Surf’s Up

The famed Mavericks Surf Contest, which takes place in Half Moon Bay, California, is called each year by its organizers only when conditions are right. Last year, the waves were never big enough for the competition to take place. This year, it began on January 3rd, 2012, the same day as the publication date for my new book, Lost Kingdom.

That coincidence gave me some pleasure, since surfing, known as hee nalu or surf riding in the Hawaiian language, is one of the few aspects of ancient Hawaiian culture that have thrived beyond the reef – with Hawaiians themselves bringing the sport at the turn of the twentieth century to America. And one of the parts of my book I loved researching the most was the history of Hawaiian surfing, which was known as the sport of kings, also known as the ali‘i, or high chiefs.

Because commoners worked in the fields and tended the fish ponds, the ali‘i could devote themselves to sports. Their favorite pastime was surfing and they rode the waves on enormous, carved wood boards—some more than eighteen feet long and weighing 150 pounds. Both male and female chiefs also excelled at related sports such as canoe-leaping, in which the surfer would jump from a canoe carrying his or her board into a cresting ocean swell, and then ride the wave to the shore.

When the surf was high, entire villages rushed to the beach. Men, women, and children would paddle out to ride the rolling waves. While Tahitians and other Pacific Islanders also surfed, the Hawaiians took the sport to a higher level—standing fearlessly on their massive boards, often three times as long as those used elsewhere in Polynesia.

The Hawaiians were magnificent athletes. Some excelled at cliff- diving into the sea, from heights of many hundreds of feet. Even young women would strip naked and leap from the summit of high cliffs, diving headlong into the foaming water and bobbing up afterward. One can only imagine their dark hair streaming down their shoulders and their faces beaming with delight.

One of my finds in digging through archives was an engraving of ancient surfers, as well as nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs of the sport. But for those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to visit the State Archives of Hawaii in Honolulu but want to learn more about the history of surfing, I’d suggest a wonderful book called Surfing: A History of the Ancient Sport, which was co-authored by Ben R. Finney and the late James D. Houston. I found a copy in our local library.  I also loved DeSoto Brown’s Surfing: Historic Images from the Bishop Museum Archives.

As for getting out on the water, I’m more of an stand-up paddle or kayak girl myself – and maybe a boogie boarder if conditions are just right. But I’m heading to Honolulu later this spring and hope to finally take the surf lesson I’d been promising myself while I sat in darkened archives. Cowabunga!


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