big wave surfing

Surf’s up on the North Shore of ‘Oahu as big wave season begins again. I love sitting safely on the beach and feeling the pounding surf slam against the sand. When the giants come it’s like sitting in a car with the bass blasting; you feel it in your chest like a second heartbeat.

I remember being little, standing on the backseat of  my parents’ VW Bug and barely able to see out the windows to Waimea Bay below. People lined the hillsides to watch thunder incarnate roll up the shores. Only a few crazy souls ever tried to go out when the waves were that big in the days before jet ski assists and modern big wave boards. One of the truly fearless was Eddie Aikau.

A handsome man, Eddie was the first lifeguard hired by the City and County of Honolulu to patrol ‘Oahu’s North Shore. That was in 1968, and his territory was huge, spanning Sunset to Haleiwa. Later Eddie teamed up with his younger brother Clyde to shepherd surfers at Waimea Bay—harder than you’d think with nearby Schofield Barracks and men feeling they had little to lose on their way to Vietnam.

On their watch, not a single person was lost at Waimea Bay; even when the waves towered 30’ or more, Eddie or Clyde would be the ones paddling out on surfboards to rescue others.

It makes my stomach ache to think about the damage a 15’ wave can do to a human body. I’ve swallowed enough seawater on 4 – 6’ waves to know. But 30’ is unimaginable.

Being stupid and not knowing what you were getting yourself into is one thing. But Eddie knew. And he risked himself time and again to rescue those in trouble that no one else would—or could. The phrase “Eddie would go” came to symbolize his selfless daring and joy in life.

It’s not surprising that Eddie’s death in 1978 came during another rescue attempt, this time on behalf the Polynesian Voyaging Society when the Hokule‘a capsized 12 miles south of Moloka‘i. Eddie was a crew member on the traditionally built Hawaiian double-hulled canoe and volunteered to paddle his surfboard to Lana‘i for help.

What’s less well-known was that the swells in the Moloka‘i Channel were ten feet high and coming relentlessly from every direction when the ship capsized, forcing the crew into the ocean. Hope of quick rescue dimmed as crew clung to the vessel overnight. Shock and hypothermia were rearing their ugly heads, and all were suffering from exposure in the gale force winds. There was talk that the Hokule‘a was drifting away from airline routes, making it less likely they’d be spotted. Sharks started circling.

Eddie begged the captain and officers to let him go for help and made it clear he was going anyway. At 10:30 am, while the crew held hands and prayed, he unlashed his surfboard from the wreckage, tied the leash around his ankle, and paddled away, convinced he’d reach shore and send help in five short hours. Crew members say he carried a small strobe light and some oranges around his neck and that he’d ditched his bulky life jacket a few hundred feet from the canoe hull. He paddled strongly, each stroke propelling him over the whitecaps, growing smaller and smaller until he disappeared from sight.

Although the rest of the crew was eventually rescued, Eddie was never seen again despite the largest air-sea search in Hawaiian history. I remember it and the prayers sent heaven-ward, but this time Eddie went and didn’t return.

In his honor and memory, “The Eddie,” the annual Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Tournament at Waimea Bay, can be held anytime between December 1st and February 29th when conditions are right: the swells have to reach a consistent minimum of 20’ in height (making the wave face 30’ or more) and is open to 28 riders by invitation only. In keeping with Eddie’s love of tradition, the competition is old school: no jet skis allowed. Each year big surf enthusiasts wait impatiently, but usually the waves don’t cooperate. Since 1985 it’s only been held eight times.

In 2009, the last successful year, waves at Waimea Bay were cresting a jaw-dropping 30 to 50 feet. Event sponsors were uneasy. Clyde Aikau, his brother and right arm in big surf rescues and rides, had this response:

Eddie would go.

By all accounts, in contrast with his thrill-seeking, fiercely competitive spirit, Eddie was a quiet and humble guy who hated the spotlight. I wonder sometimes what he’d think of the big surf competition held in his name and imagine his horror at his notoriety at war with his sheer joy in the challenge. He’d probably shake his head at the circus of it all as he grabbed his board and headed to the waves.

What really happened to Eddie Aikau is unknown. Clyde likes to image Eddie’s suffering from amnesia on a remote island and living with a beautiful woman, surrounded by their kids and grandkids who he takes surfing every day.

Me, too.

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