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 surf riders, men and women, are pictured as early as 1920 on a beach in Cornwall with their primitive Boards. They used modified coffin lids about five feet long, made by a Iocal undertaker!

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  • 1922

Agatha Christie Began Riding Surfboards Standing Up At Waikiki

Agatha Christie, doyenne of crime writing and creator of Miss Marple & Hercule Poirot was also one of Britain’s first surf girls!“Oh it was heaven! Nothing like rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures I have known.”This is how Agatha described her experience as a surf-stoked young woman after gliding to shore standing on her surfboard, 89 years ago.


  • 932

Britain’s Weekly Magazine For The Scout Movement Showed Boys Surfing Standing Up On The Front Cover

As early as 1932 Britain’s weekly magazine for the massive Scout movement showed boys surfing standing up on the front cover “Surf riding is fine fun,” children were told.

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  • 1934

The Art Of Surf Riding” By Ronald Funnell Is Published

In 1934 the first ever full guide to surf riding in Britain was published for the growing band of people who enjoyed this “refreshing sport.’ Boards evolved into smooth plywood planks around four feet long with an upturned nose to stop them pearling in the white-water where they were most commonly used.

The Art of Surf Riding” by Ronald Funnell was a full-on surf book, telling readers how to ride waves (lying down), and where the best surfing beaches in Britain were. Adverts from 1934 tourist guidebooks state that you would get a free copy of the instructional booklet when you bought your Crest surf-riding board.

  • 1934

The Country’s First Wave Pool For Surfing Was Opened.

The same year the country’s first wave pool for surfing was opened! As unbelievable as it may seem the Duke of Gloucester cut the ribbon on the Empire swimming pool at Wembley (London) on July 25th 1934.

In the mid 1930s coastal towns like Newquay in Cornwall and Woolacombe in Devon were marketing themselves as surfing destinations, using images of surfing (mostly women) on the covers of guidebooks.

  • 1935

Tom Blake Wrote In His Historic Book Hawaiian Surfboard That, ‘A Chap From England Expects To Try To Swim The English Channel On A Hollow Board.”

In 1935 Tom Blake (the inventor of the hollow wooden surfboard and the fin) wrote in his historic book Hawaiian Surfboard that, ‘a chap from England expects to try to swim the English Channel on a hollow board.” Blake based his boards partly on the design of ancient Hawaiian olo longboards, and on the hull of English racing boats.

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  • 1937

Railway Companies Used Surfing Images To Advertise Holidays

The railway companies cashed in – also using images on posters advertising holidays in the west Country as early as 1937.

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Credit, original research by Peter Robinson, founder Museum of British Surfing
Copyright The Surfing Museum Ltd. AII rights reserved

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1920: Edward Albert Prince of Wales learns to surf from Duke Kanahmoko in Apri 1920 in Waikiki Beach Honolulu. Prince Edward started out his wave riding experience on a canoe but soon graduated to a surfboard. The Due took him out on a huge wooden board to ride tandem. Joe Brennen;s Biography of the gereat Kahanamoko,

The Duke was named after Duke of edinbourough


1966: The English Royal family continued its links with surfing when in 1966 the Queen Mother visited Hawaii. She may not have surfed (who knows!) but she did dance the hula with surfings greatest ambassador Duke Kahanamoku at a special reception in Honolulu


2004: One of the latest people to join the ranks of British surfers in 2004 is Prince William. Destined to be King of England at some point in the future, William has been learning to surf in Scotland while studying at St Andrews University. He joins a long line of Royals who have surfed over the years, not least his father Prince Charles. Welcome to the fold William – aloha from all us.




With a land mass nearly twice as large as all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island has no shortage of volcanic coastline, and hee nalu has a vast historical representation here. I notice several ancient kii pohaku (petroglyphs) which clearly depict surfing. King Kamehameha the Great, who was born on the island, knew this place like the back of his hand—especially the good surf spots. His favorite was rumored to be Kapanaia in North Kohala, not far from where he was born.

Papaenaena on Oahu, for example, was a recorded surfing heiau on the western slope of Leahi (aka Diamond Head), but it was mostly destroyed in the 1850s for Waikiki roadwork. A piece remained until a tennis court was built for the Hawaii School for Girls.

Two of the most documented sites in ancient surfing may go unnoticed, unless you know where to look: the historic Keolonahihi complex at Kamoa Point (also known as Lyman’s surf break), and the Kuemanu heiau at Kahaluu Beach Park. These two extraordinary locations feature heiau that were once specifically used by the alii (chiefs), and even the makaainana (commoners), to pray for waves. the Haleaaaama heiau, a structure once dedicated entirely to surfing.



In Liholiho’s decision to abandon the ancient taboo, the new monarchy reorganized itself with a woman at the center of power. He could have left it at this. He could have given the priests some dignity by keeping the other aspects of Hawaiian religion going. But Liholiho and Kaahumanu went all the way. They challenged the very foundation of Hawaii, the power of the priesthood and the temples. They destroyed the sacred sites.



He and his male siblings, enjoyed the highly indigenous sports of outrigger canoeing, swimming, body surfing, diving and surfing.

Duke learned to surf when he was 8 years old from other keiki. (children) Duke helped revitalize the sport of surfing in Hawaiʻi and exported a love for that sport internationally.

As a surfer, he was one of the Waikīkī beachboys, a tourism attraction in their own right, “talking story” with visitors from around the world.

After returning from the 1912 Summer Olympics, Duke introduced surfing to the United States. His surfing demonstration and teachings inspired many novice surfers in Australia, New Zealand and United States. Many sought to perfect their skills under Duke’s guidance. This was especially true for Wisconsin born and loyal friend, Tom Blake.

During this time, he created water safety programs and trained American Red Cross volunteers with his emergency lifesaving skills.

In 1925, Duke influenced open water rescue officials to use surfboards as standard emergency equipment. The surfboard was found crucial after he and other surfers used their boards to save twelve fishermen off the coast of California. Numerous beaches throughout Hawaii have surfboards at their lifeguard stations.





Kelea, sister of the king of Maui, “was famed as the most graceful and daring surfer in the kingdom. One day while surfing at Lahaina, she accepted an invitation to ride in the canoe of a visiting chief from Oahu. A sudden squall swept them out to sea, and taking advantage of the storm, Kalamakua abducted Kelea and sailed for Oahu. He presented her to his high chief Lo-Lake. Kelea was furious, but she was a captive. To make things worse, this “husband” liked to live inland, well away from Kelea’s beloved waves. She vowed to return to Maui. The story says that she stopped to surf at Ewa, and wound up accepting Kalamakua’s proposal of marriage. [44]


Surfing: the Spirit of Hawaiian Kings. Ben R. Finney, James D. Houston. Rutland VT: Charles E Tuttle, 1966



– Another early observer, writing about Lahaina, Maui, also in 1823, noted that the surfboard “. . . forms an article of personal property among all the chiefs, male and female, and among many of the common people.”

– John I’i writes that Kamehameha I was trained in his youth to surf with board and canoe and that he and his wife, Ka’ahumanu, were expert surfers, noted especially for their skill in lele wa’a (canoe leaping), in which the surfer leaps from a canoe with his board into a moving wave to surf it to shore. 8 An expert surfer might be honoured in a chief’s court and Kamehameha included among his retainers of skilful and learned men a champion surfer named Kekakau. 9 http://www.jenniferdsmallphd.com/MET_102_Readings/Finney_1959.pdf


* kulana nalu, which is the place where the surfers paddle to catch the swelling wave

* the simple prone position (kipapa) of riding


Riding Position: . . . could only be indulged in after the board had taken on the surf momentum and in the following manner. Placing the hands on each side of the board, close to the edge, the weight of the body was thrown on the hands, and the feet brought quickly to the kneeling position. The sitting position is attained in the same way, though the hands must not be removed from the board till the legs are thrown forward and the desired position is secured. From the kneeling to the standing position was obtained by placing both hands again on the board and with agility leaping to an erect attitude, balancing the body on the swift-coursing board with outstretched arms.


Ride Angles: The alternative is to ride not straight in front of the wave but on either side of the break, which is accomplished by turning the board to the right or the left and angling away from the break. In this angling technique (lala), which is discussed by Caton and Buck,


Surf Chant: Kumai! Kumai! Ka nalu nui mai kahiki mai, Alo poi pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue, Hu! Kaikoo loa. Arise, arise ye great surfs from Kahiki, The powerful curling waves. Arise with pohuehue, Well up, long raging surf.


Surfing Heiau: Kuemanu Heiau Kahaluu Bay



Papa Holua: Land Surfing (Sledding):

In papa holua, participants rode a 12-foot long, 50-pound “sled” the width of a ski down a rocky slope. But that’s not all — riders would run a few steps with sled in hand, then dive chest-first onto the papa holua for their face-first ride down the mountain. Some would even ride standing up!

Professor Tom Stone of the University of Hawaii, who also happens to be an established surfer, is the current expert on this long-lost sport and is almost single-handedly trying to revive it. Said Stone, “It’s like sledding on your stomach … You’re doing 40 miles per hour, just four inches off the ground.”  Stone has already taught 250 students the unique art of how to build and ride papa holua, and has built more than 100 sleds himself. He believes the sleds were first used as tools to move tree logs, and then were adapted to be used in “a ritual by which Hawaiians put their lives in the hands of the gods.”

Kahua Holua: One slide at Kahikinui on Maui. It’s 5,000 feet, or nearly a mile, long.



1892: Bishop Museum already had a collection of ancient surfboards: On the 1892 catalog the activity of He’e Nalu and the Surfboards (Papa Nalu) are described.




John R.K. Clark, author of “Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions From The Past“, has extensively studied the presence of surfing in the Hawaiian language.

Afraid – maka’u

Back of a wave – ha’i muku, halehale, halehale po’ipu, kawaha, po’ipu, puku, uhi, waha, wahawaha

Backwash – ha’i ka nalu a ho’i hou i waho

Barrel – ha’i muku, halehale, halehale po’ipu, kawaha, po’ipu, puku, uhi, waha, wahawaha

Base of a wave – konua, kumu

Beach – kahakai, kahaone, ‘o, one, one loa

Beginner – ‘akahi akahi, hemahema, holona, malihini, mea hawawa

Board – papa, papa alaia, papa he’e nalu, papa hoe he’e nalu, papa he’e one, papa kiko’o, papa la’au, papa lana, papa li’ili’i, papa olo, papa omo, papa pae po’o

Bodysurf – he’e umauma, kaha, kaha nalu, pae po, pae po’b

Break – kalana nalu (lineup), po’ina nalu (shorebreak)

Buoy – mouo, pua

Canoe – wa’a (outrigger), wa’a pakaka nalu (surfing)

Catch a wave – pae

Channel – kowa, kai kowa

Contest – heihei, ho’okuku

Coral – ‘ako’ako’a, ko’a kea, puna, puna kea

Crest of a wave – ‘ako, ‘ako’ako, weleau

Curl – muku, ‘opi

Current – au

Dawn – molehulehu

Dunes – pu’e one, pu’u one

Fin – kuhoe

Flat – nalu ‘ole

Foam of a surfboard – papa lana

Harbor – awa, kai kuono

Help – kokua

Home break – nalu kama’aina, nalu o ka ‘aina

Injury – ‘eha

Lagoon – kai kohola, kua’au

Lifeguard – kia’i ola, po’e ho’opakele ola

Limestone – pa’akea

Lineup – kulana, kulana he’e nalu, kulana kai, kulana nalu, kulana nalu kupono

Longboard – pa loa, papa lo’ihi, papa nui

Lost at sea – nalowale

Nose of a surfboard – ihu, maka, po’o

Ocean – kai, moana, moana hohonu lipolopo (deep blue), moana lipopo (dark blue)

Outside – waho o kua nalu

Paddle for a wave – hoe, ka, oma

Paddle out – ‘au

Rail of a surfboard – ‘ao’ao

Reef – ‘apapa, hapapa, laupapa, papa, papapa

Rescue – ho’opakele

Ride – he’e, holo, kakele, pae, pae pu

Ripples – ‘ale’ale

River surfing – he’e pu’e wai

Sand – one

Sandbar – pu’e one

Sea – kai, moana

Sea spray – ‘ea, ‘ea’ea, ‘ehu, ‘ehu kai, huna kai

Seaweed – limu

Set of waves – kaka’i

Shaper – kahuna kalai papa alaia he’e nalu

Shark – mano

Shell – pupu

Shorebreak – po’ina nalu, po’ina one

Shortboard – pa poko

Shoulder of a wave – hokua, po’ohiwi

Skimboard – papa he’e one

Skimming – he’e one

Slide – he’e, lala

Sound of waves – ‘a’ina nalu, halulu, haluku, kapo’o, nakolo, ne, nehe, ‘owe

Sport – hana le’ale’a

Stand-up surfboard – papa hooe he’e nalu, papa ku

Stand-up surfing – hoe he’e nalu, ku hoe

Storm surf – ‘ale’ale ‘ino

Stormy – kupiki’o puleileho

Sun – la

Sunset – napo’o ka la

Surf, surfing – he’e, he’e nalu, kha, kaha nalu, kakele

Surfboard – alaia, kiko’o, olo, ‘onini, papa he’e nalu, papa he’e nalu ha niu, papa hoe he’e nalu, papa ku, papa la’au, papa lana

Surfer – kanaka he’e nalu, wahine he’e nalu

Surf spot – kahi