Modern Mythology


I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m working on a novel but I haven’t really talked about it.  Part of this is that I don’t want to make false promises to anyone, and another part is that I don’t want anyone stealing my idea and doing it first.  But, considering recent events, this feels like a good time to talk about it in the most tangential of terms.

Some of you might be aware that yesterday hosted the Quicksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Surfing competition.  I’ve never really paid attention to surfing, despite having lived in Hawaii for the past ten years, I’ve never really had any desire to learn to surf, nor am I the strongest swimmer or completely free of intimidation when it comes to the ocean (there’s monsters out there!); but I was utterly transfixed by this competition and I think it has a lot to do with surf culture and the legacy of Eddie Aikau.

To call Eddie Aikau a legend is almost a disservice because it implicates a fiction onto a very real man.  I’m going to try to describe his life here.  Internet, please correct me if I get anything wrong. 

Way back in the day (1968), Eddie Aikau was made the first lifeguard of Waimea Bay on Oahu’s North Shore by the City and County of Honolulu at the age of 22.  It’s said that during his tenure as lifeguard, he made over 500 rescues and not a single life was lost on his watch.  Eddie was known to paddle out into waves upwards of thirty feet in height, braving waters others wouldn’t dare approach; not just in his efforts to save lives, but recreationally as well.  Eddie became a hero of big wave surfing and later went on to win the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship.  He was kind of a big deal.

In 1976 the now-famous Hokule’a a double-hulled seafaring canoe of traditional design, made history by sailing from Hawaii to Tahiti without instruments or maps.  Using only ancient astronomical navigational methods, the journey put to bed the question of whether ancient Polynesians were capable of making deliberate exploratory expeditions of the Pacific or if the culture was scattered across the various islands purely by luck and random chance. It, too, was kind of a big deal.

The fates of these two were destined to become intertwined in one of the most heroic, and tragic, stories I’ve ever heard. 

In 1978, Eddie Aikau was selected on to the crew of the Hokule’a for its second voyage across the Pacific from Hawaii to Tahiti.  Not long after its departure, the vessel encountered high surf and inclement weather south of the island of Molokai.  The craft was damaged, took on water, an eventually capsized.  Afraid that rescue wouldn’t come in time so save the crew of the foundering boat, Eddie Aikau, a man with a sterling reputation for life saving, pulled out his surf board and took it upon himself to paddle the 12-15 miles, in high winds and dangerous swells, from their location to the island of Lanai for help.  Nine hours later, a Hawaiian Airlines flight, by chance, spotted emergency flares.  Shortly thereafter the US Coast Guard rescued the remaining crew of the Hokule’a.  The crew informed the Coast Guard of Eddie’s efforts and the largest search and rescue operation in Hawaii’s history was launched to locate Eddie.  No trace was ever recovered of Eddie Aikau; no body, no board.

Just take a minute and let that sink in.

In the early ‘80s, representatives from Quicksilver contacted the Aikau family about creating a surfing competition in Eddie’s honor.  The family agreed and in 1985 the first “Eddie” was held at Sunset Beach.  It’s an immensely prestigious competition wherein 28 of the best big wave surfers in the world are chosen by their peers an invited to compete.  The competition is only held when ocean conditions are right (wave faces 30 feet or higher) and as a result has only been held nine times in 31 years.

I’m going to digress here for a second.  Back when I lived on the mainland, I would occasionally see these bumper stickers or t-shirts which read, “Eddie would go.”  I never knew what it meant; who Eddie was or where he was going.  I know now, and it is the absolutely best part of this story.  It gives me the “chicken skin” every time I think about it.

The story, as I heard it, goes something like this.  Before the first Eddie competition kicked off, the waves at Sunset Beach were massive.  Conditions were extremely hazardous.  Rolling walls of water, the height of four-story buildings, pounding and crushing anything in their path.  The contest organizers discussed, and vacillated and argued amongst themselves as to whether to actually hold the completion or if it was simply too dangerous, while 28 of the world’s best surfers, lined up on the beach to honor the late Eddie Aikau.  Until finally one of them, Mark Foo, stepped forward and said, “Eddie would go.”

That sealed it and the phrase stuck. 

It’s such a simple phrase.  Three little words, not complex or clever, but knowing the story behind it gives it such gravitas and depth.  It’s the kind of thing that can be, and is, clung to like a life philosophy by many; not just in the surfing culture, but in all walks of life.  “Eddie would go.”

I bring this up because it underpins a big part of why I’ve allowed Hawaii to play such a heavy part in influencing the novel I’m working on.  Eddie Aikau’s story isn’t the only story of its kind in Hawaii.  There are a number of people and events in Hawaii’s not-so-distant past which have taken on these almost mystical attributes.  A sort of modern mythology of coincidence and happenstance which gives life in Hawaii a very spiritual flavor.  There’s a reverence for the history and the legend, a pride.  If the year were 1500 BCE, people the likes of Eddie Aikau, or Duke Kahanamoku, or Kamehameha I would be made demi-gods.  It would be said that they were of divine providence and their lives would be referenced by the great philosophers of ages to come.  You almost get the feeling, when listening to the right people, that given a couple hundred years that might happen anyway.

There’s a fairly popular trope in fantasy literature that says that our world, our Earth, was once a magical place and that somehow we ruined that.  That all of these mysterious and mystic stories and sites and relics; from faerie tales to Stonehenge, were all true and functional “once upon a time” but we’ve somehow buried it.  Now, I’m not sure if it’s simply because the Hawaiian Islands were only Westernized in the recent past, or if there’s something more to it, but there’s this feeling that permeates life in the islands. A feeling as though there is actual magic lying just below the surface and every so often, if you look really hard, or open up in just the right place in just the right way, you can experience it.

That’s what I want Hawaii to bring into my novel.


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