The History of Surfing in Hawaii

The warm tropical waters and ideal breaking waves that surround the Hawaiian Islands make Hawaii a true surfing paradise. This ancient sport is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture with surfers arriving from all corners of the globe to test themselves on the large and challenging waves found throughout Hawaii.

While no one knows for sure exactly when, where and who first tried surfing, it was likely attempted first in the Society Islands but later really took hold in the Hawaiian Islands. When Captain Cook landed on Hawaii in 1778, he documented some of the earliest written records that describe surfing, although ancient Polynesians had been surfing for hundreds of years prior to his observance. Hieroglyphics on lava rocks that depict people on surfboards have been found in Hawaii dating back over 500 years – although Hawaiians were likely surfing many centuries before that.

en51Surfing in Hawaiian culture

Surfers today typically consider surfing to be just a sport, but to ancient Hawaiians, surfing was considered to be part sport and part religion as a significant part of Hawaiian culture.

Surfing was even part of the Kapu system of government on the islands which helped to maintain a sense of order as well as societal classes. Surfboards used were divided into classes by the type of wood utilized as well as the length of the board with the largest and heaviest dedicated only for Hawaiian royalty.

The ruling class, or ali’I, used boards that were 14 to 16 feet long and carved out of the buoyant wood of the wiliwili tree, weighing as much as 175 pounds; this massive surfboard was called an olo and used only by the most exceptional surfers.

Surfing competitions were held to settle disputes including social standing, land ownership and even “who got the girl.” In order to maintain a high standing within the community, the island chief had to be the very best surfer, constantly testing his strength and skill in the waves in order to avoid being ousted by someone better.

Near extinction

In the early part of the 19th century, English settlers arrived on the islands and attempted to take control over the people, prohibiting many traditional practices nearly driving surfing practically to extinction. Hawaiian people endured years of oppression until social reform began at the start of the 20th century and a group of native Hawaiians revived surfing. Its resurgence continued and visitors who arrived enjoyed watching the sport with it eventually finding its way back to the mainland.

Surfing on the mainland

One documented story, according to Santa Cruz, California historian Geoff Dunn, is that three Hawaiian princes, Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole, David Kawananakoa and Edward Keliiahonui visited family friends in Santa Cruz during their summer break from St. Matthew’s Hall, a military school for boys that they attended in San Mateo, in 1885. They were said to have ordered 15-foot, 100 pound surfboards carved from local redwood and paddled out at the river mouth where a large wave was said to have historically broke.

The royal family of Hawaii boosted this claim just a few years ago when they honored the princes who first introduced surfing on the mainland by giving the city a bronze plaque commemorating the event.

Today, surfing is one of the most popular sports along the California coast, although Hawaii is considered to be the ultimate surfer’s paradise, drawing enthusiasts from all over the world to enjoy some of the best surfing the sea has to offer.

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