Searching for strange sporting events around the world can turn up quite an astounding list of oddities, competitions that don’t conform to the idea of a regular sporting event. There’s the Running Of The Bulls in Pamplona, the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling near Gloucester, and my personal favorite, the Palio in Siena. Those are all unique events because of old traditions that seem at least a little bizarre in modern society. But compared to something like The Eddie surf competition in Hawaii, the comically strange pales in comparison to a special tribute with unique rules.
The competition stipulates that swells must be over 20 feet to crown a champion. So each year, 28 surfers are invited without knowing if a sanctioned competition will take place. In the nearly 30-year history of the event, only 8 titles have been awarded. And the big name surfers, selected in a poll among peers, always show up to participate—I’d like to believe that’s because the reputation of Eddie Aikau is that powerful in the world of surfing.
My knowledge of big wave surfing is mostly limited to a few classic surf movies and the transcendent experience of watching Riding Giants in its original theatrical run. But by far the most interesting era in surfing history to me is the transition that occurred from Hawaii’s statehood through the late 1970s. Those years present the heart of the cultural clashes between white California surfers, upstart Australians, and the native Hawaiians competing against one another for casual waves up through world titles. Eddie Aikau’s career spanned just about that entire period in the rapidly changing surf community.
Among the great native Hawaiian surfers, Eddie Aikau’s name is one of the few that lives on in infamy. Not just because of the way he died, but because he was one of surprisingly few native surfers to stand with the best of the world, representing a culture so beaten down by colonization.
Hawaiian takes a relatively familiar approach in documenting Aikau’s life, beginning with his childhood and tight-knit ‘ohana (family), which lived on a 9-acre Oahu property that contained a Chinese cemetery. The first half of the documentary contains interviews with a handful of siblings and his ex-wife, and it elucidates the origins of his surf career and rise from preternatural gift on a short plywood board to top-level competitor.
To this day I don’t really understand the cognitive dissonance of the United States claiming Hawaii as a state and largely ignoring the native people and the theft at the heart of its history as a territory. The white colonists wanted political control in order to further sugarcane plantations, so they essentially deposed the queen and lobbied for statehood from that day onward. As one professor states, it likely stemmed from the belief that any native culture was too stupid or lazy to create “true government” in the European vein. And in a much smaller way, that type of crowding out happened in surfing as well, keeping riders like Aikau out of the first major competitions. So they crashed the Duke Kahanamoku, and raised enough awareness to merit inclusion, putting native surfers on the map, since The Duke aired annually on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports.
But competitive prominence doesn’t tell the main thread that ran through Aikau’s life. Most importantly, he was the first lifeguard ever hired to patrol Waimea Bay. That honor and responsibility—saving other surfers on a big-wave beach, including a lot of soldiers on R&R from Vietnam drunk to numb the pain of war—defined Aikau’s commitment to making sure anyone who visited enjoyed and cherished Hawaii. He wasn’t a resort worker or a hula dancer, the two most frequently occupations for natives seen by tourists. He connected to a centuries-old Hawaiian tradition, and made sure that others didn’t fall prey to the violent ocean or their own surfing deficiencies. One talking head estimates Aikau never lost anyone in the hundreds of rescues he attempted, a seemingly impossible record made believable by the conviction of the interview subjects. Eddie’s younger brother Clyde—who was beside Eddie as they both learned surfing growing up—mentions the family connection to Waimea Bay, entrusted to a great-great grandfather by King Kamehameha himself—it was destiny.
But Aikau still had his demons, and Hawaiian is intent on delivering those with the maximum amount of emotional, trickling piano music. There’s not much in the way of explaining the dark events or connecting them to a larger story. Eddie’s older brother Gerald went to Vietnam and returned a young man irrevocably changed by the horrors of war. He and Eddie had a fight, and before they could make up, Gerald died when a friend fell asleep at the wheel driving home from younger brother Clyde’s graduation party. That death haunted Eddie. His wife’s story about cemetery workers finding Eddie asleep atop Gerald’s grave is enough to make the room a bit dusty. It put a wall up in his marriage that led to his wife leaving, and it seems the family bond was so strong Eddie never got over it.
Still, that innate desire to help people, to save them if necessary, even at personal risk, is at the heart of the strangest event in the documentary. In the mid 1970s, the Australian surfers burst onto the scene and did exactly what newcomers do in a place with literally hundreds of years of surf tradition beaten down by colonial invasion: excessively boasted and insulted the previous generation’s style of surfing. It wasn’t received well by the locals, who responded by ambushing Wayne Bartholomew and holding him underwater, causing him and Duke champion Ian Cairns to hide out in their condo. When Eddie came to find them to warn of an impending attack, the vitriol from the locals had grown so great that they essentially had to hold a trial in a hotel ballroom, with Eddie as the only native line of defense preventing a riot. It’s a testament to the man’s commitment to keeping the peace while embracing his native Hawaiian roots.
Once Eddie finally wins The Duke, in his last major surf competition at the age of 31, he shifts his focus more to publicizing and connecting with Hawaiian cultural history, training and joining the crew of the Hokulea, a double-hulled voyaging canoe built to the specifications of the Polynesian vessel that presumably carried the first Pacific islander explorers to the Hawaiian islands. Again, this is where white colonial dominance intercedes to tragic effect. The histories written in that time supposed that all the natives arrived by accident, due to poor navigation technique and primitive boat construction, as opposed to a different kind of development and a foreign culture capable of advanced thought. It’s an insulting line of thinking, and one that when emphasized enough times, implants the false thoughts in a cultural consciousness where they take hold.
Aikau’s goal was simple: Help the new 1978 Hokulea traverse the journey to Tahiti and back, with a crew using no modern navigation instruments—only the stars. The cultural importance of the voyage led to a few key mistakes, namely launching during inclement weather due to a large send-off crowd—but also not enough emergency precaution. So when the boat hit a large storm south of Molokai, not far from its launch site, it capsized, stranding the crew with no way to call for help. Eddie, continuing the narrative through-line established by his job as lifeguard at Waimea Bay and protecting the Australian surfers, grabs a surfboard with the intent of paddling three or four hours to the nearest island for help. He’s never seen again, and after the crew is rescued—thanks to an airline passenger spotting the boat’s final flare and notifying the flight crew—a massive search fails to recover any trace of Aikau.
All of this is communicated in the expected talking-head style, but simply because Eddie Aikau is so little known outside of Hawaii and the surfing world, I still found it fascinating. I’m frustrated with the desire to frame one big career and one smaller incident as the buildup to the fateful decision that presumably led to Aikau’s death, but I understand that this story attempts to honor Aikau’s legacy by painting him in the best possible light as a role model.
The documentary frames a few things in a confusing way while disregarding facts, like citing Eddie’s brother Clyde as the first champion of The Eddie—but only noting in passing that he was the first winner when the competition was moved from Sunset Beach to the beach Eddie patrolled at Waimea Bay. And Aikau’s marriage gets short shrift where there seemed to be much consternation. But for the most part, Hawaiian illuminates a naturally intriguing bit of surfing history in the midst of cultural clashes in a fascinating time in the history of the islands. It’s not a dynamite proper return for 30 For 30, but it’ll do for now.
- Random fact I learned: There is in fact a BYU-Hawaii. I am not sure how to feel about that.
- My favorite spot to take my dog in the summertime when I visit my family in California is Pillar Point in Half Moon Bay, which looks out over Mavericks. I got to see some of that weird Gerard Butler movie being filmed, but the most interesting story out of that was the day Butler nearly died during a day of shooting on the ocean.