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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 16, 2008

Legend of a hero

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Jan TenBruggencate
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Eddie Aikau lost his life 30 years ago when he paddled to get help for the voyaging canoe Hokule'a, which capsized near Lana'i.

Eddie Aikau Foundation photo

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LAST DAYS

MARCH 16, 1978

In the late afternoon, Hokule'a left O'ahu.

That night, winds in the channel between Moloka'i and O'ahu were powerful, and, as the canoe sailed southeast, the starboard hull filled with water.

About 11 p.m., the canoe capsized. Crew members clung to the upside-down canoe.

MARCH 17, 1978

At dawn, stormy conditions continued. The crew could see Lana'i, by one estimate about 8 miles away, but the winds were pushing the canoe away from it.

In the morning, crewman Eddie Aikau, famous as an ocean rescue specialist, asked permission to paddle for help.

About 11 a.m., Aikau left the canoe. He stopped a short distance away to wave and to throw off his life preserver, which appeared to interfere with his paddling.

In the afternoon, several aircraft passed within sight of the stricken crew, but none saw it.

About 8 p.m., a Hawaiian Airlines plane bound for Honolulu from the Big Island saw a signal from the canoe and alerted authorities. All crew members, except for Aikau, were rescued by the Coast Guard.

On March 18, 1978, a multi-day search for Aikau was launched, but he was never found.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Eddie Aikau had been a lifeguard on O'ahu's North Shore. "Saving lives at Waimea Bay was second nature," his sister Myra said.

Eddie Aikau Foundation

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Hokule'a was towed to shore after overturning hours after setting off in March 1978 on a second voyage to Tahiti.

Advertiser library photo

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Three decades ago, a young surfer paddled to his death on a rescue mission that turned him into an icon of Hawaiian courage.

Eddie Aikau's sacrifice solidified the Hawaiian image of commitment, strength, humility and cultural pride that endures to this day.

The motto "Eddie Would Go" captures his story of surfing and saving lives in the biggest, most frightening waves at Waimea Bay.

"Eddie Went" memorializes his ultimate sacrifice: paddling alone into a storm, exhausted and cold, away from his 15 crew members and toward a faint hope of rescue.

Aikau and the crew of the voyaging canoe Hokule'a had left O'ahu in heavy winds the night of March 16, 1978. Their goal was to re-create the voyage of two years earlier, in which the canoe had made a historic round trip between Hawai'i and Tahiti. But on the first night of this trip, while still within sight of the Islands, seas swamped one hull on the heavily loaded canoe, and on a large swell, the vessel turned upside down.

There was no escort boat. No waterproof communication system. Crew members recall they were shuddering with cold and had little hope. Nobody was looking for them. And they'd been unable to find their emergency locator beacon to signal for help.

They could see the island of Lana'i miles away, and Eddie said he thought he could get there and asked permission to try. Initially, the response was negative, but eventually, the leadership of the canoe allowed him to go.

"We were like hours away from losing people. Hypothermia, exposure, exhaustion," said crewmember Kiki Hugho, who had become a close friend of Aikau.

The crew in later years painted a poignant image of Eddie Aikau, turning on a swell to wave at them as he knee-paddled toward the misty, distant island.

"When he paddled away, I really thought he was going to make it and we weren't. That's how bad it was, that we were doomed," Hugho said.

LEGENDARY LIFEGUARD

Who would have expected the sea to take Eddie? He and the sea were kin, in a special way.

Aikau was born on Maui, where his father, Solomon Aikau, taught him to surf. Eventually the family moved to O'ahu. Eddie's surfing took him to the immense waves of Waimea Bay.

Fellow big wave surfer and state Sen. Fred Hemmings keeps a 1965 photo of himself and Eddie in his office, a shot of Hemmings and Aikau both dropping into a wave at Waimea.

"My place was Makaha, and Eddie Aikau owned Waimea Bay. He had a special ticket at Waimea. Take off deeper, take off in the pit, deep in the lineup. You've gotta be really talented, and he had a special gift.

"The line is, 'Eh, it's too big to ride, but Eddie would go,' " Hemmings said.

As a lifeguard at Waimea, Aikau's hundreds of rescues are another piece of the legend. He seemed to have a special understanding of the ocean, as if it were a living thing and he was its favored child.

"Saving lives at Waimea Bay was second nature. He never thought twice. He never hesitated," said Aikau's sister, Myra.

When the voyaging canoe Hokule'a appeared on the scene, Aikau adopted it as another expression of his Hawaiianness, said Aikau family friend David Bettencourt.

"He was a renaissance man, and once he got interested in the Hokule'a and the whole voyaging thing, he was driven. It interested him beyond surfing. He had so much dedication to that, and ultimately, that may have ended up hurting him," Bettencourt said.

Nainoa Thompson, a famed Hawaiian traditional navigator and now president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, was a crew member on the 1978 voyage, but he remembers Aikau's deep commitment to the project.

"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 in a 2003 interview.

A man like Aikau doesn't spring out of nowhere.

His character came out of his family and his culture, friends said. Sister Myra agreed.

"We had strong family ties, good parents, and they brought us up very, very, very close," she said.

"We did everything together, and I think that's where Eddie picked it up. That's where Eddie got it. It was basically the upbringing."

Solomon and Henrietta Aikau had five sons and a daughter: Fred, Myra, Eddie, Gerald, Solomon III and Clyde. They learned responsibility early. One standard was that there was no surfing until chores were done and to get them done, everyone pitched in.

"If you had to wash the car, there were suddenly four people washing the car," Myra said. "We always believed in everybody helping each other."

Bettencourt recalls being drawn into the family after being invited to a lu'au by mutual friends, and staying afterward to help clean up.

"They taught me the culture and history of Hawai'i," he said.

From his family came the characteristics that are key to the Eddie Aikau legend: humility, honesty, commitment, courage, working together.

HERO FOR HAWAIIANS

Hokule'a captain and navigator Bruce Blankenfeld said that Aikau made a significant impression on him.

"I only knew Eddie for a short time, through training in '77, and we sailed in '78. He struck me as a very kind, strong, honest guy ... someone you could trust and like easily," Blankenfeld said.

Those kinds of impressions of Aikau have carried down through the generations. Entertainer Kainani Kahaunaele called him a hero for the Hawaiian people.

"He is still a lifeguard, in a sense, as he has 'saved' so many young Hawaiians via inspiration to pursue a lifestyle rooted in Hawaiian culture, to get better and more in tune in our marine elements, surfing, and learning the ways of our ancestors through Hokule'a," Kahaunaele said. "Just like George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, Eddie is a beacon in the storm to guide us."

Aikau was 31 when he paddled into Hawaiian history that day. He would be 61 now, but in many ways his character is frozen in time. He will forever be the young, strong, soft-spoken Hawaiian man, confident in his ability to use his considerable skills to save lives.

"His humility permeated his personality and he was indeed beloved by all who knew him and even by those who didn't. Even though we didn't get to meet him, my generation loves Eddie Aikau because of his passion and commitment to his craft and his silent leadership that spoke volumes through action and inspiration," Kahaunaele said.

In recent years, the Aikau family established the Eddie Aikau Foundation (www.eddieaikau foundation.org), "to share Eddie Aikau's life, contributions and accomplishments while promoting education and the advancement of Hawaiian culture."

One piece of the foundation's mission is this year's third annual Eddie Aikau Day Essay Contest, which provides scholarships to Hawai'i students.

'MIRACLE RESCUE'

Among the ironies of the tragedy 30 years ago is that Aikau's heroism would never have been recorded if the canoe's remaining crew had not ultimately been saved.

Hugho, who is preparing a film version of the events, called "Eddie's Final Story," said he knew their last hope was to be seen by the final Hawaiian Airlines flight from Kona to O'ahu on the night of March 17. He said he urged fellow crewman David Lyman to save some flares for when the plane passed.

"We were close to dying out there. At 7:15 or 7:30 we started looking at the Kona direction for the last flight coming out of Kona," he said.

The flight left Kona slightly late, and the pilot altered the flight path to compensate, Hugho said. It was a decision that took the aircraft within sight of Hokule'a's flare, and resulted in the rescue of everyone who was still with the canoe.

"It was a miracle find, a miracle rescue," Hugho said.

An extensive search for Aikau in the following days was unsuccessful. But as hope faded, legend and legacy grew.

"I have to believe that the rebirth of the Hawaiian language, of the Hawaiian culture that's the legacy of Eddie," Bettencourt said.

"He's become a symbol in the Hawaiian renaissance, one of the great figures," Hemmings said.

"Eddie Aikau's actions on that fateful night had the impact of helping Native Hawaiians today who care about the legacy of our culture to get over our fear and take responsibility to malama each other, even if that means paying the ultimate price. His example is legendary," said Hawaiian activist Halealoha Ayau.

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