History of Surfing Instruction in Hawaii



The ancient Hawaiians, however, left us more accurate evidence of their sport. Petroglyphs of surfers, carved into the lava-rock landscape, and chants that tell the stories of great surfing feats, carried a symbolic lore throughout the generations. Some of these chants date as far back as 1500 A.D., which leads us to believe that surfing may have begun long before this time in the Polynesian culture. What we do know about the origin of surfing in Hawaii is that it was part of the Kapu system of laws, which held Hawaiian royalty above the commoners in the kingdom. Chiefs used surfing and other Hawaiian sports as competition to maintain their strength, agility and command over their people.



From the Journal of Captain King, Cook’s Voyages, March 1779, three months after the death of Captain Cook:

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. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always much larger than the others, and to flow higher on the shore, the rest breaking in the intermediate space, their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore. If by mistake they should place themselves on one of the smaller waves, which breaks before they reach the land, or should not be able to keep their plank in a proper direction on the top of the swell, they are left exposed to the fury of the next, and, to avoid it, are obliged again to dive, and regain the place from which they set out. 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 manoeuvres, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited.

Captain King’s journal entry is the first description of he’e nalu, the Hawaiian word for surfing, ever recorded by Western man. Since there was no written language at this time in Hawaii, King’s journal entry serves as man’s earliest written account of this Hawaiian sport.




1872: When Mark Twain visited the island in 1872, he marveled at the sight of seeing Hawaiians surfing on alaias and wrote the following account, which was published in newspapers in the mainland:

“The natives would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed … None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”


1876: In 1876 the travel writer J W Boddam-Whetham visits Hawaii and writes: “I do not see why this attractive sport should not be introduced in England in suitable localities – Brighton, for instance.”


1890: In 1890 two Hawaiian Princes and their English tutor went surfing on the north east coast of England at the resort of Bridlington. At the time of writing, the earliest confirmed wave riding in Britain. A letter discovered deep in the archives of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu describes how wo Hawaiian princes – and their English guardian – went surfing in Britain in September 1890. But this earliest record of UK surfing didn’t happen in sport’s meccas of Newquay or Croyde, it took place in the east Yorkshire resort of Bridlington – in the chilly, murky North Sea.

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  • 1907

Jack London Published His Essay “Learning Hawaiian Surfing”

Surfing became known as the ‘Sport of Kings’, because throughout its history in Hawaii it was widely practiced by Royalty. It had huge significance in island life, for the ruling families and everyday folk.

The author Jack London later called it ‘A Royal Sport’ in his essay “Learning Hawaiian Surfing”. This is a much more accurate description, because both Kings and Queens surfed. In fact many of the early ‘champion’ surfers were women. So it follows that one of Britain’s early surfers was a member of our Royal family.

  • 1910

The Illustrated London News Featured A Picture Of Surfing

The Illustrated London News featured a picture of surfing on the front cover in 1910. The article alongside this striking image spoke of the surfer being, “ready to stand upon his board while it is in full forward motion – not such a difficult feat after all.”

  • 1920

Edward, Prince Of Wales, Learned To Surf At Waikiki Beach

Edward Albert, Prince of Wales, learned to surf on the long, rolling combers of Waikiki beach during a Royal visit to Hawaii in April 1920, and he loved it.

He was taught by the famous beach boy, and the man considered to be the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku. ‘The Duke’ inherited his name from his father, who back in 1869 had been named after the Britain’s Duke of Edinburgh following an earlier Royal visit to the islands.

  • 1920

A Group Of Surf Riders Are Pictured On A Beach In Cornwall With Their Primitive Boards

A group of s