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Some Men are Mountains

Clyde Aikau’s no-bullshit takes on charging at 70, his family’s Waimea Bay lineage, and near death experiences.

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Clyde Aikau ushers me through the gates of a family property that sits off the back roads in the sleepy East Oahu community of Waimānalo. A van in the driveway has a decal that reads “Doggy Play Date Shuttle,” a business that appears to be a service for canines in need of a diversion. 

Clyde is in dusty work boots and jeans, with the gait of a man who has a million things to do today and is only on his third. At 72, he’s still got the build and neck of a man who could lick me if it came down to it. He motions us into an open-air garage and I follow, then he signals me to stay put while he walks into a nearby room with an open door. “So you work with Pezman a lot?” he hollers. “Not…directly,” I admit. I realize this part of our conversation has commenced while he’s taking a leak.

“Me and my wife traveled around Biarritz with Steve in the 90s,” he continues. “Anything for Pezman.”

He returns, hands me a folding chair, and leads us through dog-size animal gates to a corner of the lush property. The journey ends beneath a quiet, young mountain-apple tree. I hand him back his chair and he points to half a cinder block, which I imagine will not be particularly comfortable, but perhaps that’s the point when gleaning wisdom from kūpuna to Waimānalo.

He leans back in the seat with his boots in the earth, 5 feet away from me and 3 feet above, closes his eyes, and breathes in this space. Behind him, the sheer folds of the Ko‘olaus are a poem written in a language with no words. “How’s this atmosphere, man?” he asks, and smiles. “How’s these mountains? Every day, I come in the corner over here and I sit down, play my music, and just take myself to the top of that mountain.”

A septuagenarian who still surfs the Bay, Clyde is instantly personable yet brutally honest. He’s also a man whose time is precious, yet who is simultaneously not stingy with emotions, whose eyes still well up when speaking of his brother Eddie—unabashedly wiping away tears with two gnarled palms to continue the conversation without skipping a beat.

One of “the last of the last,” as Clyde puts it, he’s returned to his Waikiki beach-boy roots between running a cultural foundation and helping the family business. He’s someone a hapless tourist might meet and have no clue he’s an icon while enjoying the pleasure of riding beside him in an outrigger canoe.

“So what, we rolling now?” he asks. 

I nod and get comfy on the half-block. We’ve been rolling, Clyde.

The interview subject. Illustration by Matthieu Cossé.

BF You work with the dogs here. But you’re also a Waikiki beach boy, right?

CA I dropped into Waimea too, a couple weeks ago.

BF No shit? 

CA Not the biggest wave—save that for the young bulls, ah? [Laughs.] As you probably know, I’m the last of the last in my age range in the lineup out there. There’s no Reno Abellira, no Gerry Lopez out there. No Kenny Bradshaw. No Peter Cole. I’m the last of the last. And at Waikiki I’m actually one of the last active beach boys. Ask anybody on Waikiki Beach: I’m the hardest-working beach boy. Nonstop. Canoe rides, surfing lessons—it’s endless. But you got to make a living, right?

BF You most certainly do. Tell me about that.

CA The funny thing about me is that I left the beach for ten years. I worked for the [Hawaii] department of education. I was in charge of 3,500 students in the Honolulu district, making sure that they had breakfast and lunch and school supplies. I even expanded into actually finding shelter for them, which I wasn’t authorized to do by the DOE, but I would go do it because when you know some kid’s living with a single mom out of their van and coming into school…well, I’d help find them a house. And then I went back to the beach. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed Waikiki, steering the canoe and seeing the big smile from the visitors and the tourists. I realized that it still gave me a rush to see a person stand up on a surfboard for the first time. So I said to myself, “Ah, what the heck? Might as well hang around.”

BF Whether it’s Waikiki or the North Shore, an entire industry has been constructed and thrives off of something I imagine is traditionally very sacred to Native Hawaiians. What’s your take on the way surfing is headed?

CA As you hit your seventies and everything, you don’t really have time for bullshit. And everybody on the beach all knows that about me. Before they come in for a chitchat, they’ve got to know what they’re talking about. I don’t got time for rubbish. Even the North Shore, you can keep the bullshit. And here’s the deal: Everybody’s so focused on the biggest wave, the biggest tube—it’s all rubbish. I’ll tell you why it’s all rubbish: There’s always going to be a guy who’s going to catch a bigger wave than you. There’s always going to be a guy who’s going to catch a bigger tube than you. So what the heck? You go ride them, enjoy it, move on. I mean, who would think somebody would ride a bigger tube than that one Laird Hamilton got at Teahupo‘o? Koa Rothman and Nathan Fletcher have maybe gotten ones twice that size since then. So my point is, as the Hawaiians say, “Don’t be so high makamaka [stuck up] just because you rode the biggest wave, or because you’re world champion.” World champions, believe it or not, come and go. But the heart and soul that you have to help other people will be remembered a lot longer.

BF Is that what the Eddie Aikau Foundation is all about?

CA The Eddie Aikau Foundation is just trying to carry on Eddie’s legacy of helping people, helping kids, helping families. We go out every Christmas and we go fix Hawaiian homes—homes that are falling down, no roof. We go in, I call the North Shore big-wave riders. They’re all carpenters. They all come in and we go attack. So a job that would take a week, we do it in five hours. But that’s because you have six guys who are all professional carpenters, who happen to be big-wave surfers, too. We also help the physically challenged in the water. Surfers with no legs, no arms. Helping them to experience the ocean. That’s just a few things that foundation does. 

BF Speaking of Eddie, The Eddie contest is still so respected and revered after all these years. Why would you say that is? 

CA I think that’s because it’s not really about the waves. It’s to honor this great guy, Eddie Aikau. What he did in his life and what he did for other people. To this day, there are people that he saved at Waimea Bay that still come up to me and say thanks for him. You got to remember, lifeguarding Waimea Bay in the late 60s and the 70s was raw. No authority to keep people away back then. No jet ski, no Zodiac, no helicopter—no nothing. Just me and Eddie, and we only had surfboards and fins. That’s it. Everything else was all from the gut, man. Rock and roll, brah.

Before every Eddie, I tell these big-wave riders: If you’re going to go ride because you want to make a few bucks or be on the magazine cover, wrong intention. Because you are going to get into a situation one day that you’re going to say, “Oh, man, I’m done.” The only thing that’s going to pull you out of that situation is what comes from your heart and your soul. Nothing else. Not your physical conditioning, not all the millions you got. Riding big waves has to come from your heart and soul. Because strength and power can only last so long. That’s when your heart and your soul comes in and takes you right over the top. How do I know this? ’Cause it’s happened to me a couple times. In fact, it happened to me in the last Eddie.

BF Really? Tell me the story.

CA Nobody knows, but I almost checked out, man. Me, John John, and Nathan Fletcher were paddling out in the middle of the Bay. The biggest wave of the day pulls in. I already broke my shoulder, but I didn’t know. So this wave is coming through, John John was on the right of me, Nathan was on the outside, and I was in the middle, and we were all trying to race out. Everybody was on their own, man. I actually gave up paddling, sat down on my board, tried to hyperventilate to catch as much air as I could. I couldn’t paddle anymore. I had only one arm, really. Then the biggest wave of the day took me all the way down to the bottom. Wouldn’t let me go. I was on the bottom of Waimea Bay. All the cameras were watching, like, “Where’s Uncle Clyde? Where’s Uncle Clyde?” Lifeguards were on their own, trying to save themselves. All of a sudden I said, “I’m going to pull my vest.” So I pull my canisters. All four of them inflate and I start coming up, and I had to fight my way to come up. I mean fight, literally fight. Because the wave was still pushing down. I don’t reach the surface and I feel like I’m out of air. I’m done. I finally come up and I feel like I’m in a mausoleum, like I’m in a church. Everything I see is white. The mountain is white. The ocean is white. Waimea Bay is white. Everything is white. And I’m looking at that, no fear, not at all. I don’t know. I guess you get to a state where you’re just totally relaxed. 

BF Like a state of surrender or something?

CA [Shrugs.] Then, all of a sudden, I wake up. Everything comes back to the same color—blue, gray, green. I look around, but nobody’s around. Everybody got cleaned up. And that was that.

BF But you survived.

CA And I thank…umm…

BF God?

CA No, was gonna say Patagonia. I thank Patagonia for that. Because if I didn’t have that life vest on…aloha. I came in and I went to the doctor’s tent, IV and everything. All I said was, “Fix me up. I got to go catch one more wave in Round Two. I got to finish this.” Everybody just was shaking their head, man. [Laughs.] I think Quiksilver was really worked up that I was going to go out again. You can’t blame them. But you got 30,000 people on the beach, man.

BF The show must go on.

CA The entire day was very spiritual, very spiritual. Even normal people felt it, felt the vibe. It was incredible. When I was going out on the second round and I was in the corner, all the people were just screaming, “Uncle Clyde!” I swear, man. I felt the mountains, the ocean, the valley. There was so much vibe. I felt the whole energy of the place. 

Everything is white. And 
I’m looking at that, no fear, 
not at all.

BF So what first drew you to Waimea as a kid? 

CA What drew me there? Eddie. That’s who drew me there. My brother, not the wave. But then as you ride the Bay, you really get into it. It’s just really close to…almost Jesus, man. The ocean has always been a church to me and Eddie. We all always revered it as very peaceful and very comforting. Diving, paddling, sailing, windsurfing—we always felt very comfortable in the ocean.

BF And, after all these years, it’s still that sacred place to you?

CA Well, it’s always going to be sacred because our cultural blood lineage is directly connected to Waimea Bay. Back maybe a couple hundred years, my great-great-grandfather was manager, or caretaker, of Waimea Bay. Waimea Beach, the ocean, the rocks, the sugar-cane fields. Then, over a hundred years later, Eddie becomes the first lifeguard at Waimea, rides the biggest wave there for over 50 years… Yeah, we have strong ties to Waimea Bay. Culturally, not only surfing.

BF Do you see anybody these days carrying on your brother’s—

CA Aaron Gold. Aaron Gold is…I don’t know. I would say a modern-day Eddie Aikau, really. Everything he does is to help people. Really giving, not expecting. Another guy who does a great job of carrying that spirit is Kohl Christensen. Also, Ben Wilkinson. Darrick Doerner. Of course, younger guys like Nathan Florence and Kai Lenny, they impress me too, and have so much fun out there. You can feel it when you watch them.

BF What’s something you’ve realized in your years on earth?

CA You know, I can remember that I never really looked my dad in the eye to tell him that I loved him until I was 30 years old. Maybe men have a problem with being too macho to do it, but the point of this is to express yourself when you can, because you might not have a second chance. You never know. The worst wipeout I ever had was actually at Sandy Beach. Hit my head on the reef in 1-foot surf and needed 50 stitches. So, life is short and you need to let the people you care about know it. Thank the ones you love. Say it to them often.

[Feature Image: A no-hesitation approach at home on the North Shore, 1974. Nearly 50 years later, Clyde’s still at it full-bore, both in the water and on land. Photo by Jeff Divine]

[This interview was published in TSJ 31.5, click here to pick your copy today]

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