HONOLULU, HI. A trip to Hawaii wouldn’t be the same without experiencing surfing or at least watching from dry land the thousands of riders who hit the coast daily in the search for the perfect wave. There is no doubt many would consider it one of the most popular sports on the islands and many other communities around the world. However, have you wondered what its origins are? How did it all start? What was its purpose? And was there anything more to surfing than just an exciting way to experience the thrill of the ocean?

(Photo courtesy of  Swell Surf CampFlickr)

Contrary to popular belief, anthropologists would date the beginnings of the sport back to almost 2000 B.C., when ancient Polynesians started moving eastward from Southeast Asia. Surfing has its roots in the ancient Hawaiian tradition of “he’e nalu” (wave sliding). Islanders left petroglyphs of surfers carved into lava rocks, and there are chants about surfing dating to at least 500 years ago. Although surfing became popular in other Pacific islands, the Hawaiians mastered the sport the fastest. They possessed the largest surfboards and were capable of complex maneuvers, unequaled in other island groups.

Surfing was a representation of the societal structure of the Hawaiian people, as surfboards were divided into classes according to size and type of wood used. The larger and stronger surfboards were reserved for individuals with a high status in society, such as royalty or tribal chiefs. Surfing was more than just a popular sport on the island; it stood at the core of many social and ritual endeavors.  The Hawaiians who surfed developed prayers, boards and beaches that were reserved for the masters of the sport. The process of building a surfboard started with a sacred ritual and ceremony with only three types of trees used. The makers would dig up the trees and then fish would be placed in the hole as a sacrifice for the gods. The sport was also used as a training exercise to keep the chiefs physically fit and served as a way to dispute conflicts, where high status members would test their skills in competitions.

When British explorers reached Hawaii, they were impressed by the level of skill of Hawaiian surfers. Lt. James King noted in the first published account of surfing that: “The boldness and address with which I saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was altogether astonishing and is scarcely to be believed.” As more Europeans began visiting Hawaii to engage in trade, soon Calvinist missionaries banned surfing. This almost led to the extinction of the sport had it not been for a few locals who kept it alive.

(Based on a sketch drawn in 1778. Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific. Photo courtesy of Finney, Houston, Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport)

During the beginning of the 1900’s, a group of resistant teens known as the “Beach Boys of Waikiki” are often credited for reviving the sport in Hawaii. When George Freeth, a Hawaiian native of Irish decent, moved to California and started promoting surfing, the sport quickly spread along the Californian coast. Later, the sport would be introduced in Australia and in other areas of the world. Technology advancements and the mass production of the automobile made the surfboards lighter and easier to maneuver. One innovation, the wetsuits, designed by Jack O’Neill in the early 1950s, now allowed surfers to ride waves year-round.

As surfing continued penetrating the American landscape, music, fashion and even the English language were impacted. Soon, the sport would not only become a pastime, but a lifestyle and important cultural phenomenon in many areas around the world. As surfing becomes more widespread, it is important to acknowledge Polynesians and Hawaii as the place where it all begun. Their gift to the world of sport, kept alive for thousands of years and enjoyed now by millions.

© | Finney, Houston, Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport | | | | Hawaiian Encyclopedia

This post is part of a series titled “Beyond Paradise,” inspired by my most recent trip to Hawaii. The series will explore the islands’ rich culture and past.



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