When I rang 66-year-old Clyde Aikau at his home in Waimanalo, HI, he told me to please call him Uncle Clyde. I respectfully obliged and asked Uncle Clyde how he was feeling. It had been a few days since the Hawaiian legend competed in the Eddie Aikau Invitational, where he was charging furious mountains of water like age ain’t nothing but a number. But despite having a seemingly fearless and lionhearted poise throughout the event, today he was still feeling the wrath of a heavy wipeout. On his opening wave of the event, he had gone down hard, really hard, and had busted his shoulder in the process.
Before we started talking about the event’s historical impact, his relationship with Eddie, and his eventual plans to surf Pe’ahi, he explained what it was like surfing in one of the most dramatic big-wave events of all time, at 66-years-old, with only one unimpaired arm.
How’s the shoulder feeling, Uncle Clyde?
Not so hot. I have to get an MRI, but I think I have a possible rotator cuff tear. Got it on my first wave. I took off and airdropped 10 feet, my board fishtailed and then I cartwheeled three times down the wave. I got licked. I hit my knee, too. I surfed the rest of the day with one arm basically. I want to go back and surf the rest of the winter so I’m hoping it’s not going to be that bad.
How the hell did you get back out there and catch some bombs after that?
Lots of adrenaline and the will to finish off the day. This was my last Eddie, a farewell event for Uncle Clyde, so I wanted to keep going. I’m passing on the torch to my son, Ha’a Aikau and all those younger guys—Koa Rothman, Mason Ho and John John. This was my last ride and I wanted to give it 110 percent no matter what. I went to the doctor’s tent and I told the doctors to do whatever they can. So they shot me up with IVs all over my arm.
No more bad wipeouts after that?
Well, after my mean wipeout, I looked outside and there was a huge set. I paddled, paddled, paddled, but I got caught. I got nailed. It grabbed me, took me down 50 feet and swallowed me like a dog. It took me to the bottom and didn’t let me up. I finally pulled my cord and I still had to fight like heck to get up to the surface. When I finally came up, the entire place was quiet like a church. As far as I could see from where I was in the impact zone, it was snow white. The foam was 6 inches thick and there was nobody around.
Were you nervous going into the event?
I slept probably one hour the night before. When I woke up, the waves were gigantic. Thirty to thirty-five feet plus, Hawaiian scale, 60-70 feet on a national scale with bigger closeout sets. But I came into the event with a lot of confidence, because I surfed the whole winter. A couple weeks ago we surfed Waimea about the same size. I was getting some really good rides the weeks leading up to the event and was holding my own too with all the younger guys. I mean, dropping into 25-30 feet waves, Hawaiian size, and feeling comfortable about it. So I felt really good about everything.
What was it like surfing against the young guns? Guys like Koa Rothman and John John?
You know, it wasn’t a big thing to me because I surfed with them the whole winter and we go wave for wave. Those young guys weren’t like, “I’m going to give Uncle Clyde any wave he wants.” It was still a battle and I like it that way. Nobody has to give me waves; I can catch my own waves. Surfing against John John was like surfing against anybody else. But if I were surfing against him in 5-foot waves, I would have said, “Ho, I give up!”
Still, being out there at 66 is impressive, and inspiring, to say the least.
I’m still feeling good at 66, actually. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel really calm out there. I know what my body can do. I’ve been getting hundreds of texts thanking me, saying, “Uncle Clyde, you inspired my 55-year-old dad to grab his bicycle and go bike around the corner.” Or, “You inspired my grandfather who is 61 years old to paddle his SUP board.” When I go to Costco I get mobbed by people thanking me for being an inspiration.
Tell me about the vibe on the beach. It seemed everyone was so stoked to see you out there.
When I was going down the beach on the tractor, the crowd was going nuts. It felt like there were 10,000 people on the beach. They were all standing up as I came by and they were shouting, “Uncle Clyde, Uncle Clyde, Uncle Clyde!”
A lot of people were calling this Brock Little’s swell. Were you close with Brock?
No, I wasn’t really close with Brock, but we always had a good relationship. I really respected his surfing in the 1990 event and I really respected the famous wave he caught and how he charged Waimea Bay. I just want to say that Mason Ho, Koa Rothman and those guys did the exact same thing in this event. I think Brock’s wave was like an average wave during the Eddie this year.
How do you think this Eddie event compared to previous years?
The waves on this year were the biggest the event has ever seen. End of story. This event is going to be a tough one to duplicate. There will be other events that will see bigger waves, but there’s no way any other event will get the kind of respect and coverage that this one had. It will go down in history as one of the greatest, phenomenal events in the world and in the history of surfing. And I can tell you now that it wasn’t only the waves. It was the spirit of Eddie and what his legacy is all about. If you talk to anybody from Hawaii about the Eddie, they immediately start crying, you know? This event in Hawaii is like the biggest thing that ever happened in Hawaii.
You won the event yourself in 1986, correct?
I did. You know, my whole attitude was like how Mason and Koa act right now. Just charging no matter how big, you know? I think I was 33 years old when I won. I was a bull. I didn’t hold back. Holding back is the negative rule in riding big waves. When you paddle for a wave, you’ve got to go 101 percent.
When did you first start surfing Waimea?
1969, and I’ve surfed almost every swell since then. I had a Bob Sheppard balsa wood board that I used when I took on Waimea for the very first time. Eddie started surfing Waimea two years before that, when I was only 16 or 17.
Did he give you advice out there?
When me and Eddie got into riding gigantic Waimea, that’s when we really bonded. Eddie would watch me and say, “Hey Clyde, outside. Hey Clyde, go left. Clyde, go deeper.” That’s when the teaching started, when it got gigantic. My respect for my brother was just out of this world. We were best friends, best brothers, best everything. We’d chase the haole girls together, play music together, party together, have some beers together. We did everything together. We saved lives together. We surfed the biggest waves in the world together.
What do you think Eddie would have said if he saw the waves that Thursday?
He would’ve been the first guy out there in the morning and charging [laughs]. He always wanted to unite the Hawaiian people. When Eddie won the Duke Kahanamoku Championships in 1976, he dedicated his win to the people of Hawaii. In 1978, when he sailed on the Hokulea, his purpose was to unite the Polynesian community—Tahiti, New Zealand, Fiji. He wanted to bring the people together again. And 50 years later, during the Eddie Aikau Invitational that Thursday, he brought the entire state of Hawaii together once more.
What are you doing when you’re not surfing gigantic waves nowadays?
Well, I got a part-time job with the Department of Education in 2006. I take care of kindergarten to 12th-grade students in the really depressed districts of Honolulu. My job is to make sure they have breakfast and lunch and school supplies and transportation. It’s a great job when you help people, but it’s a tearjerker when you can’t. But I love to help people. I’ve been doing that my whole life. We also have a three-acre farm in Waimanalo for dog boarding and dog training. We have 20 to 30 dogs at one time. I also still have my surf school.
Jeez, you’re busy. You sure you still want to retire from competing? What if the event runs next year?
You know, Eddie Rothman and all the boys on the North Shore know me really well and they know how I keep in shape. They’re all telling me to go another year, but I’ve already decided. I wanted to go out on a high. I had fun out there, but I said that this is going to be my last time surfing in the Eddie. It’s definitely not going to be my last time surfing big waves, though [laughs].
Are there any other big wave spots that you want to surf?
Pe’ahi. I’m in no rush in surfing Jaws, but it’s just something that I need to do. I tow-surfed it at 25 feet, but I haven’t paddled into it. The last event they had there, I had no doubt that I could have rode those waves. No doubt. But, I don’t need to prove myself to anyone, and I know what I can do.