Cover photo: Makuaka Rothman at the 2016 Eddie contest. – Photo: Zak Noyle
“The Eddie” will go again. And Native Hawaiians are helping to make it happen.
First held at Waimea Bay in 1986, The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is the world’s preeminent and most-watched surf contest. But sponsorship issues after the 2016 contest left the future of the event in question.
Until now. A coalition of Native Hawaiian organizations is joining the Aikau family to help bring The Eddie back. But the Hawaiian groups are supporting the big wave surf contest for reasons that differ from that of past sponsors.
Of course, one goal is to celebrate the life and legacy of legendary Hawaiian waterman Eddie Aikau. He was one of the best big wave surfers of his day, and his selfless commitment to rescuing others from treacherous ocean conditions eventually claimed his own life.
But the other goal is to use the event to reclaim surfing as a Hawaiian cultural practice. In a written statement, OHA said that it “sees The Eddie […] as an opportunity to encourage more Native Hawaiians to participate in their national sport and to promote the history and traditional aspects of surfing to remind the world of its cultural heritage.”
The commitment to reconnecting surfing with its cultural roots was on full display during the opening ceremony for this year’s contest. The day started with Hawaiian immersion school students exchanging protocol, including oli (chant) and the blowing of pū (conch shells), with the crew of the Hōkūle‘a to welcome the beloved voyaging canoe into Waimea Bay. Ho‘okupu (gifts) of oli, pule (prayers) and lei were then offered to Eddie Aikau’s memorial and to the Aikau family.
Next, The Eddie surf contestants participated in an awa ceremony and received gifts of lei hulu before paddling out into a circle ceremony in the middle of the bay. There, they shared mana‘o, did a ritual water splash and had flowers dropped onto the circle from a helicopter to honor the memory of Eddie. The ceremony ended with live musical performances from Mana Maoli and Hawaiian-focused charter school students.
Eddie, the Legend
Hōkūle‘a held a prominent role in the opening ceremonies because of Eddie’s close connection to the canoe. By 1978, Eddie was renowned for his big wave exploits at Waimea Bay and also for being the first lifeguard on the North Shore, where he saved more than 500 lives without losing one.
That year, Eddie was selected to crew Hōkūle‘a for a voyage through the Pacific. But the canoe capsized in rough seas off Moloka‘i. With his fellow crewmembers suffering from hypothermia, exposure and exhaustion, Eddie paddled a surfboard towards land in search of help. After more than 24 hours adrift, the overturned canoe and its crew were finally rescued. But Eddie was never seen again.
“Eddie was all about saving lives, giving to others and not expecting anything back,” said Clyde Aikau of his brother. “For us, to continue his legacy is really what it’s all about. The involvement of OHA and Kamehameha Schools is such a high cultural privilege for the family. It’s really taken The Eddie up a notch into a more cultural, proud to be Hawaiian, knowing who you are as a Hawaiian. It’s about carrying the mantle of our Hawaiian nation.”
Sunny Garcia, the last Native Hawaiian World Champion surfer, said the opening ceremony was emotional.
“[The ceremony was] almost bringing tears in my eyes,” he said. “We’re from Hawai‘i, I am Hawaiian. I represent Hawai‘i. This is my home. Surfing is the one sport that we have to offer to the whole world, and the one place in the whole world that doesn’t back surfing: Hawai‘i. Today was an incredible day, to see the change and feel that change in the air. So hopefully the momentum builds and we get that we get the backing from all of Hawai‘i.”
The first westerners to arrive in Hawai‘i recorded the Native Hawaiian people’s love of surfing, and historians referred to surfing as the “national sport” of our kūpuna. But like many other cultural practices, surfing underwent a period of marked decline in the 19th century as the Hawaiian population collapsed from foreign diseases and as missionaries discouraged native traditions. Nevertheless, many Native Hawaiians still enjoyed the sport, including some of our highest royalty, including Prince Kūhiō and Princess Kai‘ulani. After Duke Kahanamoku began sharing surfing with the world a century ago, the sport exploded in popularity. As surfing spread and evolved, its Native Hawaiian roots became less associated with the sport.
This separation wasn’t necessarily innocent. According to Hawaiian scholar and surfer Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, some of those who led the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom established all-white surf clubs that attempted to challenge Native Hawaiians in the surf lineups in Waikīkī. In addition, Hawaiians were kept out of surf contests. For example, in 1965, Eddie Aikau was denied an invitation into the first surf contest on the North Shore despite being one of the best young Native Hawaiian surfers. He and Ben Aipa paddled out during the contest to prove that Native Hawaiian surfers belonged. After seeing their performance, Duke Kahanamoku, whom the contest was named for, made sure both Hawaiians were invited the next year.
Today, most people who surf don’t connect the sport with its Hawaiian origins in the same way that dancers viscerally connect hula with Hawaiian culture. Moreover, most competitive surfers aren’t Hawaiian, and many are called Hawaiian not because of their ethnicity but because of their residency.
The live broadcast of the last Eddie Big Wave Invitational, held in 2016, drew more than 1.2 million views from more than 200 countries, making it the most watched event in surfing history. This is the reason many call The Eddie the “Super Bowl of surfing”. But OHA Trustee Dan Ahuna sees The Eddie as the “Merrie Monarch of surfing” – a celebration and display of our kupuna’s brilliance, innovation and ingenuity.
“The Eddie can serve as an example for how other surfs contests from around the globe can recognize the heritage of our national sport, especially as surfing will be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics,” he said.
Native Hawaiian organizations supporting The Eddie include: OHA, Kamehameha Schools, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, Waimea Valley, Polynesian Voyaging Society, DTL Hawai‘i and Mana Maoli.
Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Native Hawaiian surfer and scholar
What I’d like to see is that we continue to perpetuate the narrative that surfing is still Hawaiian. Just because it has become more global doesn’t make it any less Hawaiian. Despite evolving technology with surfboard and equipment Hawaiians have been a part of that evolution throughout each stage. So what I’d like is for people to continue to recognize that surfing is still very much so a part of our culture and also to inspire younger Kanaka to take more ownership in it as a way that they can express their cultural identity as Native Hawaiians.
Mahina Chillingworth, Da Hui
We need to reclaim our sport. Our sport is getting pimped around the world. [Surfing] needs to be reclaimed. I’m glad the Hōkūle‘a is here and honoring our ancestors and Kanaloa. This is what we need to do as Native Hawaiians: recognize, band together, kākou. This is our kuleana to support Native Hawaiian surfing and Eddie Aikau.
Ezekiel Lau, Native Hawaiian Professional surfer
It’s a huge honor for me to be in that circle with all my heroes and uncle Clyde there. Just the support of all the Hawaiian community, it felt awesome.