History of Surfing in Hawai'i

The first documentation containing a description of surfing is from a journal entry by Lieutenant King, Captain Cook’s successor.



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Fig. 1. Lieutenant James King served under James cook in the 1770's. 

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“….The men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, and their Arms are used to guide the plank, they wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much praised……”

(Cook’s Voyages, 1779; quoted by Ben Marcus in From Polynesia with Love, at http://surfingforlife.com )


Hawaiians are credited for having invented surfing or he‘e nalu. The length of the surfboard, as well as the type of wood the surfboard was made of, differentiated the royalty from the commoners. Ali‘i (royalty) surfboards, called olo, were 14–16 feet long, and were made from wiliwili trees. The makaainanas' (commoners') boards, called alaia, were only 10–12 feet long, and were made from denser koa wood. Although olo were less dense, they still could weigh up to 175 pounds. If a commoner dropped in on a wave that an ali‘i wanted to ride, or rode a wave that an ali‘i was catching, those violations warranted the death penalty.


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Fig. 2. An image taken from 'Captain Cook's Voyages around the World' showing what surfing might have looked like at that time.

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Image courtesy of Flickr



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Fig 3. An image of a surfer taken from the book 'Hawai'i and it's people; the land of rainbow and palm" written in the 1890's.

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Image courtesy of Flickr

The creation of a surfboard was also sacred. Before chopping down a tree, a surfboard maker would place a kūmū, or ritualistic fish, in a hole near the roots of the tree and pray. After the tree was cut down and hauled away, it would be roughly shaped using bone or adze. The board would then be taken to a halau, or canoe house, where coral and stone would be used to further refine the shape of the board. Burned kukui nuts, roots from the ti plant, hili (pounded bark), or banana bud stains were used to blacken the board. Kukui nut oil was then applied to give the board a smooth and shiny finish. Before its first use the finished surfboard would be dedicated. After every use, the surfboard was rubbed with coconut oil, and wrapped with tapa cloth to preserve its finish. Because of the painstaking care required to build and maintain them, surfboards became treasured possessions to ancient Hawaiians.

With the arrival of the first missionaries in early 1800’s, belief systems of the early Hawaiian society changed, and eventually the Kapu system was abolished. This resulted in the dwindling numbers of surfers. In the later half of the nineteenth century, King Kalakaua, the Merry Monarch, revived many ancient practices including the hula and surfing. By 1905, a young teenager named Duke Kahanamoku and his friends frequented Waikiki Beach to ride waves. Their wooden boards, made from either balsa or redwood, were typically taller than them, approximately 14–18 feet, and were used to catch the small swells at this surf spot. These young men formed the Hui Nalu or the Club of Waves, which eventually became the famous Waikiki Beach Boys.

Henry Huntington asked George Freeth (an Irish Hawaiian) to demonstrate the sport at a Redondo Beach, California, railroad opening in 1907. Freeth was the first craftsman to cut a 16-foot board in half to create shorter surfboards, which made maneuvering waves easier. California beaches became the breeding ground for innovative surfboard designs and techniques.

In 1935 the first fin was attached to surfboards and is often given as the start of modern surfing. In the 1940’s fiberglass meant that strong, light, waterproof modern surfboards could be constructed. At first balsa wood (very light wood) was used as the surfboards core. Balsa wood was later replaced with polyurethane foam that is still used today.

Surfing Today

Waves at Waimea Bay on the North Shore can reach heights of 20–30 feet on the backside. Surfing these waves was thrilling for many of the surfers who migrated from California to Hawai‘i. Today, surfboards are made of fiberglass with pointed noses making them ideal for riding killer waves. Fins have been added to surfboard designs for optimum big wave performance. Lengths have been shortened and, over the years, materials have changed from wood, to fiberglass and polyurethane foam, and to epoxy. Surfboard designs have improved drastically with technological advances.

Surfing has changed dramatically since its inception. Today, women like their male counterparts, also surf killer waves. Other surfing sports have evolved like tandem surfing and performing tricks on a board. If a surfer puts the weight of his body on the front nose of his board, that is called a hang ten, during which the surfer’s ten toes are at the front of the board. Surfers are sometime seen doing handstands on their boards when the waves are small. Children in Hawai‘i are also learning to surf at younger ages, and keiki (child) surfing competitions are held yearly. Surfing today is not only for the young, but also for the young at heart, such as, on the North Shore, a group of more mature women who call themselves the Golden Girl Surfers. Surfing is a sport that has gained popularity internationally as well. Surfing movies have been made about traveling the globe to find that perfect wave. For as long as surfing exists, that quest has become a universal one.


Surfboard Technology

Ancient Hawai'i Up until 1950s 1950s to present
Materials lightweight wiliwili trees
denser koa wood
wood Synthetic foams, fiberglass, epoxy, biofoam, balsa wood
Shape/Design 10-16 feet long 12-16 feet long All sizes: short
4–8 feet, hybrid, long boards

This information is from Exploring Our Fluid Earth on the Origin and Diversity of Surf Crafts.

Surfing Vocabulary
  • adze: a tool similar to an axe, with an arched blade at right angles to the handle, used for cutting or shaping large pieces of wood.
  • alaia: 10-12 foot long surfboards for commoners made of dense koa wood
  • ali‘i: royalty
  • halau: canoe house
  • he‘e nalu: surfing
  • kapu system: a strict set of laws regulating and managing Hawaiian natural resources for continual selfsustainability
  • makaainana: commoner
  • olo: 14-16 foot long surfboards for royalty made of wiliwili wood



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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawai?i, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.