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 Hawaiʻi, 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)
One of the early (if not first) written descriptions of surfing in Hawaiʻi (Kealakekua Bay:) “The surf, which breaks on the coast round the bay, extends to the distance of about one hundred and fifty yards from the shore ….”
“Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost height, they choose that time for this amusement … twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore.”
“… As soon as they have gained … the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. … their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. …”
“The boldness and address with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.” (The Three Voyages of Captain James Cook Round the World, Vol. VII, 3rd Voyage, March 1779, pp 134-135)
“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)
One reporter on an early OR&L rail ride wrote a glowing story of the railroad trip to Waiʻanae at its opening on July 4, 1895: “For nine miles the road runs within a stone’s throw of the ocean and under the shadow of the Wai‘anae Range.”
“With the surf breaking now on the sand beach and now dashing high on the rocks on one side, and with the sharp craigs and the mountains interspersed with valleys on the other, patrons of the road are treated to some of the most magnificent scenery the country affords.” (Cultural Surveys)
Until the 1930s, modern surfing in Hawaiʻi was focused at Waikīkī; there the waves were smaller. Then, in 1937, Wally Froiseth and John Kelly, reportedly on a school trip witnessed the large break at Mākaha and later surfed its waves. They were later joined by George Downing and others.
Riding at an angle to the wave, rather than the straight to shore technique, on the new “hot curl” board, with narrower tails and V-hulled boards, allowed them to ride in a sharper angle than anyone else.
Mākaha became the birthplace of big wave surfing. Even before Oʻahu’s North Shore, Mākaha was ‘the’ place for surfing – especially big-wave surfing.
In January 1955, the first Mākaha International Surfing Championships was held and for the next decade was considered the unofficial world championships of surfing.
While that contest faded away, in 1977, Buffalo Keaulana, a living legend of Mākaha (and Mākaha International champion in 1960,) started the Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic (featuring canoe-surfing, tandem surfing, bullyboarding (oversize tandem bodyboards), bodysurfing and longboards) and it has been held every year since.
By doing this he has helped sustain and promote the old ways and pass on this knowledge to the keiki. This will help the children of today and tomorrow understand their cultural background so strongly rooted in nature.
For these reasons, it is vital to preserve this natural class room so that the kūpuna can pass on their manaʻo and keep the Hawaiian culture alive. (Cultural Surveys)
Rell Sunn, the ‘Queen of Makaha,’ in 1976 began the Rell Sunn Menehune Surf Contest; children 12 and under compete in body board, long board and short board, and each event is broken into age and gender categories. In 1983, Sunn was diagnosed with cancer; she died in 1998.
When asked where his favorite place to surf is, Buffalo said, “…right here in Mākaha. Mākaha is the best place to surf, you have the channel and the wave comes from that end you see the white water going on that side coming that way.” (Cultural Surveys)
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 Hawaiʻi 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.”