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Surfing in Hawaii

Surfing for the pure joy of it . . . that's why the original Polynesians did it. That's why many in Hawaii still do.

Jul 25, 2009
John Severson is not only a noted surfer, but surfing's leading artist too.
John Severson is not only a noted surfer, but surfing's leading artist too.
Watercolour John Severson, Black Rock 10, 2008, courtesy

From a handful of fun-loving outliers in Hawaii a hundred and more years past, surfing has grown exponentially, as an inclusive lifestyle embraced by all ages, walks of life and both genders, to a multibillion-dollar industry.

“Yeah, nowadays,” says surfer Buzzy Kerbox, “scouts sign kids to endorsement deals at 10 and 12 years old.”

Name another sport with viable marketing representatives on each end of a 40-year age spread.

Films featuring surfers, such as Step Into Liquid and Riding Giants, propagate the mystique of the surfer. They hint at the day-to-day perils embraced by proto-Hawaiian watermen and attempt to capture the surfers’ “stoke,” their raison d’être—to use the Hawaiian term, their hopupu.

The Beginnings of Surfing

That was certainly all that motivated Hawaii’s settlers, the Polynesians. They ingeniously shaped their own entertainment—bellyboards and surfboards. Thus was born he’e nalu, or wave sliding. Surfing.

European missionaries’ contempt for ostensibly primitive, “heathen” Hawaiian culture and the frivolity of he’e nalu all but extinguished recreational surfing—and the sensuous art of hula, too, for that matter. But as the sun rose on the 20th century, an oppressive tide ebbed. Hawaiian King David Kalakaua, known as “the Merrie Monarch”—’cuz he threw a good party—reinstated hula.

Duke Kahanamoku, a 
gold-medal swimmer in two consecutive Olympics, stoked the grey embers of a smouldering waterman tradition. His example helped to reignite surfing.

The Evolution of Surfing

John Severson, the creator of Surfer Magazine, recalls his mid-century introduction to surfing. “First of all, 
I couldn’t even get the board to the water. I was a little guy. The water-soaked board weighed 125 pounds. Carrying it takes two of us. And then, it takes three or four paddles before the board starts moving.”

By the 1960s, technology made surfboards shorter, lighter and more manoeuvrable. Automobiles and air travel linked distant seaside locales. And postwar pop culture embraced the carefree optimism of surfing, making it cool. But surfing sat somewhat at the fringe, even on the islands.

“When I got to Hawaii in 1967, not as many people surfed,” Kerbox recounts. The Indiana transplant soon began winning contests and turned pro. “In those days, there wasn’t much money in
the sport. Surfing wasn’t about money. It was about surfing. We scraped to get from contest to contest.”

Hawaii—Surfer’s Paradise

It’s no surprise that Hawaiians have traditionally been the greatest watermen. The inherent benefit of hunting surf on an island chain is that somewhere there’s a bigger or smaller swell and an offshore wind. The beauty of surfing Hawaii finally is to deliver you to the bliss of catching the wave,” or hopupu.


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