Photo courtesy of ESPN Films.

Photo courtesy of ESPN Films.

The life story of big wave surfer Eddie Aikau pretty much writes itself. His biography is a classic tale of heroism and tragedy. But director Sam George successfully goes deeper in the film, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, and uncovers not only rare footage and photographs, but also the little known story of Hawaii that lurks beneath the surface.

Not since Stuart Holmes Colman’s wonderful book, Eddie Would Go has Aikau’s story been told with such depth and poetic flair. The film examines a culture that was nearly lost among the influx of mainlanders and commercialism.

“A lot of people really don’t know the story of Hawaii. They know what they have learned basically from tourist brochures,” said Sam George after the world premier at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In short, there’s much more to this film than riding huge waves, and George deftly packs it all in while keeping the audience engaged. The film doesn’t preach, but it does illuminate an ongoing social injustices that has plagued native Hawaiians for decades.

Eddie Aikau was born on the island of Maui on May 4, 1946. Shortly after, his family moved to Oahu and became live-in caretakers of a cemetery. Eddie was one of six siblings, and when he and his younger brother Clyde discovered surfing, it changed their lives forever. By their late teens, they were charging huge surf at Waimea Bay.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t he Hawaiians that were dominating the big wave scene at that time, but Californians like Greg Knoll, Pat Curren, Ricky Grigg, Buzzy Trent and Peter Cole.

To add insult to injury, not a single Hawaiian was invited to the first Duke Kahanamoku Invitational surf contest. But with his notoriety growing, and his talent and skill for big wave riding becoming more refined, Aikau finally received an invitation to compete.

For years, Aikau surfed each contest with determination and courage, and even though he did well, a victory still alluded him. To the surprise of many, it was his brother Clyde Aikau that brought home a victory first in 1973. But Eddie didn’t give up, and his perseverance paid off. In 1977, in pumping surf, he won it all at the age of 31. It was a win not only for himself, but for all of Hawaii.

Besides being a surfer, Eddie Aikau was the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay. He attempted hundreds of rescues and never lost anyone under his watch. So it’s quite tragic when he dies not only trying to save himself, but also the crew from the sinking Hokule’a.

In rough seas, Aikau paddled away from the sinking vessel on his surfboard. The crew was eventually rescued, but Aikau’s body was never recovered. Since his death, there has been many theories on what led to his demise. Why didn’t Aikau make it to shore?  No one has the exact answer, but after conducting extensive research for this film, director Sam George offered an insightful explanation of what might have happened:

“You got to realize the wind was going against him, it was pushing him south. The current was going against him. On those days, the breaking seas were between 15 and 20 feet. What he was doing was impossible. There was no way he could paddle against those waves and that current.

“But as Nainoa Thomson mentioned in the prologue. He had never failed in the ocean. He had saved 500 hundred people, [and they] were only the ones that he had registered in his lifeguard’s log…So when he paddled away, he had complete confidence. But what he was trying to do, was impossible. What most likely happened, is he tired. A big wave probably knocked him off his board. And then it was only inevitable that eventually, he would tire and slip under.”

Aikau died much to young, but his legend lives on. Eddie Would Go are three words that are not only found on t-shirts, bumper stickers and graffiti, but are also uttered by surfers around the world when trying to find the courage to paddle into challenging waves.

Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau is a must-see for not only surfers, but for anyone that believes in the mythical notion of heroes.

This film is a part of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series and will be broadcasted this fall. You can watch the trailer here.