In 2011 the University of Hawai‘i Press published a book that I wrote called Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions From The Past, the eighth of ten books I’ve written about Hawaii’s beaches, surf spots, and shoreline place names. My intent in writing Hawaiian Surfing was to add to the wealth of information other surf historians have already assembled from non-Hawaiian sources by translating material from a unique archive, the historic Hawaiian-language newspapers. These newspapers were published from 1834 to 1948 and are now online and searchable in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Papakilo Database.
I decided to look at traditional surfing language and terminology through descriptions of the sport in the Hawaiian language. Hawaiians, like surfers today, had their own surf culture, and I thought perhaps as a life-long surfer, born and raised in Hawaii, I could bring a surfer’s point of view to the material. I caught my first wave in 1954 when I was eight-years-old, and I’ve been an avid surfer ever since.
Hawaiian Surfing, then, is another look at the early history of surfing. While it includes observations by several non-Hawaiians, most of the information is from Native Hawaiians who were surfers writing about their national pastime. From their writings, which include technical descriptions, legends, and eulogies for men and women who surfed, we see that traditional Hawaiian surfers were as at home in the ocean and as skilled in riding waves as any surfer today. They, however, rode solid wood boards without fins, boards which limited the extent of their maneuvers, but they still did all the basics that surfers do now. Riding short boards, they took off on steep waves, they bottom turned and cut back, they rode down the line, and they got barreled in hollow waves. Riding long boards, they surfed big waves, especially those in Waikīkī at the famous surf breaks like Kapua [Old Mans], Kalehuawehe [Castles], ‘Aiwohi [Publics], Maihiwa [Cunhas], and Kapuni [Canoes]. Through the voices of these Native Hawaiian surfers, Hawaiian Surfing takes another look at surfing before it evolved with the innovations of modern times, and in the process shows that in their day, traditional Hawaiian surfers were among the greatest watermen and waterwomen in the world.
While I was assembling the material for Hawaiian Surfing, I realized that Hawaiians practiced six different traditional surf sports: he‘e nalu, or board surfing; pākākā nalu, or outrigger canoe surfing; kaha nalu, or bodysurfing; pae po‘o, or bodyboarding; he‘e one, or sand-sliding [skimming]; and he‘e pu‘e wai, or river surfing; so I wrote a section for each of them in the book. My presentation will focus on these six surf sports and include graphics and descriptions of each.