On a warm evening in 1976 Hokule’a set sail for its second voyage. Six hours later, Eddie Aikau was lost to sea.
Even before joining Hokule’a’s crew, Aikau was a legend on the island of Oahu.
Born in Maui, he started surfing the waves of Kahului before its present-day harbor existed. He dropped out of high school and took a job at the Dole pineapple cannery so he’d have more time to surf. One day he rode 40-foot waves at Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, making him a bona-fide big-wave surfer with a contagious smile whom the professional surfing community instantly embraced.
A few years later, a Hawaiian Renaissance swept the islands and Aikau got caught up in the wave. The movement had been prompted by a growing ideological consciousness among Native Hawaiians, and a push for self-determination and sovereignty. The formation of the Polynesian Voyaging Society acted as a major catalyst by providing a venue through which participants could learn about the history and accomplishments of their people.
A couple years later, in 1978, the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention presaged the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which led to a comprehensive Hawaiian culture curriculum introduced into public elementary schools, requiring the teaching of art, lifestyle, geography, hula and vocabulary. Language immersion schools were created and Hawaiians re-found their voice.
Aikau wanted to take part in the movement. He already had a good image in the community, mainly because he was a genuinely good guy, so when he tried out for Hokule’a’s crew, he made it, no problem. On March 16, 1978 at Magic Island, he strapped a surfboard to the canoe and Hokule’a launched into a strong northeast tradewind. Backup vessels had accompanied Hokule’a during the maiden voyage to Tahiti, but this time it sailed alone.
The canoe took off that day but it shouldn’t have. An overloaded Hokule’a traveled down the rough Molokai Channel as 18-feet waves crashed down, and after developing a leak, the canoe capsized between Oahu and Lanai. Crew members hung on for dear life. Aikau estimated that Lanai was only 12 miles away and he insisted on unstrapping his surfboard and paddling for help. He strung some oranges around his neck, grabbed a portable strobe light, tied a life jacket around his waist, and set off.
By midnight, the U.S. Coast Guard had rescued his friends after a pilot saw flares and requested aid. Quickly, others embarked on what would become the largest air-sea rescue effort in Hawaiian history, but Aikau was never found.
“Eddie is a good example of real aloha,” Flip Cuddy told me several years ago. At that time, Cuddy was director of the Eddie Aikau Foundation. “The community needs heroes, especially the kids. You look at the problems with crystal meth and you look at how commercialism has run over the islands … Eddie is a vehicle to help Hawaiians with their dignity.”
Since 1978, not one member of Hokule’a’s crew has been lost to sea. The voyaging ohana learned the hard way of an unforgiving ocean and its impatience for an unprepared crew. PVS had been forced into an unyielding confrontation with itself and chose to try again.
“We recognized that we were not committed to voyaging in a deep enough way,” Nainoa Thompson told me. “We can’t just go sailing.”
Immediately after Aikau’s death, Thompson traveled to Micronesia to ask master navigator Mao Piailug to return to teach traditional wayfaring. Piailug returned but not without hesitation. At the age of one, he had been chosen by his grandfather to become a sailor and he was sailing by age five. He told the members of PVS — who at the time were in their 20s — that they were too old and if they wanted someone to learn they should send their sons. Nonetheless, he agreed.
“We didn’t need Mau to help us find Tahiti, as much as we needed him to help us find ourselves,” Thompson said. “Hokule’a is about knowing who we are and who we come from.”
In 1980, Hokule’a journeyed again to Tahiti but this time Thompson navigated the traditional migratory course. And, today, 34 years after Aikau’s disappearance, his legacy lives on — through educational programs in schools, an annual Quicksilver surfing contest held in his honor and with the familiar bumper sticker motto, “Eddie Would Go.”