On Captain James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific, his ships, HMS Discovery and Resolution, made the first recorded European visit to Hawai’i in 1778, when they stopped at the western end of the island chain on their way from Tahiti to the northwest coast of North America. After a frustrating year fruitlessly looking for a passage from the North Pacific into the Atlantic, Cook brought his ships back to the Hawaiian chain, this time stopping at the Big Island of Hawai’i. There, at Kealakekua Bay, Cook was killed by Hawaiians when he made a misguided attempt to kidnap their high chief to force the return of a stolen boat.
Lieutenant James King was made First Lieutenant of the Discovery and was given the task of completing the narrative portion of Cook’s journals. After Cook’s death in 1779 but before the Discovery and Resolution returned to England, Lt. King devoted two full pages to a description of surfboard riding, as practiced by the locals at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island. His following entry is the earliest written account of surfing.
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.
Thus, Lieutenant James King, commander of the Discovery, 1779, recorded in the ship’s log the first written description of Hawaiian surfing by a European.
By 1779, riding waves lying down or standing on long, hardwood surfboards was an integral part of Hawaiian culture. Surfboard riding was as layered into the society, religion and myth of the islands as baseball is to the modern United States. Chiefs demonstrated their mastery by their skill in the surf, and commoners made themselves famous (and infamous) by the way they handled themselves in the ocean. Anthropologists can only guess at the origin and evolution of wave-riding and surfboard construction in Polynesian culture, since there’s no certainty about the timeline and movements of the Polynesians. Around 2000 B.C., the migration of humans out of Asia and into the eastern Pacific began, and Polynesians established themselves within a large triangle, with Aotearoa (New Zealand) at the south point, Tonga and Samoa along the western boundary and Tahiti and the Marquesas to the east.
Forced to migrate into the vast region by the push of population and the pull of the horizon, the first Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the fourth century A.D. The Polynesians who made the arduous journey from Tahiti and the Marquesas to Hawai’i were necessarily exceptional watermen and women who brought a deep love and knowledge of the ocean with them. The Polynesians who made it to Hawai’i also brought their customs with them, including playing in the surf on paipo (belly) boards. Although Tahitians are said to have occasionally stood on their boards, the art of surfing upright on long boards was certainly perfected if not invented in Hawai’i.
When Captain Cook arrived in Hawai’i, surfing was deeply rooted in many centuries of Hawaiian legend and culture. Place names had been bestowed because of legendary surfing incidents. The kahuna (experts) intoned special chants to christen new surfboards, to bring the surf up and to give courage to the men and women who challenged the big waves. Hawaiians had no written language until the haole (white-skinned people) arrived, so their genealogy and history were remembered in songs and chants. There were legendary stories of love matches made and broken in the surf, lives risked and heroic ocean deeds by chiefs and commoners.
Before contact with Cook’s crew, Hawai’i was ruled by a code of kapu (taboos) which regulated almost everything: where to eat; how to grow food; how to predict weather; how to build a canoe; how to build a surfboard; how to predict when the surf would be good, or convince the Gods to make it good. Hawaiian society was distinctly stratified into royal and common classes, and these taboos extended into the surf zone. There were reefs and beaches where the ali’i (chiefs) surfed and reefs and beaches where the commoners surfed. Commoners generally rode waves on paipo (prone) and alaia (stand up) boards as long as 12 feet, while the ali’i rode waves on olo boards that were as long as 24 feet.
Several of Hawaii’s most famous chiefs, including Kaumuali’i, the ruling chief of Kaua’i and Kamehameha I, were renowned for their surfing ability. Ali’i could prove their prowess by showing courage and skill in big waves, and woe betide the commoner who crossed into surf zones reserved for the ali’i. On the south shore of Oahu, at Waikiki, the surf spot now known as Outside Castles was called Kalehuaweke by the Hawaiians to commemorate an incident in which a commoner dropped into the same wave as a Hawaiian chiefess, which was a major taboo. To save his own skin, he offered her his lehua wreath to placate her.
By the time Captain Cook and his ships reached the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, the art, sport and religion of surfing had reached a sophisticated peak. But what Cook and Lieutenant King described in Tahiti and Hawai’i was the zenith of the sport in Old Polynesia, because in the wake of the Resolution and the Discovery, Hawai’i and Hawaiian surfing fell into decline for more than 150 years. European contact was not good for Hawai’i. After the publication of Cook’s and King’s journals, Hawai’i became the central Pacific destination of choice for captains, brigands, adventurers, missionaries and other opportunists. The haole brought new technologies, languages and Gods, along with vices and diseases that ravaged a society that had evolved over more than a millennium.
Haole and Hawaiian cultures were thrown together in swift collision at the end of the 18th century, and within the first 20 years of the 19th century, Hawai’i was changed forever. In 1819, less than 50 years after Cook made contact with the Hawaiians, Liholiho, the son and successor of Kamehameha I publicly sat down to eat with his mother and other high chiefesses. Men eating with women had been taboo since the beginning of time, but Liholiho had been swayed and overwhelmed by the overpowering influence of haole culture. His defiance of a cornerstone taboo sent a message throughout Hawai’i that the old system of laws was no longer to be followed, which dealt a fatal blow to the kapu system.
As the kapu system crumbled, so did surfing’s ritual significance within Hawaiian culture. Now a commoner could drop in on a chiefess without fear for his life, or even giving up his lehua wreath. The end of the kapu system also brought about the demise of the Makahiki festival, the annual celebration to the god Lono in which surfing played an integral role. But now that the Hawaiians had been set adrift from the old ways, Hawaiian culture fell into chaos. As James D. Houston and Ben Finney wrote in Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian 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 undermining of Hawaiian culture accelerated in 1820, when the first of the Calvinistic Christian missionaries arrived from England and began to convert the Hawaiians from polytheism to the one True God, whose son was Jesus Christ. The Hawaiian chiefs resisted this new God for a time, but within a decade this new strict, moral Christian code was replacing the kapu system and the Hawaiian’s sensual way of life.
The Calvinists insisted that the Hawaiians wear more clothes, learn to read and write, work more and play less. Restrictions on play included surfing. People who knew Hawai’i before and after accused the missionaries of ruining much of what was unique and good about Hawai’i, and that included discouraging Hawaiians from surfing.
As early as 1838, a visitor to Hawai’i noted that:
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.
Harsh words, which drew a response from Hiram Bingham, one of the staunchest defenders of the missionary position: “The decline and discontinuation of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry and religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it.” (Houston and Finney, Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport.)
The “oppressive enactments” of the missionaries were those very things: modesty, industry and religion. The missionaries frowned upon or forbade wearing loin cloths, gambling and the close intermingling of men and women on land and sea. With this enforced modesty and morality applied to surfing, Hawaiians very quickly lost interest in the sport. To put it in a modern idiom, if you couldn’t bet money or get naked or meet chicks, where was the fun?
The only thing dying faster than Hawaiian culture were the Hawaiians themselves. Ravaged by diseases, alcohol and other poisons brought ashore by the flood of post-Cook haole, the Hawaiian population dwindled from somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 natives at the time of Cook’s arrival, to a mere 40,000 by 1896.
Despite the imposed Calvinistic morality, surfing didn’t disappear altogether from Hawai’i in the 1800s. While not practiced as widely and relentlessly as when Europeans first came, surfing continued throughout the islands. At times, even an adventurous visitor would catch a wave, sit on top of the world and then tell the world all about it.
In 1851, the Reverend Henry T. Cheever observed surfing at Lahaina, Maui and wrote about it in his book, Life in the Hawaiian Islands, The Heart of the Pacific As it Was and Is. “It is highly amusing to a stranger to go out to the south part of this town, some day when the sea is rolling in heavily over the reef, and to observe there the evolutions and rapid career of a company of surf-players. [The sport of surfing] is so attractive and full of wild excitement to the Hawaiians, and withal so healthy, that I cannot but hope it will be many years before civilization shall look it out of countenance, or make it disreputable to indulge in this manly, though it be dangerous, pastime.”
Fifteen years later, Mark Twain sailed to the Hawaiian Islands and tried surfing, describing it in Chapter XXXII of his 1872 autobiographical novel, Roughing It. “I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”
Surfing wasn’t dead in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s, but it was drowning, along with most Hawaiian customs and most Hawaiians. After 125 years of Hawaiian-European contact/conquest, the haole had tried to exercise control over just about everything Hawaiian: their Gods, their culture, their magic, their land and their lives. Of the 40,000 Hawaiians that remained, a handful attempted to resist the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by a coalition of businessmen, plantation owners and missionaries, assisted by U.S. marines. The Hawaiians asserted their native rights to maintain Hawai’i as a sovereign nation under Hawaiian control. When Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to roll back haole control of the kingdom in 1893, the foreigners overthrew and imprisoned her. In 1898, the United States annexed Hawai’i as a territory.
By the turn of the 20th Century, surfing had all but disappeared in the Hawaiian Islands. Most of the surfing took place at Kalehuawehe on the south shore of Oahu, with a few surfers at spots on Maui, Kauai and the other islands. Honolulu had become Hawai’i’s largest city with one out of every four Hawaiians living there, but surfing on the reefs where hundreds had once cavorted was now a rarity. There are some famous photos from the early 1900s of native men wearing loincloths, with Diamond Head and little else in the background. These were solitary men, most likely posing for the camera, standing alone where at one time hundreds had surfed.
Ironically, it was three haole who were instrumental in the rebirth of surfing in the Hawaiian islands, and it was a fourth man, a native Hawaiian, who was instrumental in pollinating surfing around the world.
In 1907, Jack London came to Hawai’i as a literary lion, having already published three best-selling adventure novels: The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang. London and his wife Charmian were celebrities when they came to Waikiki in 1907 and stayed on the beach where the Moana Hotel now stands. There were a few surfers on the beach at Waikiki at that time, a loose clique of Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians who formed a club called the Waikiki Swimming Club. London met that crew and was introduced to the joy of surfing by Alexander Hume Ford, an eccentric journalist and wanderer. Ford took London surfing, and there London met the most celebrated Waikiki beach boy of the time, a 23-year-old Irish/Hawaiian named George Freeth. London was a renowned writer, Ford a habitual organizer and Freeth a great waterman. What they had in common was a love of surfing, and their combined talents breathed life into a dying, beautiful sport–the Sport of Kings.
In 1907 London wrote “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” which included descriptions of Waikiki and Alexander Hume Ford. His story was published in the October, 1907 edition of The Ladies’ Home Companion and again in 1911 as part of The Cruise of the Snark. “Where but the moment before was only the wide desolation and invincible roar, is now a man, erect, full statured, not–struggling frantically in that wild movement, not buried and crushed and buffeted by those mighty monsters, but standing above them all, calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit, his feet buried in the churning foam, the salt smoke rising to his knees, and all the rest of him in the free air and flashing sunlight, and he is flying through the air, flying forward, flying fast as the surge on which he stands. He is a Mercury–a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea.”
One of the boys riding upon the crests of waves was George Freeth, whom London encountered during surf sessions with Alexander Hume Ford. London described Freeth glowingly, “I saw him tearing in on the back of [a wave] standing upright with his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn.” London’s celebrity and power was such that in 1907, Freeth was invited to California by railroad and real estate magnate Henry Huntington. Freeth was asked to put on a demonstration of wave-riding in southern California to promote the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway. Freeth accepted the invitation and earned the title of The First Man to Surf in California.
However, that title wasn’t exactly true. As early as 1885, three Hawaiian princes visiting Santa Cruz, California from a military academy in San Mateo were reported to have ridden waves at the San Lorenzo Rivermouth on boards shaped from local redwood. Earlier than that, in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana described Hawaiian crews on sailing vessels along the California coast in 1835. Dana tells one story of the Hawaiians gliding through a Santa Barbara shorebreak in their longboat without a hitch, then laughing from shore as the haole boat crew of easterners failed miserably at the same landing. You have to wonder about the Hawaiian boat crews in California in the early 1800s and throughout the century. A surfer is a surfer and a wave is a wave. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has ridden a wave passing perfect Rincon or Malibu and not stopping to catch a few. Who knows how many surfers rode waves in California, but the Hawaiian princes were the first to be recorded and George Freeth was the first to become famous as a surfer.
While London was writing about surfing and Freeth was surfing in front of astonished crowds, Alexander Hume Ford was campaigning on behalf of surfing. In 1908, Ford petitioned the trustees of the Queen Emma Estate to set aside a plot of land next to Waikiki’s Moana Hotel for a club that would preserve the ancient Hawaiian pursuits of surfing and outrigger canoeing. Hume Ford’s fund-raising manifesto described a club that would “give an added and permanent attraction to Hawai’i and make Waikiki always the Home of the Surfer, with perhaps an annual Surfboard and Outrigger Canoe Carnival which will do much to spread abroad the attractions of Hawai’i, the only islands in the world where men and boys ride upright upon the crests of waves.”
Ford presented the manifesto to the trustees of the Queen Emma Estate, and they accepted it. On May 1, 1908 they founded the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club, the first modern club dedicated to the perpetuation of wave-riding. The club offered facilities for dressing and a grass hut for board storage right on the beach.
In 1905, the native Hawaiians began the informal Hui Nalu (surf club), revitalizing native Hawaiian interest in the sport. The Hui Nalu and the Outrigger Canoe Club began friendly competitions, and by 1911 when the Hui Nalu was formalized there were as many as one hundred surfboards on the beach at Waikiki. In 1915 Jack London returned to Hawai’i and was shocked and excited to find the Outrigger Canoe Club had 1200 members, “with hundreds more on the waiting list, and with what seems like half a mile of surfboard lockers.”
A short documentary by Brian Chidester about Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki Beach Boys, a major influence on the surf culture in Hawaii in the early 20th Century.
In 1912, Hawaiian beach boy Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was already famous as a surfer and swimmer. He was credited with developing the flutter kick to replace the scissor kick in freestyle swimming and was the three-time world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. As a surfer, Duke was one of Hawai’i’s best ocean watermen, a beach boy and one of the founders of the Hui Nalu Club. Duke was a fine figure of a Polynesian, slim and muscular and built for speed, blessed with extraordinarily long hands and feet.
In 1912, Duke passed through southern California en route to the summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. His surfing demonstrations at Corona del Mar and Santa Monica caused a sensation much greater than Freeth’s. Duke became world famous by winning an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle in Stockholm and again in Antwerp in 1916. Touted as the fastest swimmer alive, Duke was on the road constantly, giving swimming exhibitions around Europe, the United States and the world. He also became a favorite of Hollywood casting directors, playing Aztec chiefs, Hindu thiefs and Arab princes. On weekends he would take his Hollywood friends surfing, and everywhere he could, Duke used his fame to introduce the world to the sport of surfing.
Rare footage of Duke Kahanamoku surfing wooden longboards and a standup paddleboard (SUP) at Waikiki. This clip was made from an ancient piece of 1930s 8mm ‘Castle’ film supplied by John Mellor of Swaylocks.
In 1915, Duke was invited by the New South Wales Swimming Association to give a swimming exhibition at the Domain Baths in Sydney. Australians were vaguely aware of surfing at the time, and the ocean-crazed people were thrilled when Duke fashioned an 8′ 6″ alaia board out of native Australian sugar pine. Duke rode the board at Freshwater Beach in Manly in February of 1915 and singlehandedly put Australia on a path to superpower status in the surfing world.
Duke was a busy man into the ’20s, competing in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics, hobnobbing in Hollywood and spreading surfing to the world. Back home in Hawai’i in the summer of 1917, Duke rode a now legendary wave at Kalehuawehe, which was now called Outside Castles. He caught a wave that took him well over a thousand yards, from all the way outside Castles, through Elk’s Club, Cunha’s and Queen’s and all the way to the beach. This was a wave and a feat that has never been matched, and another boost for Duke’s enduring legend.
A TV profile of Duke Kahanamoku, the Father of Surfing,
After George Freeth in 1907 and Duke Kahanamoku through the 1920s, the population of surfers in California grew slowly. Surfboards were mostly made of heavy and unwieldy redwoods and hardwoods with designs adapted from Hawaiian shapes to fit California conditions. By 1928, a Wisconsin-born man named Tom Blake organized the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships at Corona del Mar. Top surfers from all over California competed for the Tom Blake Trophy from 1928 to 1941, when World War II put an end to the event. Blake was also the first photographer to shoot surfing from the water.
One of the first southern California men who became enamored with surfing in the ’20s and ’30s was John H. “Doc” Ball, a swimmer and dentist who grew up near Hermosa Beach, and struggled with the heavy, redwood surfboards until he developed the strength and agility to handle them. Doc Ball got hooked by surfing as seriously as any man ever has, finding it “a great stress reliever” to be away from the close confines and pain of the dentist’s chair. Doc Ball was also fascinated by photography and he became the first Californian to go about seriously documenting the surfing lifestyle as it existed before, during and after World War II. He was the second surf photographer, after Tom Blake, to photograph surfing from the water with a waterproof camera housing.
Doc Ball’s classic photo book, California Surfriders 1946, is a masterpiece of the time, showing sturdy men and women enjoying a nearly pristine California coast from La Jolla to Santa Barbara, and on up to Santa Cruz and Pacifica: beach parties with fresh lobster and abalone pulled from the ocean, hardly any traffic along the coast highway and a California coast that was still open and undeveloped. It’s enough to make a resident of the 21st century long for the good old days.
The above excerpt is from Ben Marcus’s “From Polynesia, With Love: The History of Surfing from Captain Cook to the Present,” posted at Surfing For Life, the companion website for the 1999 documentary Surfing for Life by writer/director/co-producer David L. Brown, an award winning San Francisco documentary filmmaker. Roy Earnest, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., a dedicated gerontological social worker and avid surfer, co-produced the documentary. Surfing For Life profiles ten older surfers–seven of whom live in Hawai’i–as inspirational models of healthy and successful aging. Six years in the making, it was the hit of the 1999 Hawai’i International Film Festival where it sold out nine screenings on four islands and won the Golden Maile Award for Best Documentary as well as the Audience Award.
Explaining his interest in “the graying of surfing” on the Surfing for Life website, Mr. Earnest writes:
More and more of us are figuring out that the mere “absence of illness” is not a complete health goal. Instead, we are searching for a more optimal level of wellness that prevents illness and is appropriate for each of us (i.e. your optimal level of wellness may not be the same as your surf buddy’s). We are doing this through regular exercise, improved nutrition, stretching, taking care of ourselves emotionally and spiritually, stress reduction and a whole litany of other methods and techniques. Thanks to the “wellness movement,” we are empowered to take charge of our own health and to become partners with our physicians and other health professionals rather than being passive recipients of their expertise. When we embark on this new health path, the results are obvious–we feel better.
Research in aging indicates that it is almost never too late to start taking care of our health and to achieve a positive outcome. Current longitudinal studies on the impact of better health practices in later life are beginning to show significant results in improved overall fitness. Much of what is considered an inevitable part of aging–arthritis, stroke, heart disease, back problems, skin cancer, etc.–is preventable, modifiable or manageable. From a surfer’s perspective, one interpretation of all of this data is that many under 50 have a good chance of surfing into their 70s and beyond.
The impact of the age wave and wellness movements will continue for many years to come. There is at present an irresistible demographic and societal groundswell for healthy aging, and surfers will help redefine what it means to be an elder. The surfers now over 60 are pioneers, showing us what is possible and prompting many of us to re-consider our own futures in a more hopeful way. Eventually, surfing and many other aspects of active living will lose their exclusive connection to youth. In their place will be a more expanded view of what it means to grow older.
Mr. Earnest’s complete statement is here.
Click here to purchase the Surfing For Life DVD, movie poster and/or t-shirts and discussion guide.
Click here to go to Jack London’s 1907 account of surfing in Hawaii, one of the key documents responsible for rekindling interest in surfing in the Hawaiian Islands.