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Hawaii Surfing – History of Surfing in Hawaii

by tr on March 28, 2013

By Steve Lawrence


 Surfing in Hawaii
The sport of surfing is a cherished pastime for the people of Hawaii and has a rich history that is fascinating enough to fire the imagination of everyone.

Surfing has been labeled as “the sport of Kings.” You might be surprised to learn that surfing may not have begun in the Hawaiian Islands but it is certainly the place we think of when we think of surfing. The sport of riding waves is believed to have first occurred in Polynesia near Tahiti. It had been around long before Duke Kahanamoku helped introduce surfing to the world in the early 1900s and has come a long way since.

From the 150-pound wooden boards of Hawaii’s yesteryear, to the ultra-light foam boards we surf today, and back to big heavy boards that are now popular for a new style called “stand up paddle” surfing.

In ancient Hawaiian tradition surfing was a privilege reserved especially for Hawaiian royalty or Ali’i. Commoners were restricted to certain surf breaks and could only use certain types of wood for their boards.


Hawaiian Surfing Traditions
The Ali’i used wood from the Wili-Wili tree or Hawaiian Balsa. This wood was lighter and faster in the waves. Other woods that were used for fashioning surfboards were Koa (Hawaiian Mahogany) and Ulu (Bread-fruit tree).

As a ceremonial ritual of respect, the craftsman would offer a sacrifice at the roots of the tree before cutting it down. Construction of one of these boards was done using ancient tools made from bones or stones.

After the board was carved it was smoothed out with coral or other rough stone. Once the wood was shaped and smoothed kukui oil was used to give the board a glossy finish. The longest of these boards, called an “Olo,” were often 18 to 25 feet long and weighed well 100 pounds.

Boards in the 12-18 foot range were called “Kiko’o”. The most commonly used board was called “alaia” and was between 6-12 feet in length. “Paipo” were boards fewer than 6 feet in length.

The paipo and the alaia were generally used to surf on your stomach or your knees, a lot like the modern-day body board. Even considering their ingenious construction, these ancient boards were still basically straight planks and had no fins like today’s boards. Needless to say, they were not very maneuverable. You would have to be very competitive to gain elite status in those early days of surfing.

The first recorded accounts of surfing in Hawaii was recorded by Captain James Cook when reached the islands in the 1776. The 1800s saw a decline in surfing popularity due to Western influence. The missionaries frowned upon such activities that included scantily clad participants and saw it as a waste of time.


Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki Beach Boys
It wasn’t until the early 1900s that Duke Kahanamoku and the Waikiki Beach Boys helped the resurgence of this respected form of their Hawaiian culture when more visitors were discovering Hawaii.

Redwood was being shipped from the mainland and became the standard material for boards in Waikiki at the time. It wasn’t until the 1920s when waterproof glues were invented, that shapers began experimenting with different woods and hollow boards.

The Beach Boys of Waikiki were skilled water men. They shared their skill and knowledge as became ambassadors to the surfing culture as well as the Hawaiian culture, whose popularity increased along with the number of visitors.

The Beach Boys were connected to the ocean and could read its conditions including tide, wind, and currents. They kept a very strict moral code of conduct. There was no drinking and their job was to keep the beaches clean and safe. Many of them went on to be very talented lifeguards. Some of the most memorable Beach Boys were of course Duke Kahanamoku, Rabbit Kekai, and later Eddie Aikau who became the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on Oahu.


Surfboard Construction and Materials
By the 1940s, shapers were experimenting with modern products. Surfboards made of foam and fiberglass were being produced. They also added fins, or skegs to the boards. The first polyurethane foam boards appeared in the late 1950s. This advancement in materials made it much easier to shape the modern boards you see today. They also made the boards much lighter.

And so by the 1960s the “surf craze” was on. The array of shapes and sizes in surfboards made it easier to accommodate the surfer, the surfer’s skill level, and surf conditions. Boards could be made with a pointy nose making it easier to “duck dive” under a big wave. Or they could have a rounded nose with rounded rails (the sides of the board) for nose-riding and “hanging ten”on smaller days.

Some boards may have a concave design to allow water to flow across or under it in a specific manner. There are boards with one fin, two fins, and three, four, up to five fins.

The “stand up” paddle board, or SUP, is the latest take off of surf board styles and the boards made for them. SUP’s, like other surfboards, come in many shapes and sizes, depending on what kind of activity you prefer. Some are long and wide to provide speed and stability. Some are shorter, thinner and more narrow – better for surfing waves. With an SUP you stand on the board and use a paddle that is a lot like a canoe paddle, only longer. Some surfers like the speed and buoyancy of this newer style of stand up paddle surfing.


Big Wave Surfing  in Hawaii – Jaws & Bonzai Pipeline
Hawaii is a top destination for surfing and boasts some of the best surf breaks in the world. Places like the famous, world-class Bonzai Pipeline. Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay are some other world famous breaks on Oahu’s north shore. Honolua Bay and Jaws are the elite spots on Maui. These breaks host some of the largest competitions on the pro surfing circuit.

The winter months are the peak season for surfing in Hawaii because that is generally when the biggest waves hit the Hawaiian Islands. The waves that impact the northern shores are generated far in the Northern Pacific. Storms near Alaska blow winds on the water for several days until a swell builds. This swell travels along the ocean for thousands of miles until it reaches Hawaii and beyond.

North shore waves tend to be bigger and rougher because they are generated closer to the Hawaiian Islands because the islands are in the Northern Hemisphere just about 20 degrees north of the equator. Northern Hemisphere winter storms generate these waves for that impact the north shores of the Hawaiian Islands.

In the summer, the waves on the northern shores of the islands are generally calm and flat, better for diving and fishing. This is because during Hawaii’s summer, the Southern Hemisphere is having its winter, and those waves are now impacting the southern shores of the Hawaiian Islands.


Surfing Waikiki, Oahu
The waves that impact the southern shores tend to be smaller and more gentle because they are generated below New Zealand and travel much further before they reach the Hawaiian Islands. As the waves travel across the ocean they have more time to “clean up” making them less rough and more maneuverable, which is often perfect conditions for beginners.

Waikiki is a popular spot for surfing on the south shore of Oahu. There are plenty of rental shops waiting to provide visitors the surfing items needed to enjoy any aquatic adventure. A surfing lesson is a good say to start for first-timers. Surfing lessons on Maui and Waikiki are available

People from all over the world come here to experience the art of surfing in one way or another, as a participant or a spectator. Many are venturing into the water to try their own luck at the “sport of Kings” for the first time.   Some find the experience to be of a spiritual nature and learn to understand why it is so important to the Hawaiians and their culture. Many never leave.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tracey March 29, 2013 at 8:19 am

A very interesting read on the basics of surfing in Hawaii.

Dan April 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

Fabulous article about Hawaii’s surfing history, thanks Steve, awesome work!

Mike Lawrence April 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Great job Steve! Very well done and informative. Your braddah, Mike

Teeter April 14, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Nice. Good job Smalls.

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