Eddie Aikau, a Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard, is the focus of today’s Google Doodle. He’s said to have rescued hundreds of people during his career, and was the first appointed lifeguard at Waimea Bay. May 4th would have been Aikau’s 73rd birthday.
“Not a single life was lost while he served as a lifeguard at Waimea Bay, making some 500 rescues without the assistance of a jet ski or any modern equipment,” states the Google Doodle. “Eddie was famous for making rescues even in surf that reached 30 feet high. His fearlessness went on to inspire the slogan ‘Eddie would go’.”
Here’s what you need to know about Aikau:
1. He Was Born In Maui & Left School At 16 to Become a Surfer
Aikau was born Edward Ryon Makuahanai Aikau on May 4, 1946. He was the third child of Solomon and Henrietta Aikau, and he learned to surf at Kahului Harbor in Maui. His family moved to Oʻahu in 1959, and by the time he turned 16, Aikau had left school. He got a job at the Dole pineapple cannery, where he saved up enough money to buy his first surfboard.
Aikau would often surf on the South and North Shore’s of Oahu. His younger brother Clyde told Surfer Today that he always sought out a way to push himself further. “Eddie was a pretty quiet guy, but when there was a challenge, or some risk to be taken or a game to be played that everybody wanted to win, Eddie seemed to rise to the top,” he recalled. “He was high risk at an early age.”
In 1967, an unknown Aikau showed up to Waimea Bay and managed to handle thundering forty foot waves alongside celebrity surfers like Greg Noll, Rick Grigg, Felipe Pomar and George Downing. He was instantly embraced by them, and photos of his performance found their way to Life Magazine. “None surfed like Eddie,” Clyde said. “He’d take off on a big, big scary wave, and he’d be sliding down it with the biggest smile you ever saw. The rest of us are nervous. Eddie belonged there; it was home.”
2. He Was Appointed As the First Lifeguard of Waimea Bay In 1968
In 1968, Aikau convinced the City & County of Honolulu to select him as their first lifeguard. He was given the task of covering all beaches between Sunset and Haleiwa, which he did until 1971. After the roving patrol for Waimea Island was disbanded, Aikau was assigned to Waimea Bay, where he continued to save lives. During his career, he was voted 1971 Lifeguard of the Year and managed to save over 500 lives without the aid of modern equipment.
Hawaiian Voyage Tradition states that Aikau rarely filed paperwork, so its possible that the number of lives he saved was even greater than 500. The phrase “Eddie would go” became popular in the area, as word of his daring rescues spread. “The phrase ‘Eddie would go’ predates Hokule’a,” says maritime historian Mac Simpson. “Aikau was a legend on the North Shore, pulling people out of waves that no one else would dare to. That’s where the saying came from — Eddie would go, when no else would or could. Only Eddie dared.”
The phrase, and its many variations, are still used today throughout Hawaii. In 2008, an election campaign for Honolulu rail transit used the slogan “Eddie would ride.” Aikau’s story was also retold by comedian Kurt Braunohler in an episode of Drunk History.
3. He Was An Accomplished Surfer Who Won the Duke Classic In 1977
Despite his workload as a lifeguard, Aikau remained an avid surfer. He won the prestigious Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship in 1977, four years after his brother Clyde won. He also placed high in several other competitions throughout the decade. David Bettencourt, who met Aikau after he came back from a surfing competition in South Africa, said that he was surprisingly humble about his accomplishments.
“He didn’t think he was bigger than anyone else,” he explained. “All the surfers I knew talked about him; Ricky Grigg, Jose Angel; but when we met I was amazed at how little he said. It’s not just that his accomplishments were so well known that he didn’t need to talk about them, it’s that he was genuinely humble.”
4. He Was Lost At Sea In a 1978 Boating Accident & His Body Was Never Found
Aikau’s life came to a tragic end on March 17, 1978, when he went on a boating trip with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Their vessel sprung a leak and later capsized about twelve miles south of the island of Molokaʻi. Aikau paddled toward Lānaʻi on his surfboard in an attempt to get help, and took off his lifejacket because it hindered his paddling. The rest of the crew were eventually rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, but Aikau’s body was never found. He was 31.
The subsequent search for Aikau was the largest air and sea search in Hawaiian history. “Oh, wow, it was tough,” Clyde recalled. “In 1978 I was in Australia at a surf meet when I heard about Eddie, and all through the flight back, I kept looking out over the ocean, just hoping. If anyone could make it, Eddie could.”
Bryan Wake, a playwright who dedicated the production “Eddie Would Go” to Aikau’s memory, said that his memory lives on in today’s generation of surfers. “I heard one kid saying that Eddie is the guy who hits the biggest waves, but if he were to walk by today, she wouldn’t recognize him,” Wake shared. “There’s a real belief out there that Eddie is still among us somehow, still looking out for swimmers. The trick in doing the play was to balance and honor the man, but also to be truthful.”
5. His Family Founded ‘The Eddie’ Surfing Invitational In His Memory
Since 1985, Clyde Aikau has held “The Eddie” Surfing Invitational in his brother’s honor. The invitational has a precondition that open-ocean swells must reach a minimum of 20 feet, which means that it isn’t held annually. There are only 28 riders that are allowed to participate at each event, and they cannot use jet skis to tow surfers into the waves. To date, there have only been nine of them. Clyde won the first event in 1985, and the most recent one was held in 2016.
Aikau’s sister Myra, who is the president of his namesake foundation, told Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions that she still misses him. “The hardest part, looking back, the hardest part was not seeing the body,” she explained. “You can never be sure without a body. Psychics would call us up and say Eddie was over here, or over there, just crazy stuff, and we finally had to put a halt to it. Eddie’s gone.”
“To this day, people still call her to say they’d seen ‘Eddie standing beside the road on Molokai, or on a hiking trail somewhere, or at the beach, out in the waves. But you know, that’s not Eddie, at least not the real Eddie. But it might be Eddie’s spirit.”