This is the first of three parts concerning the past and present of surfing: from its origins to the latest happenings, the articles will explore the art of riding waves from an historical point of view.
Surfing is a way of living, not only a sport: it has created cultural beliefs and changed lifestyles for good. But, when has all of this started?
The origins of surfing
Although there is no actual written record about the first surfers, historians agree that they must have lived on the Pacific coast. Peruvians claim their primate, stating that the first surfers were indeed Peruvian anglers, who used wooden boards during their expeditions in search of fishes.
Nobody knows when the first stand-ups precisely happened. Nevertheless, it is known that the wealthy people of the Sandwich Islands, the “ali’i”, were keen on the sport of “he’enalu”, meaning “wave sliding” in old Hawaiian: “he’e” stands for a solid-liquid transformation and “nalu” refers to the wave movement. The ruling system in Hawaii was the Kapu and it held royalty above the common people: they used to surf in competitions, in order to show their strength and their superiority to the commoners.
The Kapu also determined the size and materials of the boards:
- The paipo, or kioe: a short board, usually used by children
- The alai or omo: intended for commoners and made with a heavy wood, koa.
- The kiko’o: larger than the omo but not as big as the olo.
- The olo: the longest board, made from the wiliwili tree and reserved to the ali’i. It could weight up to 175 pounds.
Before cutting the tree, the craftsmen placed a fish, kumu, in a hole near the tree, as an offering to the gods.
After they had chosen the wood, the artisans shaped it with a bone or a stone adze.
When they had achieved the shape they wanted, they used to apply a kukui oil to make the surface glossier.
Surfing first records: Captain Cook’s journals
The first actual written records date back to the 18th century. James Cook was the Royal Navy captain and he had already travelled three times around the Hawaiian chain, in the fruitless search of a passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Tired and frustrated, in 1778, he decided to make his ships, Discovery and Resolutions, stop at the Big Islands of Hawai’i. Unlucky, that was not a very fortunate decision: at Kealakekua bay, Captain Cook was killed by Hawaiians when he attempted to kidnap their high chief in return of one of his stolen boats.
Captain Cook had begun taking notes about the Hawaiian cultural believes in his journal: it was lieutenant James King who revised and completed them.
The following paragraph is an extract taken from one of Cook’s journal entries.
The Western eye, unused to the Hawaiian sport, is skeptical, amused and quizzical:
“The surf, which breaks on the coast round the bay, extends to the distance of about one hundred fifty yards from the shore, within which space, the surges of the sea, accumulating from the shallowness of the water, are dashed against the beach with prodigious violence. Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost heights, they choose that time for this amusement: twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet, they plunge under, and suffering it to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way, by swimming, out into the sea. The second wave is encountered in the same manner with the first; the great difficulty consisting in seizing the proper moment of diving under it, which, if missed, the person is caught by the surf, and driven back again with great violence; and all his dexterity is then required to prevent himself from being dashed against the rocks. As soon as they have gained, by these repeated efforts, the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. […] Those who succeed in their object of reaching the shore, have still the greatest danger to encounter. The coast being guarded by a chain of rocks, with, here and there, a small opening between them, they are obliged to steer their board through one of these, or, in case of failure, to quit it, before they reach the rocks, and, plunging under the wave, make the best of their way back again. This is reckoned very disgraceful, and is also attended with the loss of the board, which I have often seen, with great terror, dashed to pieces, at the very moment the islander quitted it. The boldness and address, with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.”