By Nicolette Smith
Before dawn on February 10, 2016, the people of Hawaii and the surfing world turned their attention to Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu. Thousands made their way through the darkness onto the beach and surrounding cliffs in anticipation of the famous Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Contest.
The swells must be at least 35-40 feet high to hold this unique big-wave competition, which has only run eight times in the last 31 years. Though the waves weren’t big enough to run the contest, it’s important to remember the legacy of the man who inspired the whole event—the late surfing legend Eddie Aikau.
Who was Eddie Aikau?
As one of the first lifeguards on the North Shore, Eddie rescued hundreds of people from the powerful waves that rocked the beach. Even while off-duty, he saved many locals and tourists from the dangerous waves and shore breaks. For his courage, Honolulu City & County named him Lifeguard of the Year in 1971. His experience as a surfer gave him first-hand knowledge of the power of the ocean, and he used this knowledge to serve his community as a lifeguard, saving hundreds of lives.
It’s not clear how many people Eddie saved because he would rarely fill out the paperwork. He believed in the Hawaiian value of ha’aha’aha (humility) and downplayed his successes in saving lives on the North Shore. Even after winning the Duke Contest in 1977, Eddie was humble about his victory and surfing talent. “Eddie was more of a soul surfer,” said Clyde Aikau, Eddie’s younger brother. “Competing for him wasn’t a real big deal.” Clyde won the first Eddie Contest held at Waimea Bay in 1987.
An all-around waterman, Eddie also took up sailing so he could retrace the ancient sea routes that brought his ancestors to Hawaii. He joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society and began training to sail on the voyaging canoe , hoping he would be chosen for an epic journey to Tahiti, using only the stars as guides.
For the voyage to Tahiti in 1978, Eddie was selected as one of its elite crew members. But the Hokule’a capsized in a storm and the crew clung to the overturned canoe as big waves battered them in the darkness. Fearing for his fellow crew members, Eddie made the fateful decision to paddle a rescue board across 15 miles of rough seas to seek help on the island of Lanai. Though the others were eventually rescued, Eddie was never seen again.
The Legend: Eddie Would Go
His sacrifice is remembered and echoed around the world in the popular phrase “Eddie Would Go.” These words pay tribute to his courageous decision to think of his crew before himself and risk his life to save them.
In spite of his disappearance, Eddie’s legacy lives on in many ways. The Eddie Aikau Contest is the world’s most prestigious and popular big-wave competition. In his honor, the Polynesian Voyaging Society installed a bronze plaque on the Hokule’a that says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
The theme and mission of Hokule’a’s current Worldwide Voyage is Malama Honua, which translates as “take care of the earth.” According to the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the phrase can also mean to “take care of everything that makes up our world: People, land, oceans, living beings, and our community.” This phrase embodies all that Eddie stood for and represented.
In 2000 the Aikau family established the Eddie Aikau Foundation with the purpose of perpetuating Eddie’s legacy of aloha and promoting Hawaiian culture. The Foundation funds educational scholarships, as well as support for those who have lost loved ones in the ocean. Eddie’s dedication to the ocean, community and culture demonstrates how we all should seek to Mālama Honua and take care of the places and people that surround us.
Even though the waves weren’t big enough to hold the Eddie Contest on last week, many still hope the event will take place this season. The holding period for the competition is from the beginning of December 2015 to the end of February 2016. So stay tuned to see if it happens this year.
To learn more about the life and legacy of Eddie Aikau and Hawaiian surfing legend, check out the newest book from author, educator, and Hawaiian Islands Manager, for the Surfrider Foundation, Stuart Coleman: Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero.