The North Shore of Oahu was renowned in traditional times for the immensity of its waves and the resultant sound of thunder that carried over the ʻaina into the uplands of Wahiʻawa. Surfing large waves has been an integral part of the Hawaiian culture for centuries. During the Makahiki season, our north facing shoreline sees storm generated waves from the northern Pacific travel 2,500 uninterrupted miles until they encounter the coastline. As these powerful waves move from the deep ocean into the surf zone, they rise, climb and rumble onshore.
The composer of the traditional oli (chant) Ke Kai O Waialua accurately observed, “A ea mai ke kai o Waialua, Let the sea of Waialua ascend.” When the sea ascended, Hawaiians set aside their daily tasks and set out to surf. William Ellis wrote in 1822, that “ the thatch houses of an entire village stood empty while every woman, man and child went surfing.”
Hawaiian historian and scholar David Malo (c.1793-1853) wrote that surfing was the “national sport for Hawaiians” and noted that almost every Hawaiian surfed. Malo adds it was an activity that all Hawaiians enjoyed “without regard to status, age, or gender.”
Women were excellent surfers. Hiʻiaka, Kelea, Kaʻahumanu, Namahana and Kaʻiulani were several Hawaiian wahine noted for their exceptional surfing skills. In 1778, Captain James Cook and crew were astonished by the “difficult and dangerous maneuvers” of Hawaiian surfers and remarked that the Hawaiian people were ocean experts who excelled in the sea.
Heʻe nalu (surfing) was an integral part of traditional Hawaiian society and required experts who designed the papa heʻe nalu (surfboards). Traditional boards were finless and made of solid wood. The boards were crafted from koa, wiliwili, kukui, ulu and oheʻohe trees.
Author and surfer John Clark, notes that papa alaia were the most common surfboards at 6 – 9 feet long! Contemporary SUP have a Hawaiian forerunner in the papa olo which were thicker, rounder, heavier boards between 14-16 feet long. A 17-foot traditional board at the Bishop Museum weights over 150 pounds.
Hawaiians also designed smaller boards called papa liʻiliʻi, today known as paipo boards. Hawaiians used canoes to transport surfers and boards to the line up in traditional times. Canoes were also utilized for lele waʻa (canoe leaping) where surfers would leap from the canoe into the cresting wave and ride it into shore (Finney & Houston 1996). Waimea was a popular surf break back in the day as Hawaiians would surf directly into the mouth of the river. Another style of river surfing popular in traditional and contemporary times is called heʻe puʻe wai, riding the stationary waves at a river mouth created by floodwater.
The thunderous waves of the North Shore called to many surfers in traditional times. In a moʻolelo recounted by Pilahi Paki, a chief from Kauai named Kahikilani came to Paumalu (Sunset Beach) to experience this renowned surf break. He fell in love with a local wahine who created a lei lehua for him every morning before he set off to surf. When he dared return home one day with a lei ʻilima around his neck from another wahine, he was turned into stone. Now, Kahikilani sits alone on the bluff above Paumalu, forever watching but never surfing the ascending waves.
For over a century, Hawaiians have been at the forefront in introducing surfing to the global community. Hawaiian scholar Isaiah Walker, writes that in 1885, the Kawananakoa brothers surfed Santa Cruz while attending school in California. Two decades later, Hawaiian George Freeth popularized surfing at a 1907 exhibition in Redondo Beach and went on to be know as the “Father of California Surfing.” Duke Kahanamoku, the greatest swimmer of his time, introduced surfing to Australian and American audiences while participating and winning in the 1912 and 1916 Olympics.
As global surfers, tourists, media and money rolls into the North Shore like the massive winter swells, let us respectfully remember the origins of heʻe nalu and the people and culture who made surfing “ The National Sport of Hawaiians.”