Aloha and Welcome to this chapter segment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series on He’e Nalu – “wave sliding” or what we call “surfing” – as it was in early Hawaii.
Riding ocean waves probably began with Austronesians who rode the waves of the open ocean in craft that kept them afloat. In the Pacific Ocean, it was the outrigger and double-hulled canoe that bore these mariners. That surfing stems from a distinct nautically-based culture with a legend-filled history of outstanding watermen is undeniable. The first surfers who rode on wooden boards were watermen who must have initially became noted for their finesse with outrigger and double hulled canoes before taking to mere slabs of wood. Very possibly, the island fishermen who first envisioned a more recreational use for waves, first used them as the fastest means for getting their canoes over the coral reefs and on to the beach with their catch.89
At some undefined stage, catching waves developed from being part of the everyday working skill of the fisherman to being a sport. Instead of being part of work it became play. This change revolutionized surfing.90
“For thousands of years,” wrote 1960s world champion surfer and Hawaiian Fred Hemmings, “cultures living and prospering on the coastlines of the world’s great oceans viewed waves as an adversary of nature.”91 Where these people all saw difficulty, it took the Polynesians to see the fun in it.
Yet, the way of the surfer was not the same as that of the ocean-traversing voyager, sailor or ocean fisherman. As 1960s world champion surfer Mike Doyle pointed out in his autobiography Morning Glass, “The tradition of the waterman comes from Polynesia and is different from the tradition of the sailor. The waterman’s skills include surfing, paddling, rowing, and rough-water swimming. He might also be skilled at diving, fishing, spear fishing, tandem surfing, lifeguarding, and handling outrigger canoes. But he isn’t necessarily skilled at sailing or navigation. The difference is that a waterman focuses on the coastal waters, while the sailor’s realm is the deep water… the watermen who came before me didn’t just go to the dive shop or the surf shop and buy the latest thing on the rack. They designed their own boards, their own dive gear, and their own outrigger canoes. They were constantly thinking and experimenting with other watermen about ways to perfect their gear. Nobody knew then how a surfboard should be designed. The only way to find out what worked and what didn’t was to try it.”92
Wave sliding, a.k.a. surfing — what was termed he’e nalu, in old Hawai‘i93 – is such an old sport, “its actual beginning cannot be traced,” observed Desmond Muirhead in his 1962 personal memoir of Surfing in Hawai‘i. “In ancient Polynesia there was no written language, since both history and legend were handed down by word of mouth from parents to their children. This exchange was usually in the form of chants which were called ‘meles’ in Hawai‘i. There is ample evidence, from the many references in these chants, that the art of surf-riding was one of the most widespread of the Polynesian sports, practiced in one form or another throughout the Pacific region, from New Zealand to Hawai‘i, and from Easter Island to New Guinea.” Muirhead added that, “The types of surfing practiced in Tahiti and Hawai‘i, which are themselves similar, were far more skilled than those found on most of the other Pacific Islands, where surfing on boards was usually practiced by children, and the sport was not well developed.”94
“Simple surfing with a body-board,” suggested Finney & Houston in Surfing, The Sport of Hawai`ian Kings, “may be several thousand years old, as old perhaps as the settling of the Pacific islands... The first Polynesian settlers [in Hawai’i] probably were already skilled in simple surfing, and perhaps after a few hundred years of riding Hawai’i’s waves the uniquely Hawaiian form of the sport was developed.”95
Since he‘e nalu, cannot be traced to its exact beginnings,96 how it developed in its infancy can only be surmised. Yet, there is some hope that future archaeological work in the Pacific will reveal some answers over time. Meanwhile, much of what we know of early surfing is what was recorded by the first Europeans to land in Polynesia in the late 1700s, hundreds of years after the Long Voyages had ended.
At the time of the first Polynesian/European contact on the island of Tahiti, in 1777, British Navigator Captain James Cook described how a Tahitian caught waves with his outrigger canoe just for the fun of it:
“On walking one day about Matavai Point, where our tents were erected, I saw a man paddling in a small canoe so quickly and looking about him with such eagerness of each side, as to command all my attention... He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He then sat motionless and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach. Then he started out, emptied his canoe, and went in search of another swell. I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea...”97
References to the art of surf riding are scattered throughout traditional Polynesian meles – chants or oral history related and told through song. By the end of the Long Voyages, surfing had become one of the most widespread of the Polynesian sports. As Muirhead pointedout, he‘e nalu was practiced in one form or another throughout the Pacific region, from Aotearoa to Hawai‘i, and from Rapa Nui to New Guinea.98
Board surfing became most advanced on islands within the Polynesian Triangle bounded by Hawai‘i, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa.99 In Western Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, surf sports like board surfing were mainly a children’s pastime and usually limited to boys only. By contrast, on most main islands of Eastern Polynesia, surfing became a sport for both sexes and all ages.100 The epicenter of board skill became Hawai‘i, where he‘e nalu made its furthest development.
Assuming that, like most things, surfing started simply and then grew to be more complex, a possible sequence in the origin of Hawaiian surfing might go something like this: 1) From simple body surfing, called he‘e umauma (Hay-ay oo-MAU-ma) in the Hawaiian language, to basic canoe surfing or vice versa; 2) Then came a rudimentary form of surfing, mainly a children’s activity practiced with small body boards.101 This type of simple surfing with a body board – we commonly call it “body boarding“ or “boogie boarding,” today – has been estimated as being several thousand years old and possibly preceeding the settling of the Pacific islands.102 Personally, I believe bodyboarding is far older than that; practiced in many parts of the world at different times and may have even preceded canoe surfing; 3) From the body board, in western Polynesia, sprang an adult sport practiced with bigger boards (papa he‘e nalu);103 5) Afterward, in Hawai‘i, in eastern Polynesia, surfing reached its furthest development up to modern times.104
“Simple board-surfing – in which a swimmer uses a short plank or other aid to ride a wave just for the fun of it – was practiced throughout the Pacific Islands,” Finney and Houston wrote. “Recreational wave-riding was probably part of the general marine adaptation pioneered by the first people to enter the open Pacific. That would date the beginnings of the sport back to almost 2000 B.C.”105
Twentieth Century surfer and innovator Tom Blake fantasized, in the first book ever written solely about surfing, about what surfing must have been like before Europeans landed upon the shores of Polynesia. Taken from Hawaiian Surfboard, published in 1935, here is Blake’s fictional account of a surfer who surfed much in the same way as his forefathers must have done hundreds of years before. The rider is a Hawaiian from the Kealoha family, surfing Waikiki, on O‘ahu:
“There is a high storm surf running, just what the young huskies have been waiting for – zero break. (There is third, second, first break, and anything outside of that is zero break at Waikiki.) The waves are breaking at Kalehuawehe surf, far past the outer edge of the coral reef, maybe a half mile off shore. Our hero is the young Chief Kealoha.
“He will not ask his sweetheart to ride today. It is too dangerous for a girl out there. He selects a beautiful polished fifteen foot board of wili wili from his collection of a dozen – his favorite for single riding on big waves. Many interested eyes watch him as he starts from shore lying prone upon the board, and paddles seaward with perfectly times, powerful strokes. A hundred yards from shore he encounters the inside or third break. He merely stops his stroke, lowers his head, and hangs on. At two hundred yards he is in the midst of a seething mass of foam and slamming breakers – second break; here comes the big one – nearer and nearer, and now it is about to engulf him. He had the board directly at right angles to the wave, or headed squarely into it. Just before the foam touches the end of the board, he slips into the water out of sight. He is under the board hanging on at the stern, and in a second the breaker passes and he is again paddling toward the outer reef. The other seven or eight big waves of the set (they come at intervals or in sets) punish him as the first one did, but he like[s] it, loves it, it is life to his young Hawaiian blood. He soon reaches the first break, some hundred yards from shore, but still continues toward his goal, zero break, there to rest and wait for the next series of waves.
“Kealoha shouts from sheer excitement as he sees the ground swells rise up, blue, then green, out at sea. The surfrider maneuvers to a certain position relative to two land marks on shore. He knows from experience that the big swells will be steep at that place, because the water is slightly shallower there. Minutes pass, the first of the set is about one hundred yards away. It is this suspense that is the extreme thrill of surfriding. The hazard is great. Will he get a clean ride, or will he lose control of the heavy board, giving it a chance to strike him, bruise him, crack his skull, knock him senseless, perhaps kill him? The power of a twenty-five foot wave is tremendous. He knows he has a fifty-fifty chance to ride this monster. For Kealoha has selected the fourth wave of the set. It is better because it is a bit larger and the first three smoothed the chop of the sea as they swept in.
“Kealoha starts paddling toward shore, at right angles to the wave. The breaker is a beauty and he has been watching its approach by glancing back over his shoulder. It is within ten yards of him, towering, active, rushing shoreward, but not yet broken. His heart beats faster, his arms move faster, as the swell comes closer. Instead of crashing over him, the wave lifts – ever so easily, strongly, surely – this great board, this daring boy, until it is just about to pass them. He is high on the crest; it is like looking down off a small cliff. Another deep hard stroke, with all his strength, and he has it.
“The board and rider slide down the face of the twenty yard slope of the wave, as a child with a bob sled coasts down an icy hill. The instant he is on the wave, no more paddling, but there is still much to do. Kealoha moves back on the board a foot to keep the bow from going under. His course is first a tack to the left, then straight for shore, and the round board holds it well and steadily as he guides by steering with feet and legs.
“For the first hundred yards it is just one grand free ride, but as the swell approaches the shallower water it steepens and crashes with a thunderous noise, partly over the surfrider. He is out of sight an instant in the boiling foam, but Kealoha straining every muscle and steering by judgment, wins; the great momentum of the board has carried him ahead of the break, and it is quite a simple matter to ride the wave for two or three hundred yards more. He relaxes a bit, and shouts for joy, for he has conquered.
“Kealoha repeats the performance for hours. Sometimes successfully, sometimes having his board torn from him and having to swim in over the dangerous reef for it, in the churning foam. He finally calls it a day and comes to the beach, tired but very happy.”111
89 Young, 1983, p. 1.
90 Young, 1983, p. 1.
91 Hemmings, Fred. The Soul of Surfing is Hawaiian, 1997, unpublished edition.
92 Doyle, Mike with Sorensen, Steve. Morning Glass, The Adventures of Legendary Waterman Mike Doyle, ©1993 by Doyle and Sorensen. Published by Manzanita Press, PO Box 720, Three Rivers, CA 93271, p. 27.
93 The Hawaiian word for surfing he’e nalu (Hay-ay NA-lu) is defined in several ways: 1) v. To ride a surfboard; 2) v. Surfing, literally “wave sliding;” 3) n. Surf rider; and 4) n. the surf. He’e (Hay-ay) is variously defined as: 1) v. To slide; 2) v. Surf; 3) v. Slip or glide; 4) v. Flee; 5) n. A flowing, as of liquid; 6) n. Menstruation; 7) n. A flight, as of a routed army; 8) n. The squid, so called because of its slippery qualities; 9) v. To change from a solid to a liquid substance; and 10) v. Run as a liquid. The second part, nalu (NA-lu), refers to: 1) n. Wave; 2) n. Surf; 3) v. Full of waves; 4) v. To form waves; 5) adj. Wavy, as wood grain; 6) adj. Roaring; 7) adj. Surfing; 8) adj. Rolling in, as the surf of the sea; 9) n. The surf as it rolls in upon the beach; a sea; a wave; a billow; 10) n. The surging motion of a wave; the foaming of a wave; 11) n. The slimy liquid on the face of a newborn child. See Lorrin Andrews, A Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, Lahaina, Maui, 1865; Samuel Elbert and Mary Kawena Pukui, Hawaiian Dictionary, Honolulu, 1971; Nat Young, History of Surfing, ©1983, Palm Beach Press, N.S.W., Australia.
94 Muirhead, Desmond. Surfing in Hawaii, A Personal Memoir, “With Notes on California, Australia, Peru and Other Surfing Countries,” ©1962, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona, p. 1. See also Finney & Houston, p. 24. Meles date back to at least the 15th century A.D. See Young, p. 31.
95 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 24.
96 See Andrews, 1865; Elbert and Pukui, 1971; Young, 1983.
97 Quoted in Young, 1983, p. 31. See also Lueras, p. 46; and Cook’s Voyages, Volume 2, Chapter 9.
98 Muirhead, 1962, p. 1. See Finney & Houston, 1966, pp. 21 & 24. See also Young, 1983, p. 31.
99 Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 22. See map of the Polynesian Triangle, same page.
100 Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 32.
101 Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 34.
102 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 24.
103 Papa he‘e nalu (pa-pa HAY-ay NA-lu), n. – surfboard. Literally, “A board for sliding waves.”
104 Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 34.
105 Finney & Houston, 1996, p. 21.
111 Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 6-7. Used by permission. Blake’s parenthesis.