Here in Surfing, a look at the Island sport that defines Hawai’i in a way that the Olympics defined ancient Greece. And, for your edification, a ditty on the Duke.


Noho me ka hau’oli. Be happy.

duke kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku reigns supreme in the public esteem because his is the name best associated with one of our most significant cultural icons: surfing. There’s a legend (or a deeper significance of some kind) that attaches itself to virtually every nook and cranny of these islands. The hidden meaning of he’e nalu (“wave riding”) reminds us that that’s how it is with the Hawaiian language. Many–if not most–words have multiple associations that weave an intricate and pervasive skein of meanings. If anyone delved into the business of decoding this place, I suspect that they’d stumble into a parallel universe of some kind, one that’s positively replete with values (including those implicit in surfing) that Westerners have little acquaintance with. Beneath the veneer of civilization, Hawaii is a magical place; its values which offer sorely needed wisdom to the world can still be retrieved and cultivated.

The art of surfing was noted in the journal of Joseph Banks aboard HMS Endeavour on the first voyage of James Cook, while in Tahiti in 1769:

” …their cheif [sic] amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore… “

In Tahiti and Samoa, surfing was both a popular pastime and part of warrior training. Warriors often paddled out to surf breaks and were observed by ship-board European historians as spending many hours bravely paddling head-on into large surf and riding its enormous waves. Canoes often accompanied surfing parties and the men would alternate between canoeing and surfing, and then catch fish on their way home at the end of the day. In Hawaii, surfing became part of the very fabric of Hawaiian religion and culture.

Surfing is a center of ancient Hawaiian culture that long predates Hawaii’s contact with the West, perhaps by a thousand years or more. The most skilled surfers were often of the upper class including royalty, chiefs, and warriors who were entitled to the best wave breaks on the island (some ancient sites, including Kahaluʻu Bay and Holualoa Bay, are still popular today). These ali’i became greatly respected for their mastery of the waves, and they used only the best boards made from the best wood. While commoners were not allowed to share the royalty’s beaches, some commoners became well-known for their own ability to ride the waves.

The ancient Hawaiian people did not view surfing as it is seen today, as sport or recreation. Rather, they made heʻe nalu into a cultural practice. This began with entering the forbidding ocean as prayers were offered to the gods for protection and the strength to engage its powerful forces. If the ocean was calm, wave-riders would call upon the kahuna to aid them by praying to the gods for big waves. But before any of that could happen, the kahuna would assist the royalty with the spiritual dimension of creating a surfboard.

For this purpose, Hawaiians would carefully select one of three types of trees: the koa, the breadfruit, or the wiliwili. Once selected, the surfer would dig the tree out and place fish in the hole as an offering to the gods. Selected craftsmen of the community were then hired to shape, stain, and finish the board for the surfer. There were three primary shapes: the ʻolo, thick in the middle and thinner towards the edges; the kikoʻo, ranging in length from 12 to 18 feet and requiring great skill to maneuver; and the alaia, around 9 feet long and also requiring great skill to ride and master.

After contact with the West, Hawaiian culture was forced to change. While Europeans obsessed over exploring and later colonizing the Pacific, they saw the Hawaiian Islands as specks of land in a faraway sea. Western diseases spread and colonization began, plantations were built, and immigration started. Local Hawaiians, mixed with imported workers from Asia, were put to work on sugar plantations and Protestant missionaries attempted to turn the population from their traditional beliefs into Christians. Along with the suppression of traditional culture was the suppression of surfing, often viewed as frivolous.

It was not until Waikiki became a tourist destination that surfing regained popularity. Wealthy Americans came to the beach and watched locals surfing what had long been an established surf break, Waikiki, and wanted to try it. Mark Twain tried it but failed. Jack London tried it, and chronicled it enthusiastically in “A Royal Sport”, published in October 1907. In 1908, Alexander Hume Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe and Surfing Club, the first modern organization to promote surfing, although it was a de facto whites males-only establishment. Local Hawaiians started their own club in 1911 called Hui Nalu, meaning “Club of the Waves”. The first surfers to gain widespread recognition, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, helped spread it from Waikiki to around the world.

As the news of this new sport began to spread, locals in Waikiki began giving lessons and demonstrations for tourists. They became Waikiki Beach Boys, a loose group of mostly native Hawaiians who hung out at the beach, surfed daily, and taught wealthy haole tourists how to ride waves. This was the foundation of surf culture, imitated around the globe many times in many places.

Surf Webcams

Untold treasures await you in The Great Hawaiian Bazaar!

If you have a taste for history, we invite you to WisdomMaps: The Future of the Past!

Top of Page