Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Surfing's Revival (1900-1915)

Welcome to this chapter in the LEGENDARY SURFERS collection, on Surfing's Revival at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

By “1900,” the Father of Modern Surfing Duke Kahanamoku told his biographer Joe Brennan, “surfing had totally disappeared throughout the Islands except for a few isolated spots on Kauai, Maui and Oahu, and even there only a handful of men took boards into the sea.”11

The “handful” were virtually all males, half of them Hawaiian and half of them Caucasian ‑ all under 23 years of age.12 A notable gender exception had been Princess Ka‘iulaini. She left enough of an impression as a wave rider that early Twentieth Century surfrider Knute Cottrell spoke of her to Tom Blake three decades after her passing. “She rode a long olo board made of wili wili,” Cottrell said of the alaia rider. “She apparently was the last of the old school at Waikiki.”13

A contributing factor to surfing’s decline was that by 1900 the number of full-blooded native Hawaiians – the major group surfing – had dropped from an estimated 300,000 in 1778 to less than 40,000 – a figure that also included Hawaiians of mixed blood. By that time, native Hawaiians comprised only 25.7 percent of the total population of the Hawaiian Islands.14

As the Twentieth Century began, the Waikiki area of O‘ahu was the surfing center for the few still riding waves on boards. Only a few surfers were actively riding off Maui, Kaua‘i and tiny Ni‘ihau. Surfing on Hawaii’s former center of surfing – the Kona coast of the Big Island – had virtually disappeared.15 Actually, the shift in surfing activity from the Kona Coast to Waikiki had more to do with population shift than type of wave. Whereas the Big Island had once been the population center, by the turn of the Nineteenth Century, 28% of Hawaii’s people were living in and near Honolulu, on O‘ahu.16

To call Waikiki the “center” of Hawaii’s surfing during this time, is misleading. Hardly anyone was surfing! The large olo boards were no longer made and the alaia and kiko‘o boards in use lacked the kind of craftsmanship and design elements one can readily see in the few Old Hawaiian examples still in existence. Most boards being ridden at the turn of the century were about six feet long and hardly more than rough-hewn planks. At Waikiki, where surfing was at least noticeable, “only a handful would be seen in the surf at any one time,” documented Finney and Houston. Significantly, “riding techniques had regressed.”17

To continue to read the full chapter, and/or download in PDF format, click on the link below:


  1. This is a great example surfers keeping surfing alive. Who else is going to preserve our culture? Thanks for doing God's work.

  2. Great article. It's amazing to see some people surfing olo style boards in this day and age.