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Eddie Would Go: Man and Mantra

// By Stuart Holmes Coleman //November 27, 2013 // Originally published on //

Each year, on the first Thursday after Thanksgiving, hundreds of people gather at Waimea Bay for the opening ceremony of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Contest. The ceremony marks the beginning of the three-month waiting period when the waves must reach heights of at least 20 feet before they can hold the contest. The last one was held in 2009, and thousands of people lined the beaches and cliffs to watch the epic rides and wipeouts.

For more than 10 years, I have been driving to the North Shore to join the gathering of family, friends, surfers and spectators at the beach park near Eddie’s memorial. We watch as Eddie’s sister Myra and his brothers Clyde and Sol greet each of the big-wave riders who are invited to compete in the prestigious event. The competitors stand shoulder to shoulder with their long, spear-like boards behind them like some modern tribe of wave warriors about to go into battle.

As the Aikau’s family kahu blesses each of the surfers, he tells them about Eddie’s fierce love of the ocean and how his spirit still watches over all those who surf, swim and play in the Bay’s powerful waters. He mentions the phrase “Eddie Would Go” and I can recall how my life was transformed by those fateful three words.

When I moved to Hawaii many moons ago, I saw the phrase “Eddie Would Go” on so many bumper stickers and t-shirts that I thought it might be the state motto. Like many malihini, I wondered, Who was Eddie and where did he go?

Local friends explained that Eddie Aikau had been a proud Native Hawaiian, a respected lifeguard and a fearless big-wave rider who disappeared at sea. Intrigued, I wanted to know more about this man, how he had become an almost mythic Hawaiian icon and why the saying “Eddie Would Go” was such a popular mantra.

While teaching literature and creative writing at Punahou School, I met a colleague named Marion Lyman-Mercereau, who had known Eddie and been one of the last people to see him alive. She and Eddie were crewmembers on a Polynesian voyaging canoe called Hokule’a that capsized while sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti, and she told me about how he had tried to save the rest of the crew and was never seen again.

After hearing her story, I wanted to write an article and maybe even a book about Eddie Aikau’s remarkable life. But I was just a haole from the mainland and a relatively unknown writer, and it didn’t seem my place to pen such a biography. But as a writer, surfer and teacher, I was captivated by Eddie’s story and began learning more about him and his family.

A couple of years later, I met two legendary Punahou teachers named Peter Cole and Fred Van Dyke, who had surfed the biggest waves in the world with Eddie at Waimea Bay. When I expressed interest in writing about Eddie, they introduced me to the Aikau family. I remember Clyde told me, “Any friend of Peter and Fred’s is a friend of ours.” I met and interviewed his siblings Clyde, Myra and Sol, and though hesitant at first, they began sharing their memories with me. Through laughter and tears, their stories temporarily brought him back to life.

While writing Eddie Would Go, there were times when I worried if the manuscript would ever be finished or even published. I had already spent four years researching, writing and interviewing Eddie’s family, friends, surfers, lifeguards and sailors. But how was I going to put all the stories together in a way that would honor his life without turning the man into a myth?

During the darkest moments of doubt, I would close my eyes and think, “Eddie Would Go.” Then, I would go surfing or swimming to clear my head. Sometimes, I would see a sea turtle gliding beneath me in the water, and I always felt better and more focused afterwards. Those three words became my mantra during the marathon writing sessions, and I would chant them in my mind to channel Eddie’s courage and spirit of perseverance. That mantra would become not only the title of my book but the central theme of the story.

Born on Maui in 1946, Eddie Aikau came from a Native Hawaiian family whose ancestors included kahuna and voyagers who sailed across the Pacific and settled the Islands more than 800 years before. But like many Hawaiians, the family had lost their land and much of their culture after the overthrow of their kingdom at the turn of the century. Poor yet fiercely proud of their heritage, his parents moved the ohana to Honolulu for better economic opportunities in 1959, the year Hawaii became the 50th state.

The six Aikau kids grew up in a Chinese graveyard, which the family took care of in exchange for a free place to stay. The family loved to surf on the South Shore and play Hawaiian music together. Years later, Eddie and his youngest brother Clyde joined a handful of big-wave pioneers who dared to ride the mountainous swells at North Shore spots like Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay. But when the waves reached 30-40 feet in height, even the best surfers would pull back from riding those monsters! But Eddie would go, and the others began to take notice.

Because there were no lifeguards on the beaches at that time, Eddie and other surfers often had to rescue tourists and military guys who had gotten way over their heads in the waves. He became one of the first lifeguards on the North Shore and was later named Lifeguard of the Year in 1971 after saving many lives.

Whenever the waves became too big and dangerous, the lifeguard captain would warn his guards not to risk their own lives in the surf but to call for a helicopter rescue instead. Still, no matter how critical the conditions were, Eddie would go charging into the surf if he saw someone in danger. His captain joked that even if he chained him to the lifeguard tower, “Eddie would still go!” That’s when the saying began to take hold.

During his short yet intense life, Eddie Aikau went from being a poor, high school dropout who was often made to feel ashamed of his culture to becoming a well-respected big-wave rider, lifeguard and Hawaiian leader who was fiercely proud of his heritage. After a trip to South Africa for a pro surfing contest, Eddie experienced the brutal racism of apartheid first-hand. He had traveled halfway around the world only to learn that he was not allowed at the “Whites Only” hotels and beaches. The experience scarred him, but instead of becoming bitter, Eddie would go on to fight against prejudice in his own homeland.

Several years later, Eddie saved a few arrogant Australian surfers from being attacked by a mob of angry Hawaiians. He even set up a tribunal to resolve racial conflicts on the North Shore, and both sides were impressed by his quiet dignity and leadership.

For 10 years, Eddie competed in the Duke Classic, the most prestigious pro surf contest at that time. Duke Kahanamoku had been a legendary surfer and Olympic swimming champion, and Eddie always wanted to win the contest in honor of his childhood hero. In 1977, he finally won the event in big waves at Sunset Beach. In an emotional speech, he dedicated his victory to his family, the Hawaiians and all the people of Hawaii. Even though he was painfully shy, Eddie would go to great lengths to share what he felt in his heart.

In spite of his victory and accomplishments, Eddie was restless and wanted to take part in the rebirth of traditional culture that was sweeping across the Islands. And nothing symbolized the Hawaiian Renaissance more than the Hokule’a. The 60-foot double-hulled voyaging canoe was a replica of the vessels that brought the first sailors and settlers across the Pacific to Hawaii. Eddie and crew members from the Polynesian Voyaging Society wanted to sail Hokule’a from Hawaii all the way to Tahiti, using only the stars and ocean swells as their guides.

On the windy afternoon of March 16, 1978, Eddie and 15 other sailors embarked on the 2500-mile voyage to Tahiti. He had brought his surfboard in hopes of surfing the waves there. But during the first night, the voyaging canoe was caught in a sudden storm and waves began flooding one of the hulls. The canoe capsized, and the crew was thrown into the dark, raging sea. Stranded miles from shore, the shocked sailors clung to the overturned hull as they were lashed by the gale-force winds and waves.

By morning, it became clear how bad their situation was. Two of the sailors had been violently seasick and were going into shock. Eddie volunteered to paddle his surfboard through the stormy seas to the island of Lanai, which they could barely see on the horizon. After refusing his request at first, the captain consulted with the navigator and officers and then made his decision: Eddie would go.

On the morning of March 17, 1978, Eddie Aikau paddled off on his surfboard toward the island of Lanai more than 15 miles away. The crew watched him slowly disappear in the distance, praying that he would make it to shore and help save them.

Miraculously, the rest of the crew was later rescued by the Coast Guard. A pilot with Hawaiian Airlines happened to see the faint glow of their last flare out of the corner of his eye. Working with the survivors, the authorities then launched one of the largest air, sea and land rescue efforts in Hawaiian history. But they never found Eddie’s body or his board. That’s when the words Eddie Would Go began to take a life of their own.

After finally finishing the manuscript, I hoped Eddie’s story would resonate with the people of Hawaii and maybe reach readers on the mainland as well. Although an agent was able to pitch my manuscript to the biggest publishers in the country, the New York editors eventually rejected it. They said there wasn’t a big enough audience outside of Hawaii that would be interested in reading about this relatively unknown surfer’s life and adventures.

Refusing to give up, I decided to create my own company and publish the book myself. I hired an editor and layout designer and raised enough money to pay for the printing of 7,500 copies. As Eddie’s brother Clyde likes to say about riding giant waves, I decided to “Go big or go home!”

When Eddie Would Go first hit the bookstores, it made a splash, and the ripples began spreading across the media. I remember reading the first newspaper review with trembling hands. I prayed it was going to be favorable and that I wouldn’t be kicked off the Island like a bad episode of Survivor. To my surprise, the opening line read, “Only a mainland haole could have written this book.” What?! Why would he say that? The reviewer Greg Ambrose went on to write, “Eddie Aikau has become such a powerful Hawaiian icon that the emotional, cultural and historical baggage would have immobilized a local writer trying to tell Eddie’s remarkable tale.”

Eddie Would Go eventually became a bestseller in Hawaii, maybe because people were hungry for a genuine hero. At one event, a big Hawaiian man came up to me and asked me if I was the author. I swallowed and said I was. “Before you wrote that book, you was just one haole from the mainland,” he said seriously as a slight smile emerged. “Now, you one local haole.” I think he meant it as a compliment.

Wanting to take Eddie’s story to the mainland, I set up speaking engagements and book signings in cities where I had friends who could help me. The highlight of the tour was giving a talk at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. I drove up and down the East and West Coasts, doing readings in small, independent bookstores, national chains and even surf shops, often selling copies out of my rental car.

I was humbled when Eddie’s story won awards in Hawaii and received good press in newspapers and magazines across the country. That’s when St. Martin’s Press agreed to publish the national paperback edition. As word spread about this uniquely Hawaiian hero, international publishers got involved and later released small editions of the book in the UK, Brazil, Japan and Germany. Eddie had always been a proud Hawaiian at heart, a local boy who loved to surf and play music, but his selfless spirit and courageous sacrifice struck a chord with people around the world.

Since his disappearance at sea in 1978, Eddie’s reputation has only grown over the years. Along with the contest in his honor at Waimea Bay, the state recognized his sacrifice by proclaiming March 17th Eddie Aikau Day. The family set up a non-profit organization called the Eddie Aikau Foundation, which sponsors a student essay contest and college scholarships. Each year, a big group of us volunteer to read through hundreds of essays, and it’s inspiring to see how Eddie still inspires new generations of kids.

At the awards banquet for the essay contest this past March 17, 2012, Eddie’s sister Myra and brother Sol called out my name at the ceremony. At first, I thought I was in trouble with them for talking during their speech. But then, they announced that I had won the Eddie Aikau Award. That recognition from the family meant more to me than any review or literary award.

Along with the tenth anniversary of the book’s publication in December, there is now a feature-length documentary about his life that will premiere at film festivals across the country and then air on ESPN. A tech-savvy group of teachers in Hawaii are also working to produce an iBook version of the story that will engage young readers with links to websites about Hawaiian culture and the Hokule’a, archival footage of Eddie surfing and current clips of the Eddie Contest.

Each year at the opening ceremony of the Eddie Contest, I watch as a new crop of surfers joins the tribe of big-wave riders at Waimea Bay. Even in his 50’s, Eddie’s brother Clyde is still competing. He charged into some of the bigger waves of the day during the last contest in 2009.

After the Aikau’s family priest blesses the surfers with ti leaves and saltwater, he asks Eddie’s spirit to watch over and protect them during the competition. As part of the timeless ceremony, the competitors paddle out into the Bay to honor his memory. Sitting on their boards, they form a circle, a kind of living lei, and share stories about Eddie’s fearlessness in the face of such giant waves.

During the first “Eddie” at Waimea Bay in 1987, the surf was so big that contest officials debated whether they should send the contestants out into such massive waves. Filming the event for a documentary, director Jack McCoy asked big-wave legend Mark Foo if they should even hold the contest. Staring at the huge surf, Foo slowly turned toward the camera, smiled and said, “Eddie would go.”

Caught in the crosshairs of time, Foo made his famous remark almost a decade after Eddie’s disappearance at sea and a decade before his own death while surfing at Mavericks in Northern California. But at that moment, Foo breathed new life into the old mantra and became part of the pantheon of big-wave surfers. He almost won that contest in 1985, but Eddie’s brother barely beat him in the finals. Seeing two sea turtles way outside, Clyde felt he should follow them and ended up catching the largest wave of the day. He still insists that Eddie’s spirit was guiding him that day.

Looking back, I realize that those three words not only captured the spirit of Eddie’s life and legacy, but they have also become an inspiring mantra for people in Hawaii and around the world.

About the author: Stuart H. Coleman is the Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation and the author of Eddie Would Go and Fierce Heart (St. Martin’s Press).

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