Although no one knows for sure exactly where and when surfing began, there is no doubt that over the centuries the ancient sport of “heʻe nalu” (wave sliding) was perfected, if not invented, by the kings and queens of Hawai’i, long before the 15th century AD.
“Surf-riding was one of the most exciting and noble sports known to the Hawaiians, practiced equally by king, chief and commoner. It is still to some extent engaged in, though not as formerly, when it was not uncommon for a whole community, including both sexes, and all ages, to sport and frolic in the ocean the livelong day.” (Malo)
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.
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 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.
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 chiefs surfed and reefs and beaches where the commoners surfed.
Lieutenant James King, commander of the Discovery, 1779, recorded in the ship’s log the first written description of Hawaiian surfing by a European:
“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.”
“The surf-riders, having reached the belt of water outside of the surf, the region where the rollers began to make head, awaited the incoming of a wave, in preparation for which they got their boards under way by paddling with their hands until such time as the swelling wave began to lift and urge them forward.” (Malo)
“(T)hey resorted to the favorite amusement of all classes – sporting on the surf, in which they distinguish themselves from most other nations. In this exercise, they generally avail themselves of the surf-board, an instrument manufactured by themselves for the purpose.” (Bingham)
“The inhabitants of these islands, both male and female, are distinguished by their fondness for the water, their powers of diving and swimming, and the dexterity and ease with which they manage themselves, their surf-boards and canoes, in that element.” (Bingham)
Missionary Amos Cooke, who arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1837 – and was later appointed by King Kamehameha III to teach the young royalty in the Chief’s Childrens’ School – surfed himself (with his sons) and enjoyed going to the beach in the afternoon. “After dinner Auhea went with me, & the boys to bathe in the sea, & I tried riding on the surf. To day I have felt quite lame from it.” (Cooke)
Mark Twain sailed to the Hawaiian Islands and tried surfing, describing his 1866 experience in his book 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.”
Duke Kahanamoku is credited as the ‘Father of Modern Surfing’ and through his many travels, Duke introduced surfing to the rest of the world and was regarded as the father of international surfing. On one trip to Australia in 1914-15, Kahanamoku demonstrated surfing and made such an impression that the Australians erected a statue of him. (Nendel)
Duke was named after his father, who was named Duke after the Duke of Edinburgh who visited Hawaii in 1869 – in 1920, Duke took Prince Edward surfing at Waikīkī.
Today, surfing is thought of as a lifestyle in Hawaiʻi, it is part of the local culture. As an island state, the shore is the beginning of our relationship with the ocean – not the edge of the state line. Surfing expands our horizon, refreshes, rejuvenates and gives hope. It has helped people find harmony in one’s self and the vast ocean. (Hawaiʻi Quarter Design)
As former Hawai’i State governor, George Ariyoshi, stated, “Those of us fortunate to live in Hawai’i are extremely proud of our state and its many contributions to the world. Surfing certainly is one of those contributions. It is a sport enjoyed by men, women and children in nearly every country bordering an ocean. Surfing was born in Hawai’i and truly has become Hawaiʻi’s gift to the world of sports.”
Missionary Hiram Bingham, noted (rather poetically,) “On a calm and bright summer’s day, the wide ocean and foaming surf … the green tufts of elegant fronds on the tall cocoanut trunks, nodding and waving, like graceful plumes, in the refreshing breeze … the natives … riding more rapidly and proudly on their surf-boards, on the front of foaming surges … give life and interest to the scenery.”
The image shows Hawaiian surfing in the early-1800s (culturemap-org-au.) I have added some other surfing images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.