Friday, August 5, 2022

Traditional Hawaiian Surf Culture

Aloha and Welcome to this chapter segment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series on Surf Culture in the Hawaiian Islands prior to European contact.

He‘e nalu (Hay-ay na-loo) – board surfing – and kaha nalu (ka-ha na-loo) – body surfing – were woven into every aspect of Hawaiian life.1 Indeed, sports and dancing had a high priority for the Hawaiian people before Europeans landed upon their shores in the late 1700s. Like most all other Polynesians, the Hawaiians took time to enjoy their lives. When it came to the ocean, men, women and children, chiefs and commoners alike spent much of their time in the water. As for surfing, nearly every Hawaiian, rich or poor, young or old, owned a surfboard of varied sizes. Surf competitions and water festivals were common and there was widespread wagering on their outcome. More than any other Polynesian people, the Hawaiians were the great gamblers of the Polynesian Triangle. During a surfing match, in an impulsive moment, a man could sometimes bet his entire worldly possessions. If he lost, he might then go on to bet his “body or his bones and thus chance losing his life or his liberty” at the hands of or in service to the winner.2

The surfing beaches upon which they played provided a staging ground for their ocean sports and “also provided a meeting place for the different sexes,” wrote Desmond Muirhead, in Surfing In Hawaii. “The Hawaiians [of old] were ever renowned for their lack of inhibitions, and sexual freedom was taken for granted. In the early days relations between the sexes had no serious consequences, and it was not until the white man brought his dreaded diseases to the Islands that difficulties arose. Children were never a problem – all Hawaiians loved children extravagantly, and there was no such word as orphan in the Hawaiian language. It was not conceivable that a Hawaiian child should be without a home.”3

The first outsiders to witness surfing and later write about it were the crewmembers on the Cook expeditions of the late 1700s. These Europeans first viewed surfing in Tahiti, then on the Hawaiian Islands of Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i. Wave riding made a definite impression on them. As an example, after British Captain James Cook sailed into the Kona Coast’s Kealakekua (Ke-ala-ke-kua) Bay, in 1779, Cook’s Lieutenant James King was particularly impressed with duck diving off the island of Hawai‘i:4

“The surf, which breaks on the coast around the bay,” wrote King, “extends to the distance of about 150 yards from the shore, within which space the surges of the sea, accumulating from the shallowness of the water, are dashed against the beach with prodigious violence. Whenever, from stormy weather or any extraordinary swell at sea the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost height, they choose this time for this amusement... Twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet they plunge under, and suffering it to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way by swimming out into sea. The second wave is encountered in the same manner as the first; the great difficulty consisting in seizing the proper moment of diving underneath it, which, if missed, the person is caught by the surf and driven back again with great violence, and all his dexterity is then required to prevent himself being dashed against the rocks.

“As soon as they have gained by these repeated efforts, the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their boards and prepare for their return. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always much larger than the others, and to flow higher on the shore... their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore...”5

As “a part of the fabled Hawaiian way of life of pre-European times,” wrote Ben Finney and James Houston in Surfing, the Sport of Hawaiian Kings, “surfing was more than just catching and riding an ocean wave. It was the center of a circle of social and ritual activities that began with the very selection of the tree from which a board was carved, and could end in the premature death of a chief.”6

Surfing was such an important part of the Hawaiian culture that it played an integral part of Hawaiians’ daily life and seasonal observances. For instance, in Traditions of Hawaii, 19th Century Hawaiian scholar Kepelino Keauokalani (1830-1878) told of surfing before the sun came up and, particularly, what began in ‘Ikuwa – November, the month named in honor of the “deafening” winds, storms and waves that begin the winter season. It was at this time of the year that Hawaiians became particularly hopupu – what we surfers call stoked:7

“It is a month of rough seas,” recalled Keauokalani, “and high surf that lure men to the sea coast. For expert surfers going upland to farm, if part way up perhaps they look back and see the rollers combing the beach, will leave their work, pluck ripe banana leaves, ti leaves and ginger, strip them, fasten them about their necks and stand facing the sea and holding sugar-cane in their hand, then, hurrying away home, they will pick up the board and go. All thought of work is at an end, only that of sport is left. The wife may go hungry, the children, the whole family, but the head of the house does not care. He is all for sport, that is his food. All day there is nothing but surfing. Many go out surfing as early as four in the morning – men, women, children.”8

Early European writers observed the popularity, stoke and oftentimes-passionate dedication with which Hawaiians treated their surfing. The European newcomers had the dubious distinction of being the first documented haoles (non-Hawaiians), but were observant enough to refer to surf riding as “a national pastime,” “a most prominent and popular pastime,” or “a favorite amusement.”9

In the early 1820s, the British ship Blonde stopped in Hawai‘i – what the British had earlier named the “Sandwich Islands” – and her commander Lord Byron – cousin of the poet – noted, “to have a neat floatboard, well-kept, and dried, is to a Sandwich Islander what a tilbury or cabriolet, or whatever light carriage may be in fashion is to a young English man.”10

In 1823, the missionary C. S. Stewart observed that on Maui the surfboard was “an article of personal property among all the chiefs, male and female, and among many of the common people.”11 Noted scholar Kenneth Emory confirmed the care that was taken towards board maintenance: “After use, those who cared for their boards dried them thoroughly, then oiled them, wrapped them in cloth, and suspended them in the house.”12

C. S. Stewart wrote that big surf was most desired and that large numbers of Hawaiians surfed under those conditions. After a particularly large swell hit the Lahaina coast, off Maui, the larger surf provided “A fine opportunity to the islanders for the enjoyment of their favorite sport of the surfboard. It is a daily amusement at all times, but the more terrific the surf, the more delightful the pastime to those skillful in the management of the boards... hundreds at a time have been occupied in this way for hours together.”13

William Ellis, the missionary who hiked around the big island of Hawai‘i, described local mass-reaction to a big swell that hit, unexpectedly: “the thatch houses of a whole village stood empty... daily tasks such as farming, fishing and tapa-making were left undone while an entire community – men, women and children – enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water.”14

The natural tendency of the Hawaiian people to just go out and play in the surf, subject to the beckon of the ocean swells, was mostly looked down upon by the Europeans that came to the Islands in the late 1700s and 1800s. Phil Edwards, champion surfer and stylist of the 1960s, in his book You Should Have Been Here An Hour Ago: The Stoked Side of Surfing; Or, How to Hang Ten Through Life and Stay Happy, published in 1967, pointed out that this aspect of surfing has not changed for centuries and then mocked: “Disgraceful. But that is surfing, missionary brethren, and the urge still runs strong today to drop everything and head out into the water. Unhappily, not all us modern tapa makers... can do it. Civilization has forced a certain discipline on us and we bow with responsibilities. (Still, I occasionally yield to the urge when things get tough; stalk out of the shop and go down to Wayne’s house, pick up my board and stamp out into the water. The pressures of the day are suddenly eased. And if someone should approach me in one of my transitory moods and say, ‘What are you doing out here, Edwards?’ I can always say, ‘I’m designing a new surfboard. What the hell do you think I am doing?’)”15


1  Muirhead, Desmond. Surfing In Hawaii, A Personal Memoir, “With Notes on California, Australia, Peru and Other Surfing Countries,” Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona, ©1962, p. 2.

2  Muirhead, 1962, p. 2.

3  Muirhead, 1962, p. 2.

4  Duck Diving v. Where the surfer pushes down on the front of the nose of the board to dive under a breaking or broken wave (JP); a method of diving with the board under an oncoming wave on the way out through the break (NAT, 1985).

5  Young, Nat. History of Surfing, Palm Beach Press, 40 Ocean Road, Palm Beach, N.S.W. 2108, Australia, ©1983, p. 31.  See also Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 36-37 and Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 32.

6  Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, C. E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, ©1966, p. 35. See also Finney and Houston, 1996, p. 27.

7  Lueras, Leonard. Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure, Workman Publishing, New York, NY, ©1984, p. 31.

8  Keauokalani, Kepelino (1830-1878). Traditions of Hawaii. Quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 31.

9  Finney, Ben and Houston, James D. Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, Pomegranate Artbooks, Rohnert Park, California, ©1996, p. 27.

10  Byron, Captain, the Rt. Hon. Lord. Voyage of HMS Blonde to The Sandwich Islands, 1824-25, London, published in 1826, p. 97. See also Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 35. In the Britain of the 1800s, a cabriolet was a light, two-wheeled, hooded, one-horse carriage. The term was later adopted for use in describing early automobiles resembling convertible coupes.

11  Stewart, C. S. A Residence in the Sandwich Islands, Boston, published 1839, p. 196.  See also Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 35.

12  Emory, Kenneth P. “Sports, Games, and Amusements,” Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, “A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Kamehameha Schools,” C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Rutland, Vermont, ©1965. Ninth printing, 1981, p. 149.

13  Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 35-36.

14  Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 35-36.

15  Edwards, Phil and Ottum, Bob. You Should Have Been Here An Hour Ago: The Stoked Side of Surfing; Or, How to Hang Ten Through Life and Stay Happy, Harper and Row, ©1967, p. 165.

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