Legendary surfer recalled by those who knew him best
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Staff Writer
But Eddie Aikau's legacy should be more than this, says his biographer, Stuart Coleman.
It is more, says Nainoa Thompson, navigator, Kamehameha Schools trustee and a crewmen with Aikau on the Hokule'a in 1978. "Still today in the voyaging community, without a doubt, he continues to navigate," Thompson said , "making sure that we're clear about our purpose in voyaging, clear about our destination, about who we are supposed to serve from the deck of that voyaging canoe."
Inner-directed and publicity-shy, Aikau was little understood in life, except within a tight circle of family and friends. He is even less comprehended now, when kids who weren't born when Aikau died 24 years ago are competing in the surfing competition named for him.
"He has a lot of name recognition a lot," Coleman said, "but the details of his life are lost to most people. They confuse what happened to him with what happened to George Helms, Tommy Holmes" both memorable figures, who also died at sea.
The bare facts of Aikau's life are these: He was born to a large and exceptionally close Hawaiian family. He wasn't much of a student and dropped out of high school to work and focus on surfing, succeeding in becoming a champion, known for his prowess on immense waves. He also found the perfect job as a lifeguard assigned to the North Shore. He knew Waimea Bay renowned for its split personality as a placid playground and merciless killer as well as anyone ever has.
When the voyaging canoe Hokule'a was rigged for its maiden voyage to the Marquesas, sparking the movement that would be called the Hawaiian Renaissance, Aikau was a natural choice for the crew. He hung back from the first voyage but was picked for the second crew.
Battling fierce weather and taking on water, the canoe swamped before it even left the Hawaiian Islands. Aikau, who lugged along a board so he could surf in Tahiti and run watery errands, offered to paddle for help. That was March 17, 1978. He was never seen again.
Acceptance by inner circle
Coleman, a South Carolina native who describes himself as having been "baptized in the small waves of Charleston," was hooked by Aikau's story the first time he heard it in 1993, from a teacher at Punahou School where he was then teaching. A writer and a surfer, Coleman knew it was a story that belonged between the covers of a book.
He was diffident at first: Could an outsider, a haole not born here, write the story of a modern-day Hawai'i hero? Would he be able to persuade Eddie's circle to talk to him Êfamily still flinching from the memory of Aikau's loss, crew members scarred by the controversial tragedy that took his life, lifeguards and surfers protective of their friend's memory?
But Coleman decided four years ago that it was time. "I felt someone had to do it while people were still around, someone had to get their stories down," Coleman said. He called on acquaintances in the surfing world who introduced him to others, working his way in toward those who knew Aikau best. He found Aikau's friends and family wary at first, then caught up in telling what they knew.
Coleman's new book, "Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero," (MindRaising Press, hardcover, $24.95) is built from interviews with more than 40 people.
"It turned out to be a great way for me to meet my heroes," Coleman said. "Eddie knew a real wide range of people not only the surfers and watermen I admire but teachers, activists, scientists."
In gathering this oral history, Coleman came to see Aikau as a man who was more than a great big-wave rider; more even than a lifeguard whose dramatic rescues frequently made the local news.
He tells of a time, for example, when Aikau brokered a peace settlement between Australian and
local surfers, after the brash guys from Down Under dropped into one too many waves without so much as a "G'day." The locals were ready to shed blood, and the cowed Aussies were hiding out at what was then Kuilima Resort when Aikau got involved and helped arrange a meeting where grievances were aired. Nobody got pounded.
"I've heard people say only Eddie could have done that," Coleman said.
Aikau's family were a kind of royalty among local surfers and water people. Despite living from paycheck to paycheck, they were known for hosting sprawling and boozy lu'au, for a lavish open-handedness when it came to feeding and housing strays (human and animal), and also for their closeness and dedication to each other and to the 'aina.
"He came from an extraordinary family, a very proud and dignified family that nurtured him, and those strong values that they held together as a family influenced everyone who knew them," Thompson said.
In the case of the Aussie incident, Coleman sees Eddie adapting a reasoned approach to a problem an approach that grew directly out of his parents' way of handling difficulties. The Aikau family of eight shared a relatively small home until well after the children were grown, squeezing in to make room for in-laws and mo'opuna as they came along.
"They lived by ho'oponopono," the Hawaiian custom of conflict resolution, based on sitting down with elders and talking it through, Coleman said. "Pops (Aikau) would say 'C'mon, sit down, and no one leaves this table until it's resolved.' "
Aikau showed restraint, too, in his job as a lifeguard. During the big-surf winter months, he daily watched people ignore warning signs, turn their back on the ocean, go out without proper equipment or training. In newspaper interviews and private conversations, he expressed his frustration and even anger at people's stupidity in this regard. But he never hesitated to carry out a rescue. "From his family, he got this tradition of self-sacrifice, always putting others before yourself," Coleman said.
He had an understanding of the ocean, and Waimea Bay in particular, that was almost uncanny, the product of hundreds of hours spent watching the sea. Coleman records an incident where Eddie breaks off in the middle of talking to a reporter to say, basically, "See that guy? He's about to get into trouble." The next minute Eddie was gone, sprinting to pull the man from the waves.
Later, Eddie would come to know scientists who understood the sea, the stars, navigation and other sciences of which he had an instinctive understanding.
Coleman struggled to get the book published, shopping it to agents and publishers who dismissed it as "too regional," finally deciding to bring it out himself. But he thinks that perhaps the timing was meant to be.
"Before 9/11, when I would talk to these people in New York about a hero, you could almost hear their eyes rolling over the telephone," he said. "Now, it's different; 9/11 reminded a lot of people that there are heroes."
He still has hopes of seeing the book get national exposure.
If his depictions of Aikau and Native Hawaiian culture sometimes leap over the top in the book, it is because Coleman believes so strongly that this is truly an epic story, one that transcends cultural barriers, about a complex man who died trying to help others, lost to the world just as he had begun to take on a role for which he had been preparing his entire life.
Thompson emphatically agrees with the use of the word "hero" for Eddie Aikau. "If we hold the values of strength and courage and vision above all, then ... Eddie was that kind of man, extraordinary and rare in that he would give everything, anything for the well-being of others. He did it by instinct and he did it by profession. That was the way he lived his life. In my generation, he would have to be at the top of the list of all our heroes."
Thompson, who was interviewed for the book, said he's not the one to sit in judgment on the work, but he points out that Coleman wasn't the first to try and do a book on Eddie Aikau. Before he got involved, he checked to see if the family was working with the writer, and as the project progressed, "I looked to the family: Were they OK? With Stuart, he was always keeping the family informed and making sure they were not just comfortable but proud of the book," Thompson said.
Though Coleman appreciates the way the Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau tournament has kept Aikau's name before the public, he says Aikau's legacy is much more than a surfing competition or a bumper sticker.
A lasting vision
He thinks the key thing Eddie left for future generations is the vision of a man with a foot in both worlds and comfortable in each. He was raised to be a devout Roman Catholic but had no trouble believing in 'aumakua and embracing a Hawaiian spirituality. He did his share of drinking and womanizing, but even as some of his best friends lost their way and their lives to alcohol and drugs he knew when to stop. He could be hot-tempered, but he realized, in the context of the Aussie incident, for example, that it was time for "beefing" to stop.
The world knew him as "Eddie," but his family called him "Ryan," his middle name. This became a metaphor in Coleman's mind for the two sides of Eddie Aikau.
The public "Eddie" stood tongue-tied at awards ceremonies and sat silently on his lifeguard stand, scanning the waves. The private "Ryan" could be outgoing, playing his guitar at parties, and this Eddie was interested in songwriting, slack-key guitar, celestial navigation and other interests beyond surfing.
Many people who knew him knew him only in one context. Few but his family saw him in all his dimensions.
"He was someone who was really comfortable in his own skin," Coleman said. "He was a Native Hawaiian but always embraced people from other cultures. He was a Hawaiian and an American at the same time, and that wasn't warring in him. He was such a model."