Eddie did go

WAILEA – Everyone knows Eddie Would Go – but few know where or when or what those words really mean.

The Maui Film Festival opened its 14th season Wednesday by telling his story, screening “Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau” for a record audience of about 3,500 at the Celestial Cinema at the Wailea Gold & Emerald Golf Course. The festival is now in full swing, continuing through Sunday with screenings, parties, filmmaker panels and other events at the Wailea resort and a full schedule of screenings at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.

Despite the almost mythic qualities ascribed to the iconic Hawaiian waterman, who made his name riding big waves on Oahu’s North Shore in the ’70s and became the first lifeguard on that part of the island before joining the crew of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule’a, his story hasn’t been told on screen or even in the surfing press, said the film’s director, Sam George.

“Eddie Would Go” adorns bumper stickers and T-shirts. “The word ‘hero’ gets thrown around a lot,” said George. “But Eddie was a real hero. Not because he rode big waves. Big wave riders do that for fun. But Eddie was different. He cared about other people, and he put his life in jeopardy for others. That was even more heroic than the image that has been portrayed.”

His last act of heroism came when Hokule’a was capsized by a freak storm in the Molokai channel, and Eddie set out for help on a surfboard, never to be seen again.

Eddie’s brothers, Clyde and Sol, and sister, Myra, attended the opening night tribute before the screening. Hokule’a navigator Nainoa Thompson also was honored at the tribute when he was presented with the festival’s Visionary Award.

George made the film with filmmaking partner Stacy Peralta. It was the Hawaii premiere for the production, which is part of the “30 for 30” series, presented by ESPN.

While Aikau’s reputation is well known in the islands, his is the sort of human story behind the athletic achievements that the ESPN series illuminates.

“People have an appetite for things they don’t know about,” said Jay Jay Nesheim, director of ESPN Films & Digital Programming.

But the most vivid recollections of Aikau came from Thompson, himself a legend in modern Hawaiian sea lore as the man who has guided Hokule’a, a traditional voyaging canoe, on many of the 11 deep-sea trans-Pacific voyages, which have covered 135,000 miles, or five circumnavigations of the globe at the equator.

“It never goes away. It was 35 years ago, and it never goes away,” said Thompson of Aikau’s fateful last night. “It was really a really rough time. The winds were gale. The Hokule’a was completely turned over, fully rigged, underwater. The only thing on sea level was one hull that had air trapped in it, and one keel. The waves were 10 to 12 feet, out of the north. They were knocking you off, and it was cold. Hypothermia was an issue. And nobody knew where we were.

“There were 14 of us on this keel, and you couldn’t even talk to the people on either side of you, because you couldn’t hear. But there was a surfboard on board, and there was a choice. I wasn’t part of that choice.

“The pain and the hurt and the shame, it never goes away for me. But then you come here, and not just the story doesn’t go away, but the strength and the power continue and grow. Eddie’s family – amazing family, beautiful family – they’re the strongest family I know, and the most forgiving. They’re here.

“So tonight is a beautiful night, it’s a celebration.”

Amid its screenings and other events, the festival will honor multi-Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain with an award tribute Saturday night, and 23-year-old actress Brie Larson with a tribute Sunday night, both at the Celestial Cinema.

Actress Kirsten Dunst had to cancel her festival appearance due to a death in her family, according to festival sources.

For more details on the Maui Film Festival, visit www.mauifilmfestival.com or call 572-3456.

* Rick Chatenever can be reached at rickchatenever@gmail.com.