Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Wahines & Surfspeak

Aloha and Welcome to this installment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series on Wahines and Surfspeak.

Hawaii Surfers, Bettman Archive, Getty Images

All classes, ages and both sexes enjoyed surfriding in pre-European Hawai‘i and it was important in their lives.

Although early European accounts do not mention who surfed the most, eye-witness descriptions usually refer to adult men and women, with occasional reference to children riding smaller boards closer to shore. Except on those beaches where the most dangerous swells peaked, men and women shared surfing areas equally.

Compared to later eras when a low ratio of surfing females-to-males became the norm, a large percentage of wahines of old Hawai‘i were skillful surfers and often champions. Early European engravings of the sport are full of half-dressed island girls perched on surfboards at the top of a curling wave.116

The Hawaiian woman’s lifestyle both in and out of the water was not what we might imagine, today. “Walking around half naked, beating kapa for the family clothing and bedding, weaving lauhala mats, gathering limu (seaweed) and freshwater fish, and bringing up the children,” summarized Kawika Sands in Wahine O Hawai‘i, written in 1999. “Her tools were anything but fancy. Poi pounders, kapa beaters, gourds, bowls, coconut dishes, stone lamps with kukui nuts burning in them for light though it was generally the children’s duty to keep them burning. Getting dressed was somewhat different for these Hawaiian women. They wore a skirt made from five thicknesses of kapa called the pa‘u. By having an attendant or two hold one end on the ground, she rolled herself up into it. Considering her size, it was probably the most streamlined method. It was a humble existence, yet she was freer and more liberated than her sisters across the sea.”117

Kawika continued: “Today’s societal ideal of the beautiful woman was not that of old Hawaiian society. The Chiefess was considered most beautiful if she were at least six feet tall, and almost half as wide. In old Polynesia, fat meant survival particularly when it came to the long ocean crossings. Something Herb Kane suggested in the early days of the sailing canoe Hokule‘a, further suggesting that this may have actually helped to determine the general physical stature of the Polynesian. Basically, it was the bigger, the better and the women were fed to stay that way!

“Hawaiian women swam, surfed, climbed, fished, ran, and were active in sports... She too paddled and steered outrigger canoes if the kapu allowed. She would even fight beside her Hawaiian brothers (although it was not generally encouraged).”118

One of the best known and glorious battles of ancient Hawai‘i was the battle of Nuuanu. This was the final Hawaiian battle that took place on O‘ahu, ushering in the reign of King Kamehameha and the unification of the Hawaiian Islands for the first time. At that battle, a chiefess took up arms against the invading king’s forces. Wearing a helmet and feathered cloak, and using spears and clubs, she fought to the death alongside her men. It was only after the battle was won that Kamehameha found that some of the warriors who had fought so valiantly were actually women.

In an interesting twist, men did most of the cooking. Hawaiian women would later take pity on missionary women who stood over hot stoves and cooked. Actually, building the imu (an earthen oven dug into the ground and lined with stones), opening coconuts, etc. was hard work so these chores, too, fell upon the men to do.119

Ke-kai-o-Mamala, one of O‘ahu’s finest ancient surf spots, was named after the woman Mamala. Thomas Thrum, writing in an 1896 article entitled, “Hawaiian Surf Riding,” stated that, “Native legends abound with the exploits of those who attained distinction among their fellows by their skill and daring in this sport, indulged in alike by both sexes; and frequently too – as in these days of intellectual development – the gentler sex carried off the highest honors.”120

“This equality and sexual freedom,” wrote Finney and Houston, “added zest to the sport and was important to its widespread popularity. No doubt many an amorous Hawaiian, who didn’t feel at all like surfing that day, found himself paddling for the breaker line in pursuit of his lady love, knowing full well that if a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried out in the surf, when a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.”121

Surfing as courtship is corroborated in a story that appeared in one of Honolulu’s first Hawaiian language newspapers, a publication most likely under missionary influence. In the December 23rd 1865 issue of Nupepa Kuokoa, in an article about “Ka Holomana Kahiko” (Ancient Sports of Hawaii), J. Waimau recalled that at surfing contests held in older times, the men, looking like “a company of soldiers of that day,” would wear red-dyed malo (loincloths) and assemble on the beach. Women would make their way to the beach in matching red-dyed kapa skirts. Then, “they (would) go and join together with the men in surfriding. In their surfing, a man and a woman will ride in on the same surf. Such riding in of the man and woman on the same surf is termed vanity, and results in sexual indulgence.”122

Hawaiian legends abound in tales of love affairs gone good and bad and surfing is an element in many of them. “Great romances could blossom or fade with the rising and falling of ocean swells,” noted Ben Finney, adding that passionate adventures of champion surfers, and some of the most famous courtships began on the edge of the ocean and these are all recorded in Hawai‘i’s abundant oral history. These tales indicate surfing’s significance in the daily lives of the Hawaiian people in the before time.123

Early Hawaiian Surf Speak

As it is today, it has always been. As surfers, we have our own language. Ancient Hawaiian surfers were no different. In addition to the more than 107 surfing-specific geographical areas specially noted for their waves and the many meles which relate a rich surfing culture, another gauge of the sport’s importance in the long ago was common daily usage of specific Hawaiian surfing terminology. Researcher Ben Finney documented forty sum terms, but admitted, “this probably represents only a portion of the traditional surfing glossary.”124

The following list is a compilation of some Hawaiian surfing-specific terminology:

· ‘ahua – A place close to shore where a broken wave rises and breaks again, known also as kipapa or puao.

· alaia – A thin surfboard, wide in front and tapering toward the back, made of koa or breadfruit; sometimes called an omo.

· he‘e – To slide, to surf.

· he‘e nalu – To ride a surfboard; surfing; literally wave sliding.

· he‘e pu‘ewai – Toward the mouth of a stream, or up a stream.

· he‘e umauma – Body surfing.

· heihei nalu – A surfboard race.

· honua nalu – The base of a breaker.

· huia – An especially high wave formed by the meeting of two crests, said to characterize the surf of Kaipaloaoa, Hawai‘i.

· kaha – To surf; to body surf.

· kaha nalu – Body surfing.

· kakala – The surf in which an alaia board is used; a curling wave.

· kiko‘o – A 12-to-18-foot surfboard, good for surf that breaks roughly, but is hard to handle.

· kioe – A small surfboard.

· kipapa – The prone riding position; or, a place close to shore where a broken wave rises and breaks again.

· kulana nalu – The place where a surfer paddles to catch a wave; usually the most distant line of breakers.

· lala – Diagonal surf; or surfing diagonally to the front of the wave; a wave to the right; with muku, a wave to the left; or, the seaward side of a cresting wave.

· lauloa – A long wave that crests and breaks from one end of the beach to the other.

· lele wa‘a – Canoe leaping; leaping from a canoe with a surfboard in order to ride the wave.

· muku – The side of a wave near the crest; broken section of a wave; or, a wave to the left (see lala).

· nalu – A wave; surf; full of waves; to form waves.

· nala ha‘i lala – A wave that breaks diagonally.

· nalu puki – A wave that shoots high.

· nalu-nalu – Rough; of a sea with high waves; to form high waves.

· no ka pakaka ale – Gliding on the surf; probably refers mainly to canoe surfing.

· ohu – One of two kinds of surf ridden (the other is lauloa); a low, small wave that rises without breaking but with enough strength to carry a board; sometimes called opu’u.

· olo – The long heavy surfboard reserved for chiefs; made primarily from wili wili.

· omo – Another name for the alaia board.

· onaula-loa – A wave of great length and endurance.

· onini – A surfboard used by experts, difficult to manage; a thick board made of wili-wili; probably the same as olo.

· opu‘u – A large surf, a swell.

· owili – A thick board of wili-wili; probably an olo.

· pa-ha – A surfboard.

· papa he‘e nalu – A surfboard. Literally, a board for sliding waves. Ha’awi papa he’e nalu, to give with the understanding the board would be returned. Boards were loaned rather than given.

· pu‘ua – A surfboard.

Pervasive throughout all aspects of Hawaiian society and culture – including religion, language, festivals, love, competition, song and story – surfing was completely woven into the life fabric of the Hawaiian Islands. Men, women and children all rode the ocean waves on a variety of surfboards. That a surfboard industry existed and was related to Hawaiian religious practices there is no doubt. That surfers rode sometimes to gamble and win great prizes and sometimes to gamble and lose all is sung about in the ancient meles.125

With chants, contests, special terms, numerous places to ride waves, and literally thousands of hand-carved boards to ride upon, surfing was the Hawaiian sport of ali‘i and maka‘ainana alike. Wave sliding was a vital aspect in the lives of the people of this isolated island world when European voyagers landed in 1778 and changed everything.



116  Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 41-42 and the 1996 edition, p. 36.

117 Sands, Kawika.  “Wahine o Hawaii,” from the Hana Hou Series, ©1999.

118 Sands, Kawika.  “Wahine o Hawaii,” from the Hana Hou Series, ©1999.

119 Sands, Kawika.  “Wahine o Hawaii,” from the Hana Hou Series, ©1999.

120  Thrum, Thomas G. “Hawaiian Surf Riding,” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1896, Honolulu, Hawaii, pp. 106-107. See also Finney and Houston, p. 42.

121  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 42 and the 1996 edition, p. 38.

122 Waimau, J.  “Ka Holomana Kahiko,” Nupepa Kuokoa, December 23, 1865.  Quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 38.

123  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 42.

124  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 41.

125  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 56.

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