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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 17, 2003

Eddie's sacrifice ensured his legacy — and Hokule'a's mission

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

A young lifeguard and surfer paddled from an overturned boat and its shivering crew a quarter century ago, into both a wild storm and Hawaiian history.

Eddie Aikau's courage is contained in the simple phrase, popular today among surfers and on bumper stickers: "Eddie would go."

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Eddie Aikau had not slept in two days and must have been exhausted from a night of helping to protect his fellow crewmembers aboard the storm-tossed, upside-down voyaging canoe Hokule'a. He lobbied his superiors on the crew for permission to go for help, although friends and family agree they could hardly have stopped him.

He finally paddled off, wearing his yellow foul weather gear and a knit cap, stopping to toss off a life preserver that hampered his strokes. At the peak of a wave, he turned and waved an arm at the crew. Then he drove into the cresting swells, disappearing in the direction of misty Lana'i in the distance.

Aikau died trying to save the crew of Hokule'a, which is what many people remember about him. But the Hokule'a was not what Eddie Aikau was about, said Kik's Hugho, his watchmate on March 16, 1978, the night Hokule'a swamped.

"Eddie's history is his surfing and lifeguarding, not Hokule'a," Hugho said.

His courage is contained in the simple phrase, popular today among surfers and on bumper stickers: "Eddie would go." It refers to his ability to handle frighteningly large waves as well as dangerous surf rescues, but it has also come to refer to his final sacrifice.

"My brother was a hero. He was an icon," said his sister, Myra Aikau. "He saved hundreds and hundreds of lives before he ever came on Hokule'a."

Eddie's younger brother Clyde remembers a buddy who had many interests. Eddie loved everything about the ocean — diving in it, slipping into the tube of smaller waves as well as blasting down the faces of the big ones. He was also a shy young man who loved playing slack-key guitar, and one who tried to make peace between Hawaiian surfers and the newcomers from Australia, Brazil and California. His lifeguard saves were legendary, but the big-wave surfing was where he really got his name.

"Eddie had a gift in surfing gigantic waves," Clyde Aikau said. "He would take off on waves that were really unmakeable. He had a finesse on how he would torque his body, and work the speed of his board, and he would make them time and time and time again. He did it because he loved it, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head."

Clyde said Eddie became entranced with the voyaging canoe Hokule'a when he saw images of the canoe's first trip to Tahiti and back in 1976.

Hokule'a navigator Nainoa Thompson said Aikau recognized the value of Hokule'a to the Hawaiian people.

Kik's Hugho was a member of the Hokule'a crew 25 years ago when Eddie Aikau attempted to save them by paddling to Lana'i. He says surfing and lifeguarding was what Eddie was about, not the Hokule'a.

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"Eddie said, 'I feel so privileged to sail on Hokule'a, because I want to go down and pull Tahiti out of the sea. In doing so, we will bring honor and dignity to our ancestors. It will help us define ourselves. And we will bring honor and dignity to the lives of our children,' " Thompson said.

But the 1978 voyage would turn out to be the worst in the canoe's 28-year history.

"In retrospect, we did not plan well," Thompson said. "The canoe was not properly designed. The crew was not properly trained. No escort boat ... I will carry guilt about that trip until the day I die."

Hugho said he was close with Aikau as the sailing date approached, and they both had misgivings.

"We knew something was going wrong," Hugho said. "Eddie knew it and I knew it. We talked about it: 'We have a choice. We can not step on the canoe, or we can go and try to make a difference.' "

They left late during the day on March 16, a Friday. There was a storm blowing but the time and date had been picked, and the leadership decided to stick with it. The canoe left Magic Island at Ala Moana, and flew east on a north wind.

"It was ripping out there. The waves were honking. It was like 15-feet plus. Whitecaps," Hugho said.

Hokule'a veteran John Kruse was on duty on the foredeck, while Aikau and Hugho manned the steering sweeps and the rear sail.

"It was an ominous day," Kruse said. "When we got by Diamond Head buoy, you couldn't see Moloka'i. All you could see was a black loom."

As they sailed through the Ka Iwi Channel in the dark, the starboard hull began filling with water and then it was awash. Hugho and Kruse said that in slow motion, the canoe rolled upside down at about 11 p.m.

Hugho estimates they were eight miles from Lana'i, where they could see a single light. The crew clung to the canoe. Kruse remembers being pounded by waves, and each time checking on the people on each side, to see if they were still there.

A plaque has been placed at at the stern of the Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule'a to commemorate Eddie Aikau's sacrifice.

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"We're all lined up like 'opihi on the side of the canoe," Hugho said.

They shot flares to no avail. They could not find the emergency location transmitter. Aikau began asking permission to try to paddle to Lana'i for help.

"Eddie said, 'I think I can do it. I think I can get to Lana'i,' " Kruse said. Those who were there and his brother, who wasn't, say Aikau's departure was inevitable.

Hugho said he was hopeful Aikau could make one more big save, although he now realizes the odds were too long.

"Eddie had made up his mind to go. There was no stopping him," Hugho said. "That was his instinct. He was a lifeguard. That was what he wanted to do. And, at that time, I felt he was going to make it. But I don't care what kind of waterman he was. When fatigue set in, hypothermia, exhaustion. I don't care who you are. You're going down."

The crewmembers recall that Aikau wore a knit cap and his foul-weather gear. He had a leash tied from his ankle to a 12-foot tandem board, painted beige, the color of Hokule'a's topsides. Kruse remembers Aikau wore a locket around his neck, containing hair from nieces and nephews. The crew gave him a bag of sugar for energy.

He took a few strokes, Kruse said, and "he stood up on his knees and waved, and went."

"He was paddling right into the storm," Hugho said.

"As the person closest to him in the world, I guess he had no choice," Clyde Aikau said. "This whole thing about the Hokule'a and his paddling off and not being seen again. It was like guaranteed. The only way he would not go is if they tied him down. He would have found a way to go."

The crew clung to the canoe through the day, firing flares at passing planes, and about 8 p.m., a flare was spotted from a Hawaiian Airlines plane. In the rescue, the boat was saved, and so was each member of the crew except Eddie Aikau, who was never seen again.

Aikau paddled toward Lana'i on March 17, 1978. No one knows what day he died, but Hugho recalls having been suddenly awakened the morning of March 18 by a dream or vision of Eddie and his brother Gerald, who had died earlier in a car accident.

One thing clear to the people around Hokule'a is that Aikau's sacrifice saved the voyaging program, moving it onto a more professional, safety-minded, serious plane, and with it helped invigorate Hawaiian pride and a Polynesia-wide cultural renaissance.

"When we lost Eddie ... his loss was so deep," Thompson said. "It threw the voyaging community into deep trauma. We were carrying hurt, and we were carrying guilt. Eddie's passing was lightning striking our community and breaking it in half. Some people wanted to pull the canoe out of the water and put it on the lawn at Bishop Museum."

But ultimately, people who studied Aikau's life drew the message that quitting was not an acceptable option. Eddie Aikau was far more than Hokule'a, but he may have saved the canoe's voyaging mission.

"He left on that surfboard to rescue all of that sense of hope," Thompson said. "Today, Eddie's influence is as strong as it's ever been."

In January, a bronze plaque was affixed to the Hokule'a deck, just aft of the position Eddie Aikau occupied on his last watch. It carries the words, "No greater love has a man than this, that he would lay down his life for his friends." Hugho used the date March 18 on the plaque.

"Maybe he was the punahele, the one to keep the canoe going," Kruse said. "Punahele is like a gift. Maybe the gift is the thing to make the Hokule'a the way it is today."

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.