History of Surfing
There are few sports, or activities or pastimes for that matter, more steeped in history and cultural influence than surfing. How many sports can you think of that predates the written language as far back as 1700 BCE (before common era)? Since when does a sport correlate with your station in life as royalty or commoner? How many sports do you know of that was once not just an integral part of a society, but the core upon which the society functioned? How often do you see an activity or pastime banned by religious influence on a wholesale basis? Even in modern day, how often do you see a sport influence the arts from music to movies to overall counter cultures? Thus is the history of surfing and to know its history is to gain a new found level of respect for this, our “Sport of Kings.”
From Peru With Love
Although most historians suggest that surfing took root in Hawai’i when Polynesians first arrived on the islands in 300 CE (common era), evidence points to the existence and widespread practice of wave riding in Peru as early as 1700 to 750 BCE. That’s 1,500 to 2,000 years earlier than when humans first set foot on Hawai’i. Peruvians in the northern Pacific coast are said to have ridden waves on reed boats. Still referred to today as Caballitos de Totora, they are similar in shape to today’s surfboards but are made from the hollow, buoyant reeds of the indigenous Totora plant. Additionally, pottery dated as early as 1000 BCE unearthed in Peru depicts people riding waves.
He’e Nalu and the Ali’i
Although widespread in Peru, surfing became the core of the social system in the pre-European colonization period of Hawai’i. The act of he’e nalu, or wave sliding, was brought to Hawai’i when it was first inhabited by Polynesians in 300 CE. The Polynesians that made the arduous journey from Tahiti and the Marquesas islands were excellent waterman and women with a deep respect and love of the ocean. They brought with them certain customs including the recreation of playing in the surf on paipo (belly) boards. Not only would the newly founded Hawai’ians prefect the art of standing upright on boards, they would integrate he’e nalu into its very social fabric.
The social stratification of Hawai’i was ruled by a code of kapu, or taboos, regulating every aspect of life from where to eat and how to grow food as well as when, where, and how to surf. In particular, the kapu dictated what you could surf and where you could surf depending on whether you were royalty or a commoner. The ali’i, or high class, were afforded higher quality woods from which to shape their boards and were allowed access to the best breaks on the islands. In contrast, the commoner was relegated to heavier, lower quality woods and were restricted access to the beaches where the ali’i surfed. Chiefs and commoners alike, gained reputation (or notoriety) by how well they handled themselves in the ocean.
In situations where a commoner found himself surfing with an ali’i, dropping in on royalty was cause for punishment and, in some cases, death. Legend has it that on the south shore of Oahu at a surf spot now known as Outside Castles, a commoner had dropped in on a Hawai’ian chiefess. To avert execution, he offered her his lehua wreath as an apology. Other legends abound about how surfing served to settle disputes, prove one’s love, and display one’s bravery.
The surfboard itself was an iconic part of Hawai’ian life. Craftsman held in high regard created surfboards in four basic shapes often corresponding to the rider’s station in life. The paipo or kioe was a body board that measured two to four feet in length and was usually ridden by children. The alaia or omo was a mid-sized board about eight feet or longer and required great skill to ride and master. Intended for the commoner, alaias were made of the heavier koa wood. The kiko’o was typically larger than the alaia measuring 12 to 18 feet in length, and meant for bigger surf but required a high level of skill to maneuver. Lastly, the ‘olo was a very long surfboard reserved for royalty and measured as long as 18 to 24 feet in length. The ‘olo was typically thick in the middle and tapered towards the rails. Although made from the lighter and more buoyant wiliwili tree, their sheer size resulted in boards weighing upwards of 175 pounds.
The process of shaping the board was in itself ritualistic and laboring. After the craftsman selected the wood to be used, a kumu, or ceremonial fish, would be placed in a hole dug near the roots of the tree. Only after this ritual was performed could the tree be cut to construct the board. The wood would then be meticulously chipped and shaved with a bone or stone adze to size. When they achieved the general shape and size of the board they would take it to the halau, or canoe house, near the beach for the finishing touches. Using pohaku puna (granulated coral) or oahi (rough stone), craftsmen would remove the adze marks on the board’s surface. After the board had been sufficiently planed, they applied a black finish to its surface with the root of the ti plant, hili (pounded bark), or the stain from banana buds. Sometimes they acquired the dark stain by rubbing the soot from burned kukui nuts into the wood. Once this black stain had dried, the board’s surface was treated with kukui oil giving it a glossy finish. When the surfboard was finished, its creators dedicated it before its maiden voyage to sea. After each use, it was habitually treated with coconut oil and wrapped in tapa cloth to preserve and protect the wood.
Ritual surrounded not just the creation of the board but every session as well. Before paddling out, Hawai’ians prayed to the gods for protection and strength to undertake the powerful, mystifying ocean. If the surf was flat, frustrated surfers consulted kahunas, or priests, who would assist them in surfing prayer asking the gods to deliver surf.
Enter the Haole
British explorer, Captain James Cook, was the first haole, or white man, to set his sites on the islands of Hawai’i. However, even before reaching the islands, Cook wrote in 1769 the first known account of surfing upon observing a Tahitian catching waves with his outrigger canoe:
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. 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.
While the original intent of his voyage was to find safe passage from the North Pacific to the Atlantic, Cook decided to regroup on the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawai’i after a year of failing to find a route. At Kealakekua Bay, Cook made the misguided attempt of kidnapping a high chief to force the return of a stolen boat resulting in his capture and subsequent execution. Lieutenant James King was made First Lieutenant of Cook’s HMS Discovery after his death. King was credited with the following account of surfers observed at Kealakekua Bay:
But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.
After the publication of Cook’s and King’s journals, Hawai’i became the central Pacific destination of choice for captains and adventurers as well as brigands, missionaries, and opportunists. The haole onslaught would bring to the islands new technologies, languages, and God along with vices, diseases, and ultimately the near extinction of the revered art of surfing.
Onward Christian Soldiers
By 1820, the first of the Calvinistic Christian missionaries arrived from England and began converting the Hawai’ians from polytheism to Christianity thereby undermining the kapu fabric which once held the society in place. Although the ali’i initially resisted this new God, within a decade the strict moral Christian code would replace the kapu system and what was once the sensual, indigenous way of life.
Liholiho, the son and successor of Kamehameha I, a renowned ali’i and skilled surfer, once publicly sat down to eat with his mother and other high chiefesses. This was a blatant disregard for kapu as men eating with women had been considered taboo. Liholiho had been swayed and overwhelmed by the overpowering influence of haole culture, and his defiance of a cornerstone taboo sent a message throughout the islands that the old system of laws was no longer to be followed.
As the kapu system crumbled, so too did surfing’s ritual significance. A commoner could now drop in on the ali’i without fear for his life. The Makahiki festival, an annual celebration to the god Lono who played a significant role in surfing, ceased. The decline of surfing was described in James D. Houston’s and Ben Finney’s book, “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawai’ian Sport”:
For surfing, the abolition of the traditional religion signaled the end of surfing’s sacred aspects. With surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods and other sacred elements removed, the once ornate sport of surfing was stripped of much of its cultural plumage.
The missionaries believed surfing and other Hawai’ian sports to be hedonistic acts and a waste of time. They adamantly preached against the sport’s existence in Hawai’i. A visitor to the islands wrote in 1838:
A change has taken place in certain customs I allude to the variety of athletic exercises, such as swimming, with or without a surfboard, dancing, wrestling, throwing the javelin, etc. all of which games, being in opposition to the strict tents of Calvinism, have been suppressed Can the missionaries be fairly charged with suppressing these games? I believe they deny having done so. But they write and publicly express their opinions, and state these sports to be expressly against the laws of God, and by a succession of reasoning, which may readily be traced, impress upon the minds of the chiefs and others, the idea that all who practice them, secure themselves the displeasure of offending heaven. Then the chiefs, for a spontaneous benevolence, at once interrupt customs so hazardous to their vassals.
In addition to the near extinction of a lifestyle once held by Hawai’ians in the highest regard, they themselves faced near extinction. Along with a strict sense of Christianity, the haoles brought with them diseases, alcohol, and other poisons diminishing the native population from 400,000 to 800,000 at the time of Cook’s arrival in 1778 to a mere 40,000 by 1896.
Upon taking their identity and contributing to their near demise, the haole would take the one last thing the Hawai’ians had – their land. In 1893, a handful of the 40,000 native Hawai’ians that remained attempted to resist what amounted to an illegal overthrow of the Hawai’ian monarchy by foreign businessmen, plantation owners, and missionaries backed by U.S. Marines. When Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to roll back haole control of the kingdom, the foreigners overthrew and imprisoned her. In 1898, the U.S. annexed Hawai’i as a territory. By the early 1900’s, the number of native Hawai’ians had dropped even further constituting only a quarter of the total population of the islands.
Beach Boys of Waikiki
The resurgence of surfing in Hawai’i and its subsequent spread around the world could arguably be credited to a group of locals that spent their days hanging out in Waikiki. By the turn of the 20th century, the missionaries’ influence over the island had begun to decline. In 1905, a group of native surfers that hung out on the south shore of Oahu soon created their own informal surfing club called the Hui Nalu (from which Da Hui is derived), or the Club of the Waves.
In 1908, a petition was presented by foreign surfers to set aside a plot of land next to Waikiki’s Moana Hotel for a another surfing club with the purpose of preserving the ancient Hawai’ian pursuits of surfing and outrigger canoeing. The petition was approved, and on May 1, 1908, the Hawai’ian Outrigger Canoe Club was founded. The Hui Nalu and the Outrigger Canoe Club began friendly competitions. When the Hui Nalu was formalized, there were as many as one hundred surfboards on the beach at Waikiki when not a single sign of surfing could be found just a few decades earlier. Subsequently and to this day, the loose clique of clubs has come to be known as the Beach Boys of Waikiki.
Ironically, it was the chance meeting of three haoles that formed a surfing trifecta which ultimately resulted in the spread of surfing from Hawai’i to the California coast. By 1907, Jack London was already a literary lion enjoying celebrity status when he first visited the shores of Waikiki. He quickly became acquainted with the local surfers and was introduced to a fellow writer and surfer, Alexander Hume Ford. While surfing together, the two befriended a well respected Waikiki Beach Boy, a 23-year old Irish / Hawai’ian named George Freeth.
That same year, London wrote “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” which would be showcased in numerous publications. In the article, London featured a photo of Freeth riding high atop a cresting wave “standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.” The image caught the eye of railroad and real estate magnate Henry Huntington (from which the self-styled, “Surf City” is named) who in turn invited Freeth to California. In an effort to promote the Redondo – Los Angeles railway, Huntington asked Freeth to put on a demonstration of wave riding at what is now the pier at Huntington Beach. By doing so, Freeth earned the title as the first man to surf in California.
(Technically, Freeth was the first man to surf in California and gain recognition for doing so. In 1885, three Hawai’ian princes visiting Santa Cruz from a military academy in San Mateo were reported to have ridden waves at the San Lorenzo Rivermouth on boards shaped from local redwood.)
Arguably one of the most prolific athletes and often referred to as the ambassador of surfing was a Waikiki Beach Boy named Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. He was the quintessential waterman credited with developing the flutter kick to replace the scissor kick in freestyle swimming and was a there-time world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. The Duke was also one of the founding members of the Hui Nalu and considered to have a physique built for the sea.
Believed to be the fastest swimmer alive during his time, the Duke was constantly on the road participating in contests and holding exhibitions all around the world. He became world famous by winning an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm and again in Antwerp in 1916. On his way to Stockholm, he stopped by Southern California to hold a surfing demonstration in Corona Del Mar and Santa Monica which some say caused even more sensation than Freeth’s exhibition in Huntington Beach several years earlier.
In 1915, the Duke was invited by the New South Wales Swimming Association to give a swimming exhibition at the Domain Baths in Sydney, Australia. Vaguely aware of surfing at the time, the Aussies were thrilled when the Duke fashioned an 8’6″ alaia board out of native Australian sugar pine. In February of 1915, he rode the board at Freshwater Beach in Manly and virtually established the surfing movement in Australia.
The end of World War II and the technological developments along with the overall stability that followed marked the start of a golden age for surfing. While lighter materials were already in development in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the invention and application of waterproof glues, fiberglass, resin, and Styrofoam would accelerate advances in surfboard technology. Where boards once weighed over 50 pounds, new materials allowed boards to be significantly lighter while maintaining their strength. The end of the war also brought about an economic and social environment that encouraged leisure activities like surfing.
The post WWII era also brought surfing back to Hawai’i. In 1953, an Associated Press photo of Woody Brown and two other surfers riding a sizeable Makaha wave found its way to newspapers in California and around the world. The photo single handedly resulted in a mass exodus of surfers from California and other states to Hawai’i in search of big waves.
Among the pilgrims were Fred Van Dyke and Peter Cole. Van Dyke was a San Francisco native who learned to surf in Santa Cruz while Cole was a lifeguard and surfer from Santa Monica. They met while surfing in Santa Cruz when Cole was a student at Stanford and Van Dyke was teaching in the Santa Cruz mountains. Van Dyke was in the teacher’s lounge when he saw the Makaha newspaper photo. He quit his job the next day, moved to Hawai’i, and was instrumental in luring Cole and several others to follow him.
The allure of big Hawai’ian waves was not reserved for male surfers. Eve Fletcher and Anona Napoleon were two adventurous and pioneering women who challenged the surf alongside the men. A petite California girl, Fletcher liked to hang out and surf at San Onofre when she wasn’t working as an animator for Walt Disney. Lured across the ocean like the men, she flew to Hawai’i in the ’50s with her friend and surfing mentor, Marge Calhoun. They bought a panel truck from Van Dyke and had the time of their lives living in it “on surfari” throughout Oahu. In 1958, Calhoun won the prestigious Makaha International Surfing Championships while Cole was the men’s winner. Anona Napoleon was the daughter of a celebrated Hawai’ian surfing family who inherited the Hawai’ian talent for canoe racing and riding waves. Napoleon was a world-class competitor in both surfing and kayaking. Although she was temporarily paralyzed in a diving accident, her competitive and indomitable spirit enabled a miraculous recovery. A year after her accident in 1961, she won the women’s division of the Makaha International Surfing Championships.
Much of the mainstream popularity in surfing can be traced to the entertainment industry’s embrace of the sport and lifestyle. No more is this evident than in the 1960’s book-turned-motion picture, “Gidget,” about a young and unnaturally adorable surfer girl bearing the name. Then came the Beach Blanket Bingo movies, the driving surf guitar of Dick Dale, and the sweet surf harmonies of the Beach Boys.
By the mid-sixties, everybody was surfing. Where once there had been dozens of people surfing, now there were thousands. Surfboards were made of composite materials and mass-produced, a far cry from the ceremonial chants and hand-carved hardwoods of ancient Hawai’i. B-movies and surf music such as the Beach Boys and Surfaris based on surfing and Southern California beach culture as it exploded, formed most of the world’s first ideas of surfing and surfers. In 1962, an anonymous sleeve note on the album “Surfin’ Safari,” the first album released on the Capitol Records label by The Beach Boys, read:
For those not familiar with the latest craze to invade the sun-drenched Pacific coast of Southern California, here is a definition of “surfing” – a water sport in which the participant stands on a floating slab of wood, resembling an ironing board in both size and shape, and attempts to remain perpendicular while being hurtled toward the shore at a rather frightening rate of speed on the crest of a huge wave (especially recommended for teen-agers and all others without the slightest regard for either life or limb).
Today, there are few people not familiar with surfing and the industry itself generates billions of dollars in sales with over three million surfers in the U.S. alone – a far cry from the days of the ali’i and the Hawai’ian kapu system. However, along with these advances, today’s surfers are able to enjoy surfboards and surfing equipment the likes of which the Duke and Freeth could only have dreamed about. Ultimately, it benefits us all to understand and honor the sacrifices many watermen and women have made before us to ensure that our Sport of Kings lives on.
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