A Conversation with Stuart Holmes Coleman, author of Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero

8 minute read

Eddie Aikau on a wave on the North Shore

Stuart Holmes Coleman is the author of Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero, Fierce Heart, and Eddie Would Go. Eddie Aikau was a legendary Hawaiian hero — a big wave surfer and the first North Shore lifeguard — he saved hundreds of lives over the years from the jaws of the great waves that spring up every winter at Sunset Beach, Pipeline, and Waimea Bay.

Eddie was a huge figure in the early Hawaiian Renaissance — a Waterman to the core (Waterman is a reverential term surfers use to describe humble men who have a deep respect for the ocean, and the ability to master it at it’s most frightening). Eddie was also a crew member on the Hokulea (a Hawaiian two-hulled canoe) on its 2nd voyage to Tahiti, using traditional (non-electronic) navigation techniques. The ship capsized in a storm, and with no help forthcoming, Eddie took his surfboard and paddled for Lanai — miles away across open ocean — to get help. He was never seen again.

Stuart has captured the story of Eddie, and more broadly the story of Hawaiian surf culture, in way you’d not think possible for a haole (the Hawaiian word for non-Polynesians) who grew up in South Carolina. His books capture the history of a mythic figure; and they give extraordinary insight into a culture that is so much deeper than the umbrella drinks on Waikiki that come to mind for most people when you say “Hawaii”.

We spoke to Stuart around 5pm Eastern Time from the Boston office of The Hawaii Project, which is Friday morning Hawaii time.

Aloha Stuart!

Aloha Mark! I guess it’s Pau Hana time for you! (Pau Hana is Hawaiian for “after work”, generally meaning the weekend or a good time for a drink after work).

I’m making some fajitas and the tequila’s in the marinade, I had to drink some to make sure it hadn’t gone bad!

“Not too sweet, not too rancid….”

That sounds like a quote I am supposed to know.

Rap Reiplinger. He was so funny. 1970s Hawaiian humor, everyone knew his skits by heart. That’s a quote from “Auntie Marialani’s Cooking Show”. How it relates to Eddie, I’m not sure, but I know he watched it and loved it.

Your most recent book is Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero. You very comprehensively explored Eddie’s life in Eddie Would Go. What prompted you to revisit Eddie’s life, and how is this book different than Eddie Would Go?

It’s a shorter version of the story of Eddie, this amazing Hawaiian Waterman who help define modern Hawaiian culture. I wanted to reach a different scope of people. From visitors to the islands, to both younger people and older people, who want to know who Eddie was, but maybe aren’t ready to commit to a 270 page biography.

Great books have a way of speaking to every time and place — you can read the Iliad 2000 years later and draw very relevant lessons from it. Are there some current issues in Hawaii that your books might speak to, that you didn’t originally intend?

More than anything, with the current worldwide voyage of Hokulea, the story is more timely and topical (there’s a plaque on the Hokulea dedicated to Eddie). Without his sacrifice, the Hokulea would likely not have become as famous, and have the reach that it does, to become the symbol of the Hawaiian Renaissance, like Iz (Israel Kamakawiwoʻole) after him. I almost titled the book “the story of the Hawaiian Renaissance”, but that was a little too scholarly — but he really embodied the movement.

“Eddie would go” has entered the popular lexicon, and not just in Hawaii. One of the things I found interesting was reflecting on what a different it time it was. The occasional drunken fights notwithstanding, it seemed such an open culture, and such a civil time, compared to today.

It seemed more civil to you? Interesting — in a way it was a much hotter time. With the conflicts with the Australians and South Africans (in the book), there were death sentences out on some of these pro surfers. It really was a racially intense time. The flip side of the rediscovery of Hawaiian pride in their culture, and that the Polynesians were some of the greatest explorers of their time and of all history — the flip side of that was intense Hawaiian anger of the suppression of Hawaiian culture, and at times it would just explode.

Maybe what I’m noticing is that it was a time when the internet wasn’t pervasive, and it’s not that it was more civil, just that it was more personal and less anonymous than internet flame wars.

That’s a good point. Hawaiians have often said this to me— it came up a lot in the writing of Fierce Heart — they’d say, we’d scrap (fight) with these guys, and then be singing songs and having beers with them afterwards. You dealt with it, it was very personal, and face to face, and then move on. Now everything’s under the surface. Then, you scrapped and it was over. A lot of haoles couldn’t get used to that. It’s a lot less healthy to keep it suppressed.

How did writing Eddie lead to writing Fierce Heart, your book about Makaha and the west side of Oahu?

As part of research for Eddie Would Go, I would go down to Makaha. I had about four years of going over there. It has this kind of reputation that was summed up by the bumper sticker on Rusty Keaulana’s truck: “Welcome to Makaha. Now go home”. It was very intimidating going down there, all the local guys eyeing me. But I met with Brian (Keaulana) — he spread out a picnic blanket and food, it was like we were on a date (laughs). He was the nicest guy I ever met, so knowledgeable about Hawaiian culture, and I mean this guy is intense. He’s ridden the biggest waves in the world, he’s revolutionizing life-guarding. But he so nice and gentle. He said, “We’re really extreme: you treat us well, we treat you extremely well, you treat us bad, we treat you extremely bad”. I was just fascinated by this culture that so many people were petrified of. “Oh man, you can’t go down there”. There were so many myths, so many stereotypes, I needed to explore it. It’s this teeny little town, where one of the greatest Watermen on the planet were from (including Buffalo Keaulana and his sons Rusty and Brian, and then Rell Sunn, the first Hawaiian female big water lifeguard and pro surfer), and then Israel (“Iz”), arguably the greatest singer to ever come out of Hawaii. What about this town is producing such legendary people? That’s what got me going.

I had a similar experience at Pililaau, at military beach area in Waianae, near Makaha. My wife’s mother’s side is Hawaiian but I’m a haole from the Mainland. I went into the grocery story, I’m the only white guy there, and I’m the minority. It’s awakening to have the shoe on the other foot. But everyone there was so nice — if you are humble and nice to people they’re nice back.

Yes, it really is the case there. And the military aspect is also interesting — there’s a love-hate relationship that shows up in the books. Lots of Hawaiians are in the military, and it is important to the local economy, but there’s also conflicts. They’re one of largest landholders in the state, sometimes there’s conflicts between the servicemen and the locals.

For me it was very personal, growing up the son of a civil rights leader in a town that was very racially divided. As much as I loved the South and loved my culture, I never felt at home amidst the institutionalized racism and lack of diversity, so coming to Hawaii for me was a real revelation. It just seemed so perfect, especially as a surfer.

Tomorrow: Surfing, a graveyard practical joke, and Eddie’s legacy. Read Part II here.