Foreign influence and disease led to a rapid and
precipitous decline in Hawaiian culture and surfing was no
exception. Missionaries considered surfing dangerous and
associated it with indecent attire and sexual freedom. They
declared that it was “against the laws of God.” The sport
almost completely disappeared within decades.
But the siren song of Hawai‘i’s perfect waves could
not be silenced. In the 20th century, surfing came back in
force, and this time it wasn’t just for Hawaiians. Resurging
interest in surfing first sprung up in Waikïkï but quickly
spread to the other islands. Locals of all races and a growing
population of haoles (Caucasians) from the mainland took
up the sport with new enthusiasm. New boards made from
lighter woods and later polyurethane foam and fiberglass
made it easier for new surfers to learn quickly.
Soon the secret got out and surfing’s growing popularity
spread out from Hawai‘i like a sweet mele (song) on the
ocean breeze. Following his gold medal swimming victories
in the 100-meter freestyle in the 1912 Olympics, Duke
Kahanamoku, who had honed his surfing skills at Waikïkï,
brought surfing to the mainland and the rest of the world.
Duke’s incredible skill along with his regal charm and good
looks planted a seed in the imagination of would-be surfers
everywhere and the sport was poised to go global.
Southern California provided fertile ground for new
converts to the sport. A small group of surfers in Malibu
refined their skills while they created a generation of newer
boards that could really rip compared with the 150 pound
wooden behemoths of yesteryear. These surfers dreamed
of stowing away to Hawai‘i and lived an unconventional
life. Often camping out at remote beaches, they lived by
their own rules and made surfing a priority.
It was the kind of lifestyle that Hollywood could not
resist. In 1959, the movie Gidget, about a naive teenage
girl who dabbles in surfing and cavorts with unsavory beach
bums, put a spotlight on surfing and the surf culture. The
sport would never be the same. In fact, Gidget was a
cautionary tale that even the missionaries of Hawai‘i who
discouraged surfing might have appreciated. But the anti-surfing message of the film seems to have been lost and
audiences went away with the impression that surfing was
fun and surfers were cool.
During the 1960s, surfing went mainstream and beaches
in California and Hawai‘i became crowded with new
converts to the sport. It was the beginning of a full-blown
love affair with saltwater and fiberglass that continues
to this day. Since then surfing has grown in every way.
More people of all ages and walks of life surf. There are a
bewildering variety of boards and surfing styles. Adventure
seeking surfers have pioneered new surfing spots all over
the world. Professional surfers have pushed the limits
of surfing skill to previously unimagined levels. And the
bravest of the brave routinely surf waves over 50 feet
in height. Along with this growth have come organized
competition, and a multi-billion dollar industry of boards,
wetsuits, clothing and videos.
In reality, it’s getting downright crowded out there and
not everyone is happy about it. Since there isn’t an official
in the water to oversee the surfers, it’s up to those in the
water to figure out how to divvy up the same number of
waves among a larger and larger group of people. More
competitive surfers sometimes adopt a territorial mentality
known as localism. According this rather selfish idea,
surfers have to pay their dues before earning the right to
surf at the more advanced breaks. The pecking order is
enforced with intimidation or even violence. This attitude
is most common at more crowded areas in California and
O‘ahu. On Kaua‘i, you’ll find mostly smiles and a spirit
To non-surfers, it might seem like it’s the unique
language, clothing (or lack of clothing) and laidback
lifestyle associated with the sport that makes it so
appealing, but any surfer will tell you that at the end of the
day it’s not about looking cool or even the beach parties.
While surfers may like those things as much as anybody,
the sublime experience of surfing transcends all the clichés
and hype and those who have been bitten by the bug will
always come back for more.
Ready to give it a try? For those who have never surfed
before it’s best to start off with a lesson from a professional
surfing instructor. They will provide you with a large “soft
top” board ideal for learning and show you the basics.
Most people stand up and ride a wave on their first lesson.
In the old days snagging a wave reserved for ali‘i was
kapu (forbidden) and punishable by death. These days
you’ll find most people are pretty friendly out there, but
it’s important to stick to beginner spots until you develop
enough skill to be able to control your board. Lining up
at the more advanced breaks before you’re ready puts
yourself and others in danger. The locals will remind you
of this and if you never learned what the term “stink eye”
means, you’ll soon know.
Keep in mind that many of the surfers you see in the
water started surfing as soon as they could stand up. They
have an intimate knowledge of the ocean; and conditions
they consider fun could be deadly to the novice surfer. The
good news is you don’t need to surf big waves to have big
fun and that’s what surfing has been about since the first
Hawaiian stood up on a wooden plank.
-By Boreas van Nouhuys