EDDIE AIKAU, NAINOA THOMPSON & THE MASTERS OF PO
Not long ago, the Number One subway train opened its doors at Times Square and an Asian teenager got on wearing a colorful T-shirt that read “Eddie Would Go.” I had just returned from Hawaii, where you see the same phrase on bumper stickers and graffiti walls throughout the islands.
I pointed to his shirt and said to the kid, “Eddie Would Go.” He smiled and nodded. I said, “You know the story, of course.” He looked surprised and said, “No, I just got this from a friend.” As I told the story, in a voice loud enough to be heard over the din, a very strange thing happened. The entire subway car fell silent. When the story was finished, and the kid backed out at Penn Station with a stupefied look on his face, the passengers burst into applause – not for me, for Eddie Aikau.
The entire car, like all of Hawaii, had become entangled in one of the great Polynesian sagas, even greater because it is indisputably true.
As a young man, Eddie Aikau became famous in Hawaii as the first lifeguard on Waimea Bay, considered the world’s best surfing spot, on the north shore of Oahu. He saved hundreds of lives. While he was on duty, not a single person died in those monstrous waves, which sometimes rose thirty feet high. He was a native Hawaiian, one of six children whose family shared a shack in a Chinese graveyard halfway up the Pau’oa Valley in Honolulu. Longhaired and rawboned, Eddie became a legend among the big wave surfers: “He’d take off on a 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.” He was already revered throughout the islands when, at 32 years old, he became captivated by the exploits of Nainoa Thompson and the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
In those years, the early 1970s, native Hawaiians were undergoing a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance. Members of the new generation were becoming aware of their cultural uniqueness, while simultaneously realizing that they had lost much of their ancestral heritage, including many of their own singular skills. This included the art of “wayfinding,” an ancient method of celestial navigation and oceanic sign-reading that had enabled Polynesian sailors, in the 14th century, in open canoes no longer than a subway car, to sail thousands of miles across the Pacific to discover the Hawaiian islands. Models of the ancient double-hulled voyaging canoes were on display to tourists at Waikiki, but nobody in the islands had built one in 600 years, and nobody knew how to sail one.
That deeply troubled Eddie’s idol, a handsome young man named Nainoa Thompson. He and some friends established the Polynesian Voyaging Society and began to search the Pacific for anyone who had any knowledge of wayfinding. Nainoa discovered that the art had nearly died out entirely, with the exception of a man named Mau Piailug, of Satawal, a tiny island one mile long and half a mile wide, in Micronesia. Mau was the last living master of Po, the Micronesian name for the art of navigating without instruments.
Nainoa went to Satawal. Mau taught him the rudiments of Po and showed him how to build voyaging canoes that were seaworthy. Nainoa returned to Hawaii with a vision: to build a replica of an original voyaging canoe, and to sail it to Tahiti. He named the canoe “Hokule’a.” With Mau serving as navigator, on its maiden voyage the Hokule’a sailed, without instruments, from Hawaii to Tahiti, a distance of twenty-five hundred miles. After arriving in Tahiti, however, Mau immediately returned home. He had quarreled with some of the younger crew members and he left a note which read, “Do not try to find me. You will not be able to.”
Without Mau’s aid, Nainoa began to prepare for the second voyage, which he would navigate himself, using what sketchy knowledge of the stars, waves and sea birds he had absorbed so far. This was planned to be the first round-trip canoe voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti without instruments. The vision – he called it “raising the islands” — so excited Eddie Aikau that he sought out Nainoa and asked to join his crew. Nainoa said no. You’re a great surfer, Eddie, he said, but this is ocean sailing – quite a different thing. Eddie begged and pleaded, but Nainoa was adamant.
Eddie did not give up. He composed and recorded a song about wayfinding. The song became quite a hit in Hawaii. Using the song as an entrée, Eddie petitioned again. This time Nainoa relented and in mid-March, 1978, both men were in a crew of sixteen that cast off from Honolulu.
About ten miles out to sea, in the Molokai Channel, an enormous storm blew up, with waves fifty feet high. The canoe had ridden out high seas before during test runs, but this time it was heavily laden with supplies for a month’s journey. The added weight made it extremely difficult to handle, even for experienced Hawaiian “watermen.” Turning off-wind eased the strain but it also caused the sea to wash in over the gunwales, filling the starboard compartments and depressing the lee hull. Winds pushing on the sails rotated the lighter windward hull around the submerged lee hull, now dead in the water. Five hours after leaving harbor, Hokule`a had capsized, and was upside-down in the roiling sea between O`ahu and Moloka`i.
All that night the crew members clung to the hulls of the stricken vessel, huddling to protect themselves from wind and wave. When daylight came, exposure to the intense sun drove the crew to exhaustion. Most alarming of all was the fact that the canoe was drifting away from airline routes, decreasing its already slender chance of being spotted.
Eddie Aikau volunteered to go for help. The captain said no. It was too dangerous. Eddie insisted that he had handled such waves before. Unhooking his surfboard, he paddled out a long distance, just to show it could be done. He paddled back. Nainoa offered to go with him, but this time it was Eddie who said no. He would go alone. The crew, clinging to the overturned hulls, watched in silence as he rode the waves until he disappeared in the distance.
Some hours later, a Coast Guard vessel rescued the crew. But Eddie Aikau was never seen again.
“Eddie was a great teacher,” Nainoa said. “He was a lifeguard. He guarded life, and he lost his own, trying to guard ours.”
No one knows who invented the phrase, “Eddie would go.” It began to appear spontaneously shortly after the rescue, and it still appears today, in Hawaii and on T-shirts in New York, thirty years later. Eddie had become a saint.
As the years pass, his legend continues to grow. The best-known surfing contest, the Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational, is known as “The Eddie.” The 24 best surfers in the world are to compete, beginning in November. The first of these, in 1985, was won by Eddie’s brother Clyde.
Last year, Nainoa Thompson and his crew sailed the Hokule’a to Satawal, without instruments, and presented a model of the boat to Mau, who was on his deathbed. Just before he died, he initiated Nainoa and five others into the now-revived fraternity of Po.