue the crewmembers. Inside the basket was a radio wrapped in plastic. Captain Lyman grabbed it and told them about Eddie, yelling above the beating of the helicopter blades. But he got no response. "Realizing that it was a one-way radio, Dave told them to blink their lights once if they could read him," Marion recalls. "The lights blinked once—affirmative. Then Dave asked if they had heard from Eddie Aikau. The lights blinked twice—negative."
News of the capsized canoe hit Honolulu like a storm front, covering the city with a dark pall. The search for Eddie became one of the most intensive land, sea and air searches ever done in Hawai‘i. Hundreds of volunteers joined the search, but after five exhausting days, the Aikau family finally called it off when several rescuers were injured in the dangerous conditions.
A week and a half later, Eddie’s memorial service at Waimea Bay seemed like a funeral procession for a head of state. At the bay, a large crowd of friends had already gathered on the beach, and fellow surfers had planted a circle of surfboards in the sand around Eddie’s orange lifeguard tower. He had spent a great deal of time in that tower, strumming his guitar and watching all who swam and surfed in the bay. But now the tower was empty, with only a sign on the side that stated, "No lifeguard on duty."
Speaking in English and Hawaiian, the Rev. Abraham Akaka told the story of how Eddie had set out on his surfboard after the Hokulea capsized in order to save his fellow crewmembers. "The open sea is to the Hawaiian people as the desert was to Moses and his people," he said, "a place where people go to meet God."
Several months later, the city erected a memorial in Eddie’s honor at Waimea. The plaque reads: "‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:13). Eddie Aikau is gone, but his name will live on in the annals of heroism in Hawaii. His spirit will live too, wherever the Hokulea sails...."
Although the events of the capsizing and Eddie’s disappearance haunted all involved, the Hokulea and its mission to rediscover Polynesian wayfaring were revived, with paramount importance placed on training and safety. In the years since, the canoe has gone on to sail throughout the vast Polynesian Triangle, helping to spark cultural renewal wherever she lands.
In 1995, the Polynesian Voyaging Society organized a fleet of canoes from around Polynesia to sail the original migration route from the Marquesan Islands to Hawaii. Still struggling over Eddie’s loss, Nainoa invited Clyde Aikau to sail on the Hokulea as a special tribute to his brother.
Clyde flew to the island of Nuku Hiva, where he joined the crews from the different voyaging canoes. That night, they met for a final gathering of all the sailors on the eve of their departure for Hawaii. One by one, they each stood up and said a few words, until it was Clyde’s turn to explain why he had come. "Eddie embarked on a journey that he couldn’t finish," he told them, with tears streaming down his face. "And I am here to finish it for him."
During the voyage back to Hawaii, Clyde says, the Hokulea sailed behind all the other canoes from the different islands "like she was watching over the flock." Then, one morning after almost a month at sea, he heard shouts as one of the crew spotted the majestic peak of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. It was a beautiful sight watching each island slowly rise up out of the sea, and Clyde imagined what his ancestors must have felt when they first arrived in Hawaii. Looking out over the water, he thought about Eddie. When the canoe finally sailed back into Honolulu Harbor, Clyde says today, "I feel like I brought Eddie home."
Note: This article has been condensed and modified slightly from the complete text of Stuart Coleman’s book Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero . The biography is available from Native Books Hawaii (1-800-887-7751) and most other bookstores in the Islands. For more information, visit eddiewouldgo.com.