Maui Surf Lessons: The History of Surfing

duke surfing hawaii

As part of your Maui surf lessons, today we’re going to go over the history of surfing. Now, we know many don’t relish the idea of a history lesson, but as with most Hawaiian subjects and activities, you may find this a little more interesting than your typical history class.

As they say, ‘you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.’ So when you’re learning to surf in Maui, it’s good to know a little about where this awesome sport came from so you can truly embrace the Aloha spirit of surfing.

History of Surfing.

So, it’s generally believed that the Polynesians who migrated throughout the Pacific Islands from Marquesas, Fiji, and Tahiti to the Hawaii Islands were the first to surf.

“The Polynesians who made it to Hawaii also brought their customs with them, including playing in the surf on paipo (belly) boards. Although Tahitians are said to have occasionally stood on their boards, the art of surfing upright on long boards was certainly perfected if not invented in Hawaii,” Ben Marcus wrote in From Polynesia, With Love: A History of Surfing From Captain Cook to the Present.

As far back as the 15th century there were Hawaiian chants honoring surfing and talking about competing chiefs, surfing wagers, and remarkable waves, noted. In 1779, Lieutenant James King, who was commander of Captain James Cook’s ship Discovery after Cook’s death, wrote a detailed description of surfboard riding by the locals at Kealakekua on the Big Island of Hawaii. By then, surfing was an integral part of Hawaiian culture, Marcus noted, as can be seen in their early religion, society, and myths of the islands including petroglyphs of surfers carved on lava rocks.

The art of surfing took hold and was mastered in the Hawaiian Islands. Thus, surfing or “he’e nalu” (to ride the waves) came to be known as a Hawaiian sport.

early surfers

(Bishop Museum Archive)

A Royal Sport. Do you feel a little regal as you catch a big wave? Surfing was especially popular among royalty in early Hawaiian culture as part of their “kapu” system, where “ali’i” or the ruling class had a different status from the “maka’ainana” or commoners, the Hawaiian Encyclopedia said. Chiefs used surfing to demonstrate their courage and skill to their subjects and reinforce their status.

“The kings used to ride huge “olo” balsa board reserved only for them which were 18-25 ft in length, whilst the rest of the population had to ride smaller “alaia” surfboards,” the surf shop Extreme Horizon noted.

Some of Hawaii’s most famous chiefs were renowned for their surfing abilities. Nevertheless, this captivating Hawaiian sport was popular among both royals and commoners with men and women of all ages enjoying the sport.

Rebirth of Surfing. With the influx of European culture following Captain Cook’s visit to the Hawaii Islands, surfing began to decline. But in the early 20th century two renowned surfers made the sport popular once again.

Hawaiian native Duke Kahanamoku surfed Waikiki in 1905, the Hawaiian Encyclopedia said, and began the rebirth of Hawaiian surfing. He was one of the famous Waikiki beach boys, a group of water sports instructors and surfers. Duke set an American swimming record in 1911 and later set several world records and won medals in four different Olympics. As the Encyclopedia noted, Duke went on to become a Hollywood movie star and was Sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu for 26 years. He is now considered a Hawaiian legend.

Duke surfing hawaii

Hawaiian Surfer Duke Kahanamoku

George Freeth was another Waikiki beach boy that brought much attention to the Hawaiian sport of surfing. In 1907, famous American writer Jack London met George and wrote a magazine article about surfing that made George a minor celebrity in the U.S., Extreme Horizon noted. George then moved to California, surfing at major beaches in the state, creating more momentum and interest in the Hawaiian sport. Soon, California surfers began to emerge.

Thus, surfing had once again become a favorite pastime of those who love the ocean.

So, how are your surfing lessons coming? Now that you know a little of the history behind this beloved Maui ocean sport and Hawaiian lifestyle, continue to practice and develop your surfing skills and come to know the true spirit of Aloha.



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