Iconic big-wave rider from Honolulu, Hawaii; winner of the 1977 Duke Kahanamoku Classic surf contest, just three months before dying in a boating accident; regarded as the greatest Waimea surfer of his time, and namesake to the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave surf contest. "He had the ultimate Hawaiian style," next-generation big-wave charger Darrick Doerner said in 1990. "Take off and drop in, big bottom turn, disappear into a mountain of whitewater, pop out, throw his hair back; that was Eddie. Bully style."
Aikau was born (1946) and raised in Kahului, Maui, the son of a truck driver, began surfing at age 11, and moved with his family to Honolulu in 1959. At 16, Aikau dropped out of high school to work full-time at a Dole Pineapple cannery. Six years years later he began working as a North Shore lifeguard, and in 1971 he was stationed at Waimea Bay, a big-wave break he'd been surfing for years. His debut at Waimea in late 1966 was astounding: "he rode giant waves for over six hours without a break," Surfing magazine reported, "and when he finally left the water, he was judged by most to have been one of the finest riders of the day." Ten months later, on the biggest ridable day of the decade, Aikau simply broke away from the pack and was untouchable. The impression he left was strengthened by his dark and rugged good looks, his fire-engine red board, and his white surf trunks accented with a single red horizontal stripe.
Aikau was a steady performer during the early years of professional surfing in Hawaii. He was a six-time finalist in the Duke contest between 1966 and 1974; in the Smirnoff he placed fifth in 1971, fourth in 1972, and third in 1976; he also finished third in the 1976 Lancers World Cup, and was invited to the 1971 and 1973 Expression Sessions. When Aikau won the 1977 Duke, he beat future world champions Mark Richards and Wayne Bartholomew, as well as world tour standouts Dane Kealoha, Bobby Owens, and Rory Russell. He finished the season world-rated #12. Younger brother Clyde Aikau also made a name for himself in the big Hawaiian surf.
Aikau's distinctive bowlegged stance was widely imitated in the late '60s and early '70s, and photos of him at Waimea were published in Life magazine in 1966, three years before Bank of America used an Aikau shot in a nationwide billboard ad campaign. A career low point came in 1972, when he visited Durban, South Africa, for a pro contest, and was turned away from his hotel for being dark-skinned. It was further required that he get a special permit to surf Durban's whites-only beaches.
In 1978, Aikau gained a berth on the Hokule'a, a replica of the double-hulled canoe used by ancient Polynesians to sail between Hawaii and Tahiti. On March 16, Aikau and 15 other Hokule'a crew members left Honolulu for a 2,400-mile voyage that would reenact the midocean crossing; five hours into the trip, the starboard hull sprung a leak and the boat capsized, leaving the crew hanging on to the port hull. At 10:30 the following morning, Aikau took a life vest, rain slicker, knife, and strobe light, and set out on a 10-foot surfboard for the island of Lanai, 12 miles to the east. Later that day the Hokule'a crew was picked up by a rescue team. Coast Guard rescuers searched for a week, but Aikau's body wasn't found.
The governor of Hawaii declared April 1 to be Eddie Aikau Day (the date was later changed to March 17), and in 1980 a commemorative plaque was installed in Aikau's honor at Waimea, not far from the lifeguard tower where he worked. A contest in Aikau's name was held at Sunset Beach in 1984; it later evolved into the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave contest, held at Waimea. The 1986 edition of the contest was won by Clyde Aikau, who used a 10-year-old board that had belonged to his brother.
Aikau appeared in a handful of surf movies, including Golden Breed (1968), Waves of Change (1970), and Fluid Drive (1974). In 2000 he was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame; a biography, Eddie Would Go: The Story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian Hero, written by Stuart Coleman, was published in 2002. Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, a documentary made by Riding Giants director Stacy Peralta, longtime surf journalist Sam George, and producer Paul Taublieb, debuted in 2013.
The Eddie Aikau Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Hawaiian tradition and culture, was founded in 2000.
Aikau was married once and had no children.