The History of Surfing

The History of Surfing

[Illustration: Surfboards]


It seems inevitable that the seafaring Polynesians, so skilled in all aspects of living near and sailing over the ocean, would be among the first people to surf the ocean waves.  Today the Hawaiian Islands are a mecca for surfers who come from all over the world to test themselves on Hawai‘i’s large and challenging waves. 

Increasingly popular in the Hawaiian Islands today, along with traditional surfing, are more modern water sports including tow-in surfing (using powered craft to pull a surfer into a giant wave), kite surfing (the surfer is pulled by a large parachute-like kite), and windsurfing (a sail is attached to the surfboard).


O ‘Awili ka nalu, he nalu kapu kai na ke akua.

‘Awili is the surf, a surf reserved for the ceremonial bath of the goddess.

Refers to Pele.  There were three noted surfs at Kalapana, Puna: Kalehua, for the children and those just learning to surf; Ho‘eu, for experienced surfers; and ‘Awili, which none dared to ride.  When the surf of ‘Awili was rolling dangerously high, all surfing and canoeing ceased, for that was a sign that the gods were riding.

                                                            (Pukui: 2356-257)


The First Surfers

Surfing waves on a surfboard was likely first done in the Society Islands, including Tahiti.  It was later in the Hawaiian Islands, however, that surfing really took hold.  The Hawaiian term for surfing is he‘e nalu (“to ride the waves”).

Hawaiians surfed waves on surfboards hundreds of years ago.  They also left petroglyphs of surfers carved into lava rocks, and there are stories of surfing in Hawaiian chants dated to at least 500 years ago (which means Hawaiians were probably surfing long before that). 

Surfing in the Hawaiian Islands was part of the Hawaiians’ kapu system, where ali‘i (the ruling class, or royalty) and maka‘āinana (commoners) had different status. 

The ali‘i, or ruling class, used surfboards that were from 14 to 16 feet (4 to 5 m) long.  The boards were carved from the buoyant wood of the wiliwili tree (Erythrina sandwicensis, Hawaiian coral tree).  A big surfboard like this made of premium wood was called an olo (also ‘ōwili, paha), and might weigh as much as 175 pounds (80 kg).  An ‘ōnini was a board used only by the best surfers.

Commoners used a 10- to 12-foot (3- to 3.7-m) board called an alaia (also called an omo), made from the denser, heavier and thus less buoyant wood of koa (Acacia koa), or the wood of the ‘ulu (Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit), which was also less buoyant.  A small board was known as a kīoe.


Constructing a Surfboard

To make a surfboard, the craftsman first put a ceremonial fish (kūmū) in a hole near the tree’s roots and then completed a ritual showing respect.  The tree was cut down, and a bone, or a stone adze was used to shape the board. 

‘Ōahi (rough stone) or pōhaku puna (granulated coral) was used to put a smooth finish on the board, smoothing out the marks from the adze.


O Kua‘ana ka nalu; o Paiaha‘a ka ‘āina.

Kua‘ana is the surf; Paiaha‘a the land.

Proud were the people of Ka‘ū of the surf of Kua‘ana, where chiefs used to ride the waves to the shore of Paiaha‘a.

                                                            (Pukui: 2472-270)


For a final coat on the surfboard, the root of kī (Cordyline fruticosa, ti), pounded bark (hili) of kukui (Aleurites moluccana, candlenut), or stain from the buds of mai‘a (Musa species, banana) was used.  A dark stain color was also achieved by rubbing the soot from burned kukui nuts into the wood.  Kukui oil was used to give the board a glossy finish. 

The papa he‘e nalu (surfboard) was dedicated before taking it in the ocean.  Then after each surf session the board was treated with the oil of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut), and wrapped in kapa (tapa) barkcloth. 


“....Hiking into Waipi‘o Valley where they marveled at the skill of native surfers frolicking in the waves.  “All ranks and ages seem to be equally fond of it.  We have seen Karaimoku and Kaikioeva, some of the highest chiefs in the island, both between fifty and sixty years of age, and large corpulent men, balancing themselves on their narrow board, or splashing about in the foam, with as much satisfaction as youths of sixteen.”

                                                            William Ellis, 1823


[Photograph: Traditional Hawaiian surfboard]


Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968)

Surfer, Olympian, Movie Star, Sheriff

[Illustration: Duke Kahanamoku surfing Waikīkī]


When missionaries from New England began arriving in the Hawaiian Islands around 1820, they discouraged surfing as a waste of valuable time that should instead be spent praying or working. 

There was some interest in surfing when King Kalākaua [David La‘amea Kalākaua] took the throne, but with his death in 1891 surfers in the Hawaiian Islands again became scarce.  In 1905, Duke Kahanamoku surfed Waikīkī and began the rebirth of Hawaiian surfing. 

In 1911, Duke set an American swimming record in the 100-yard sprint, and later went on to set several world records and win medals in four different Olympics: Stockholm (1912), Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924), and Belgium (1932). 


‘A‘ohe ia e loa‘a aku, he ulua kāpapa no ka moana.

He cannot be caught for he is an ulua fish of the deep ocean.

Said in admiration of a hero or warrior who will not give up

without a struggle.

                                                                        (Pukui: 145-18)


Duke Kahanamoku was also a Hollywood movie star (1922-1933), and then the Sheriff of the City and County of Honolulu for 26 years (1934-1960).  “The Duke” is now considered a Hawaiian legend. 


Hui Nalu

A full-blooded Hawaiian and a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu on August 24, 1890 to Duke and Julia Kahanamoku.  Duke Kahanamoku was named after his father, who was named after the Duke of Edinburgh. 

In 1891, Duke’s family moved to the Kālia area of Waikīkī.  Duke’s mother’s family, the Paoas, owned a large portion of the 20 acres (8 ha) of land in the Kālia area now occupied by the 2,545-room Hilton Hawaiian Hotel. 

Duke’s grandfather, Ho‘olae Paoa, was a descendant of royal chiefs.  Ho‘olae Paoa had been deeded land by King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli) in the Great Māhele (land division) of 1848. 

The Paoa ‘ohana (extended family) numbered more than 100 individuals living in the Waikīkī area where they farmed, fished, and spent lots of time in the water. 

Duke’s father is said to have taught his children to swim by simply tying a rope around their waists and tossing them in the water to sink or swim.  Duke Kahanamoku eventually became one of the most famous of the Waikīkī Beachboys, a group of water sports instructors working on the beaches fronting the Royal Hawaiian and Moana Hotels. (See Historic Waikīkī in O‘ahu section, Chapter 2.) 

In 1911, Duke and his friends organized Hui Nalu (Club of the Waves), a swimming, paddling, and surfing club.  The main reason for the formation of Hui Nalu was to meet the United States’ requirement that swimmers had to belong to a recognized club if they wanted official sanction for any aquatic records.  That same year, in Honolulu Harbor, Duke set three world records in freestyle swimming.


Olympic Champion

Duke Kahanamoku set a world record in the 100-meter freestyle in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden with a time of 63.4 seconds.  Less well known is the fact that Duke overslept during his pre-race nap, which caused him to arrive at the stadium late.  Duke barely convinced officials to delay the race as he suited up, and then won the race!

In the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, Duke won two more gold medals, breaking his own 100-meter freestyle world record.  He also helped to set a world record in the freestyle relay, earning yet another gold medal.  Hawaiian Pua Kealoha also competed in the 1920 Olympics. 

At age 34, in the 1924 Paris Olympics, Duke took the silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle, losing to Johnny Weissmuller, who later became famous as the actor who played Tarzan. 

Two of Duke’s brothers, David and Sam Kahanamoku, also qualified for the 1924 Olympics.  Sam won a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle event, placing third behind Duke and Johnny Weissmuller. 

In all, Duke Kahanamoku earned a total of six Olympic medals (three gold and two silver, one bronze) in four different Olympics.  Other swimming victories for Duke Kahanamoku included 100-meter freestyle victories in the 1916, 1917, and 1920 American Athletic Union Outdoor Championships. 

Duke was known for his use of the “flutter kick,” which he used instead of the common scissors kick.  Duke retired from competitive swimming at the age of 42.


Duke Kahanamoku’s Olympic Medals


1912 Olympics—Stockholm, Sweden

Gold—100-Meter Freestyle (World Record)

Silver—4x200-Meter Freestyle Relay (Anchored Team)


1920—Antwerp, Belgium

Gold—100-Meter Freestyle (World Record)

Gold—4x200-meter Freestyle (World Record)

Fourth Place—Water Polo Team


1924—Paris, France

Silver—100-Meter-Freestyle (Duke’s Age: 34)


1932—Los Angeles, California

Bronze—Water Polo Team (Duke’s Age: 42)



Duke Kahanamoku—Hawaiian Waterman

Duke is also credited with saving many lives through brave ocean rescues, including a daring rescue in Coronal del Mar, California on June 14, 1925, when he used his surfboard to single-handedly save eight lives from a capsized boat. 


He kanaka no kaulu hānai.

A man from the top of the cliff.

Praise of a hero.

                                    (Pukui: 669-75)


Duke Kahanamoku is considered the father of modern surfing and the father of international surfing, having introduced the sport to the eastern coast of the United States (1913), Australia and New Zealand (1914-1915), and California (1915-1932).  Duke also introduced surfing to Europe. 

In 1919, Duke pioneered the sport of tandem surfing, in which (traditionally) a male rider holds a female up in the air while surfing.  Duke is also considered the first windsurfer (“the father of windsurfing”) as well as the first to wakesurf (riding on a surfboard while being towed behind a boat).

From 1922 to 1933, Duke had a career in Hollywood.  He lived in Los Angles during this time, and appeared in about 30 movies.  Yet another of Duke’s accomplishments was serving as Sheriff of the City and County Honolulu for 26 years, from 1934 to 1960 (13 consecutive terms).  Duke married Nadine Alexander on August 2, 1940.

Duke Kahanamoku was a muscular man, standing 6 feet, 1 inch (185.4 cm) tall.  With a soft-spoken demeanor, Duke was known for his humility and kindness.

Duke was the victim of prejudice many times in his life, and was sometimes refused entrance to restaurants, clubs, and other places based on his skin color, yet Duke unfailingly responded to prejudice with aloha, and was said to have genuinely felt pity for the prejudiced person rather than anger.

Duke strove to break down color barriers.  It is notable that in Duke’s first Olympics (in 1912), the track and field competition was dominated by another man who also broke down color barriers, American Indian Jim Thorpe.

On the east (Diamond Head) side of the Waikīkī Beach Center at Kūhiō Beach in Waikīkī is a 9-foot (2.7-m) statue of Duke Kahanamoku. (See Statue of Duke Kahanamoku in Waikīkī section, Chapter 2.)  A plaque on the Duke Kahanamoku Statue states Duke’s creed:

 In Hawai‘i, we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with aloha, which means with love.  Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which makes Hawai‘i renowned as the world’s center of understanding and fellowship.  Try meeting or leaving people with Aloha.  You’ll be surprised by their reaction.  I believe it and it is my creed.  Aloha to you.

[Photograph: Duke Kahanamoku]


Duke was a true Hawaiian waterman, excelling in all types of ocean activities including paddling canoes, surfing, body surfing, swimming, and saving lives in the ocean.  To support the United States’ war effort in 1918, Duke traveled throughout the United States Mainland and competed in exhibition races.  He continued surfing big waves until the age of 50.  At age 60, Duke was still considered the best canoe steersman in Waikīkī. 

A legendary but true story about Duke tells of his famous 1917 ride on a huge wave in Waikīkī, at an outer surf spot offshore of Diamond Head (Lē‘ahi).  Some call the surf spot Blue Birds because it’s near where the deeper ocean begins, causing the water color to change.  Others call the surf spot Steamer Lane because it is near where the large ships pass.  The surf spot is far from shore, and the surf only breaks when the waves are very large.

One day in 1917, when the surf was incredibly big, Duke paddled out to Steamer Lane and rode his 16-foot (4.9-m) surfboard on a huge wave that was estimated to be 30 to 35 feet (9 to 11 m) in height.  Duke rode the wave for more than 1 mile (1.6 km), through the spots now known as Publics and Queen’s, and possibly as far down the coast as the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  The ride is still considered the longest ride on a wave in Waikīkī, if not the longest ride on a wave anywhere.


The Duke Kahanamoku Stamp

A ceremony to dedicate the new United States postage stamp featuring Duke Kahanamoku took place on Saturday, August 24, 2002, which was the 112th anniversary of Duke’s birth. 

The stamp went on sale to the public the following Monday, including a total of 62.8 million of the stamps on sale across the United States, with two million of the stamps on sale in the Hawaiian Islands. 

The stamp dedication ceremony took place on the shores of Waikīkī’s Kālia Bay where Duke spent his youth.  The voyaging canoe Hawai‘iloa arrived with a 30- by 38-inch (76- by 97-cm) replica of the stamp, and the traditional voyaging canoe was accompanied by a flotilla that included the canoe Makali‘i, and a symbolic 112 surfboards and canoes representing “candles on a cake,” commemorating Duke’s 112th birthday.

As the Hawai‘iloa arrived, sounds of the conch shell blowers echoed through the Kālia Bay air when the Hawai‘iloa voyaging canoe arrived and anchored offshore, and the poster of the stamp (draped under red velvet) was transported to the beach in the double-hulled canoe Kamiloa.  A receiving delegation met the canoe at the beach, where chanters and hula dancers accompanied the unveiling of the stamp image.

Voyaging canoe navigator Nainoa Thompson and others presented a lei (which had been draped across the poster of the new Duke stamp), to Fred Paoa, Duke’s first cousin and oldest living relative, who in turn presented a maile lei to the ceremony officials. 

A large group of relatives, friends, notable surfers, and public officials (including United States Senator Dan Akaka) all celebrated the occasion, along with Duke’s grand nephew, Alden Paoa, and Joanne Kahanamoku, Duke’s niece.  Post Office officials were on hand to provide people with the “First Day of Issue” cancellations on various items, including envelopes and post cards.

New Orleans artist Michael Deas created the image of Duke for the stamp, which is mainly based on a 1918 photo provided by the Bishop Museum, but also incorporates other images of Duke.  The stamp designer and art director for the project was Carl Herrman of Carlsbad, California.

The stamp dedication ceremony in Waikīkī included day-long festivities and was also the founding of “The First Annual Duke Paoa Kahanamoku Waterman Challenge,” which includes the Waikīkī Ocean Mile Swim as well as a canoe race, surfing contest, and tug-of-war competition.  There was also a lū‘au, a traditional Hawaiian feast and celebration, where friends of the Duke could share their memories and honor him. 

At nearby Kūhiō Beach, a Duke Kahanamoku statue memorializes a man who is seemingly larger than life. (See Statue of Duke Kahanamoku in Waikīkī section, Chapter 2.)  The day before the stamp-dedication ceremony, Duke’s statue was draped with 112 lei to commemorate his birthday. 

One of the lei was a 5-inch (13-cm) thick, 15-foot (4.6-m) long lei of maile (Alyxia oliviformis).  As a ho‘okupu (tribute) to Duke Kahanamoku, the maile had been gathered and strung by inmates at the Big Island’s Kūlani Correctional Facility.

[Photograph: Picture of stamp]


In August of 2003 the second annual Duke’s Ho‘olaule‘a (Celebration) took place, establishing the celebration as an annual event.  The celebration commemorating Duke’s birthday, and his life as the Hawaiian Islands’ “Ambassador to the World,” includes a Beach Boy Celebration, lei making, historical walks, and surfboard water polo.  A central part of the event is an ocean swim and Waterman Challenge. 


Duke Kahanamoku—Hawai‘i’s “Ambassador of Aloha

In 1960, Duke Kahanamoku was officially appointed as Hawai‘i’s “Ambassador of Aloha.”  To all who knew Duke, this was just a formality, since Duke was always known as someone who lived his life with aloha, and someone who had always been a generous and caring person. 

Duke had always been an exemplary ambassador of the aloha spirit, and said to be a “pure soul” who personified aloha. 

In 1965, Duke became the first person ever inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame.  In 1984, Duke was also inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.  In 1999, Surfer Magazine declared Duke Kahanamoku the Surfer of the Century. 


I kāhi ‘e no ke kumu mokihana, paoa ‘e no ‘one‘i i ke ‘ala.

Although the mokihana tree is at a distance, its fragrance reaches here.

Although a person is far away, the tales of his good deeds come to us.

                                                                                    (Pukui: 1177-128)


Duke Paoa Kahanamoku passed away on January 22, 1968, at the age of 77.  Thousands attended the “Beachboy” funeral ceremony, and Duke’s ashes were scattered in the waters off Waikīkī.  His widow, Nadine Kahanamoku passed away on July 17, 1997 at the age of 97.

Duke Kahanamoku—Hawaiian waterman, Olympic champion, lifesaver, movie star, sheriff, and “ambassador of aloha”—will forever be remembered as a real-life folk hero for the people of the Hawaiian Islands. 

[Photograph: Duke Kahanamoku in a movie scene]


Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Waterman

[Illustration: Eddie Aikau surfing]


As a youth, Eddie Aikau amazed the top surfers of O‘ahu’s north shore when he paddled into giant waves at Waimea Bay.  As a lifeguard he went on to save many lives.  At age 31 he died trying to save his fellow crew members of the capsized Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe.


Pu‘uwai hao kila.

Heart of steel.


                                    (Pukui: 303:2766)


Born May 4, 1946 in Kahului, Maui, Edward Ryan Aikau was a full-blooded Hawaiian.  Born to Solomon “Pops” Aikau and his wife Henrietta, Eddie was the third of six children, including Fred, Gerald, Sol, Clyde, and Myra.  Though his family called him by his middle name, Ryan, most people knew of him as Eddie.

In 1958, the family moved to Pauoa, O‘ahu where Eddie’s father was the caretaker for the Chinese cemetery.  Eddie’s father took the family surfing frequently during Eddie’s childhood, allowing him to improve his surfing skills with a classic 75-pound (34-kg) surfboard. 

In 1967, Eddie surfed 15-foot (4.6-m) Sunset Beach waves, and on November 19 of that year Eddie startled Hawai‘i’s top surfers by taking off on an estimated 40-foot (12-m) set wave at Waimea Bay.  Also in 1967, Eddie took 6th place in the Duke Kahanamoku Classic.  That was Eddie’s first major surfing contest.

In 1968, Eddie became Waimea Bay’s first lifeguard, and went on to save the lives of many people who otherwise might have drowned in Hawai‘i’s rough ocean waters. 

Eddie was voted Lifeguard of the Year in 1971.  He later appeared in surf movies, and was also a talented musician, writing songs and playing slack-key guitar.  He was also interested in celestial navigation.  Eddie Aikau married Linda Crosswhite in 1972, and they were divorced in 1978.


The Capsizing of the Hōkūle‘a Voyaging Canoe

In 1978, Eddie was chosen to be one of the 16-member crew invited to sail the Hōkūle‘a, a 62-foot (18.9-m) Polynesian voyaging canoe to Tahiti.  The Hōkūle‘a had no modern navigation or communication equipment, and was built to reenact the ancient voyages of the Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiian Islands. (See Rediscovering the Past: The Revival of Polynesian Voyaging Traditions, Chapter 3.)

On the night of March 16, 1978, at about 11 p.m., the Hōkūle‘a capsized in large swells and gale-force winds about 12 miles (19 km) off the island of Lāna‘i in the Kaiwi Channel, forcing the 15 crew members to cling to the voyaging canoe’s overturned hull.  Eddie Aikau volunteered to paddle his 12-foot (3.7-m) tandem surfboard toward Lāna‘i for help. 

Eddie was wearing yellow foul-weather pants and a jacket, and had with him a strobe light, a knife, and a bag of sugar cubes.  Around his neck he wore a locket containing hair of his nieces and nephews. 

As he stroked away from the capsized Hōkūle‘a, Eddie stopped and tossed off his life preserver, which was hampering his paddling.  Eddie turned and gave the crew a final wave goodbye as he rose to the peak of a wave and then paddled into the distance.  He was never seen again.

After nightfall, at about 8 p.m., a Hawaiian Airlines plane saw a flare shot up by the crew and circled back, blinking its landing lights before heading toward Honolulu Airport.  Within one hour a C-130 plane arrived and dropped phosphorescent lights in the water. 

Soon a Coast Guard helicopter tossed a metal cage down to the stranded crew of the Hōkūle‘a.  Speaking into the one-way radio lowered in the cage, Captain Dave Lyman informed the plane’s crew about Eddie. 

An intensive air-sea search and rescue effort was launched to find Eddie Aikau.  After five days and several injuries to rescuers, the search was called off.  Eddie Aikau was 31 years old. 


The Eddie Aikau Big-Wave Invitational

In 1987, a surf contest was initiated in honor of Eddie Aikau.  Officially known as the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, the big-wave invitational is known locally as “the Eddie.”  The contest matches the world’s best big wave surfers against each other in the biggest of waves. 

One of the prized invitee spots is always left unfilled in honor of big-wave surfer Mark Foo, who died on December 2, 1994 surfing Maverick’s, a big-wave surf spot in California.  Before he died, Foo had been a competitor in all of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau contests

Invitees to the surfing contest are put on alert during a waiting period from Dec. 5 to February 28.  The surfing contest only commences if the waves reach the 20 to 30 foot (6 to 9 m) heights considered worthy of the Aikau name. 

To date, the surfing contest has only been held 5½ times: in 1986, 1990, 1995 (1/2 contest), 1999, 2001 and 2002. 

The first Eddie Aikau Invitational was won by Clyde Aikau, the brother of Eddie Aikau.  The 2001 contest was won by Australian Ross Clarke-Jones who took home a $50,000 dollar first place prize, and was the first competitor not from the Hawaiian Islands to win the contest. 

Clarke-Jones rode the first wave of the day, a 25-foot (8-m) wave that also turned out to be one of the contest’s biggest waves.  Hawai‘i’s Shane Dorian took second with an effort that included some punishing wipeouts in the giant surf.  Two contestants endured rib injuries, and champion Hawaiian surfer Brian Keaulana shattered an eardrum.

The most recent Eddie Aikau surfing contest was held on January 7, 2002, and was won by six-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater (who took 5th place in the 2001 Eddie Aikau Invitational).


Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau

Past Winners

Date                            Winner                           

February 21, 1987       Clyde Aikau                

January 21, 1990          Keone Downing          

 December 29, 1995     Cancelled half way through day when swell dropped.

January 1, 1999            Noah Johnson 

January 14, 2001          Ross Clarke-Jones

January 7, 2002            Kelly Slater

December 15, 2005     Bruce Irons


Eddie Would Go

At the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau, the participants of the surf contest pay tribute to the memory of Eddie Aikau by paddling their surfboards out into Waimea Bay where they form a circle and set their lei afloat in the sea.  After Eddie disappeared at sea, a memorial was erected in his honor at Waimea Bay.

Eddie Aikau was a distinguished and respected surfer, lifeguard, and overall Hawaiian waterman.  He was also known for his humility, and for never seeking thanks or praise for his many heroic deeds. 

Today the saying “Eddie Would Go,” is frequently heard in the Hawaiian Islands, and also seen on bumper stickers throughout the Hawaiian Islands.  The saying recalls Eddie Aikau’s selflessness and bravery.


He pua no ka wēkiu.

A blossom on the topmost branch.

Praise of an outstanding person.

                                    (Pukui: 923-99)


[Photograph: Eddie Aikau]