Eddie Aikau was a son of the sea. Born on Maui and reared on Oahu, he learned to surf at age eleven, and by sixteen he had dropped out of school so that he could pursue his dream of becoming a champion. He’d work nights at the Dole Pineapple cannery, so he could surf during the day. And soon he was a professional surfer as well as a lifeguard at the famous North Shore of Oahu where it was estimated he saved over 500 lives in the treacherous surf.
A striking figure in his trademark white surf trunks with a horizontal red stripe and his fire-engine red surfboard, Eddie was known for riding the biggest waves with his bowlegged stance. Pictures of him surfing 30 foot waves at Waimea graced the cover of LIFE magazine, his image was used in a nationwide billboard advertising campaign by Bank of America, and he appeared in three surfing movies.
But surfing was more than a sport for Eddie. It was a connection with his Hawaiian heritage. And at a time when many had forgotten the proud traditions of the native Islanders, Eddie was a symbol for many of what had existed before Hawaii had been colonized. And as he rose in stature, he was also able to confront many of the racial stereotypes that still existed about the native Hawaiians.
And when tensions arose between the native Hawaiian surfing community and the white surfers who came to Oahu to surf from the mainland and Australia, it was Eddie who served as an intermediary between the two factions, and led a fellowship that helped launch surfing as an international commercial sport.
The highlight of Eddie’s surfing career came in 1977 when he won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational in his own home waters of Oahu.
Several months later, wanting a new challenge as well as an opportunity to champion his proud heritage, Eddie trained to be part of a team that sought to reenact the 2,400 mile ancient Polynesian sea voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in a double-hulled canoe. Chosen as one of the Hokule’a crew, Eddie and his fifteen mates set sail on March 16, 1978. But five hours in, the hull sprung a leak in the midst of a terrible winter storm and the boat capsized. All night the crew clung to the hull, and by 10:30 the next morning, with no way to communicate with shore, and blown outside the shipping lanes, Eddie volunteered to go for help. On a ten-foot surfboard, 12 miles east of Lanai, Eddie paddled off. One more time into the big surf.
Later that day the crew was miraculously saved after their last flare was seen by a commercial plane. And for a week the Coast guard and many private boats searched for Eddie, but his body was never recovered.
This champion surfer—this champion human being—had paddled into eternity.
Eddie Aikau is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.