Eddie Aikau is one of the most famous of all Hawaiian big wave surfers and watermen. During the ten years he served as head lifeguard at Oahu’s Waimea Bay, his supervisors credited him with over a thousand rescues. In 1971, because of his daring and disarmingly humble demeanor, he was voted “Life Guard of the Year” by his peers. In 1977, he won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. A year later Kālepa Baybayan (now a pwo navigator) met Eddie for the first time at a Hōkūle’a crew training session – and was introduced to a man that he will never forget.
“In 1978, when the canoe was going to go back to Tahiti, I got to try out for the crew. That was a big experience in my life, and the whole richness of the experience was the guy I met in crew training. When I walked into the room for the first meeting I saw that they were looking for big-time lifeguards and I felt kind of intimidated. I was from the neighbor islands and I was real shy. I didn’t know anybody and I thought that my chances probably weren’t real good. I walked into the room and there was this big wave surfer that had just won a surf contest on Oahu and I kind of didn’t want to hang around in that crowd. I just wanted to leave right away, so as soon as the meeting got done I rushed up to the elevator and as I got into the elevator, that big wave surfer got in with me. It was just me and him and I remember standing in the corner and trying to blend into the walls and that guy looks me in the eyes and in this real Hawaiian way he walks over and looks at me and he says, ‘Hey brother, we’re going to be trying out for this crew together, hey, more better we start out by being friends.’ And I still remember those words, ‘more better we start out by being friends.’ And he stuck his hand out and he says, ‘Hi, my name is Eddie Aikau.’ And that’s how I met Eddie Aikau.
Eddie Aikau was probably the most different guy I ever knew. He was this big wave surfer but he was just so humble, just so pleasant to be around, so befriending, you know?
He gave me a ride back to school that night and he drove this old beat-up bug and I remember that his car was like bussup on all sides, but inside it was immaculate. And he said he had a rule that no one could smoke in his car. And then, he said, ‘hey, call me up if you ever need a ride or if you ever want to come over and hang out.” He took me over to where he lived and I met his family and I just found out how really different was this guy. He was really healthy. He told me ‘I have to be healthy because of my job as a lifeguard. It requires that I don’t do drugs or anything like that. I just can’t. If you are going to surf big waves,’ he said, ‘if you want to survive you got to be strong.’ Here was a guy that to me recognized the things he wanted to do in life – which was to surf big waves and be a lifeguard – and he also recognized that to do that and survive there were certain things that he couldn’t do, so he was really disciplined. He was in great shape. He lived next door to his parents. He had his own house. His house was the same way like his car – immaculate. You walk into his house and there are all these surfboards in the rafters of the ceiling but it was just so neat. And you know he used to go to church on Sundays. He would take his parents to church, which I found really unique. Most guys, if the surf was up, they would go surfing but Eddie had a commitment to his parents. He cared for them that way.
His middle name was Makua Hanai, which means “raised by parents” or “caring for parents” – both ways – your parents care for you and you care for your parents. Meeting Eddie just changed my whole attitude toward how you treat people. I still remember those words, ‘more better we start off by being friends.’
My esteem – my evaluation of myself – was not very high and here was a guy that really just wanted to be my friend. He was just a humble guy and he just – that was all he wanted to do, He was a famous big wave surfer but so what? What it changed was my attitude towards treating people when they step on the canoe. You know, we are going to start off by being friends. I am going to treat you like family because that is what you deserve. Anybody that steps on the canoe, or anybody that becomes involved in my life deserves that kind of respect.
I had never been recognized that way – that I had something valid, and some kind of potential to offer – anything. In the Voyaging Society I soon realized that I had a lot to offer but part of that was recognizing that when you get on the canoe you gotta treat each other like friends, like friends.”
The above is from an interview in February 1999 by Sam Low. He hopes that the insights captured in this interview will last through all time…
Eddie Aikau perished at sea in March of 1978 after Hōkūle’a capsized while on a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti. He heroically attempted to paddle to land to alert rescuers of the peril of his crew clinging to the overturned canoe drifting in high winds and seas.
His memory is carried aboard Hōkūle’a on all of her voyages in the hearts of her crewmembers. The “Quiksilver In Memory of Eddie Aikau” event was established in 1984 in his honor.
Inspired by Eddie’s treatment of him at that crew meeting, Chad Kālepa Baybayan has come a long way. In 2007, Mau Piailug initiated him and four other Hawaiian navigators into the order of Pwo, the two-thousand-year-old society of deep-sea navigators. He has sailed on all major Hōkūleʻa voyages and has served as captain on Hōkūleʻa as well as voyaging canoes Hawai‘iloa and Hōkūalaka‘i. Kālepa currently is the Navigator in Residence at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i developing wayfinding activities, curriculum materials, and conducting outreach.