Surfing was an important cultural and social pastime. Surfing’s Historical-Cultural Impact includes Hawaiian Language vocabulary specific to surfing, Ole, and Mele, Prayers, and legends. Historical figures from the modern age, like Princess Liliokalani, were surfers. And many Ali’i surfed. We have many examples of well-preserved surfboards of various ages dating back to the earliest times. Hawaiian history, culture and society and intimately connected to the sport and art form of Surfing. Surfing in Lahaina is also well documented and was home to surfing (168 years ago) for all social classes including Royalty. Surfing continues until the modern-day and represents an unbroken Hawaiian traditional practice, that characterizes the Hawaiian’s love, respect, and mastery of the ocean.
In 1851, the Reverend Henry T. Cheever observed surfing at Lahaina, Maui and wrote about it in his book, Life in the Hawaiian Islands, The Heart of the Pacific As it Was and Is.
“It is highly amusing to a stranger to go out into the south part of this town, some day when the sea is rolling in heavily over the reef, and to observe there the evolutions and rapid career of a company of surf-players. The sport is so attractive and full of wild excitement to Hawaiians, and withal so healthful, that I cannot but hope it will be many years before civilization shall look it out of countenance, or make it disreputable to indulge in this manly, though it be dangerous, exercise. Many a man from abroad who has witnessed this exhilarating play, has no doubt inly wished that he were free and able to share in it himself. For my part, I should like nothing better, if I could do it, than to get balanced on a board just before a great rushing wave, and so be hurried in half or quarter of a mile landward with the speed of a race-horse, all the time enveloped in foam and spray, but without letting the roller break and tumble over my head. In this consists the strength of muscle and sleight-of-hand, to keep the head and shoulders just ahead and clear of the great crested wall that is every moment impending over one, and threatening to bury the bold surf-rider in its watery ruin. The natives do this with admirable intrepidity and skill, riding in, as it were, upon the neck and mane of their furious charger; and when you look to see them, their swift race run, dashed upon the rocks or sand, behold, they have slipped under the belly of the wave they rode, and are away outside, waiting for a cruise upon another. Both men and women, girls and boys, have their times for this diversion. Even the huge Premier (Auhea) has been known to commit her bulky person to a surf-board; and the chiefs generally, when- they visit Lahaina, take a turn or two at this invigorating sport with billows and board. For a more accurate idea of it than can be conveyed by any description, the reader is referred to the engraving. I have no doubt it would run away with dyspepsia from many a bather at Rockaway or Easthampton, if they would learn, and dare to use a surf-board on those great Atlantic rollers, as the Hawaiians do on the waves of the Pacific. But there is wanting on the Atlantic sea-board that delicious, bland temperature of the water, which within the tropics, while it makes sea-bathing equally a tonic, renders it always safe. Tile missionaries at these Islands, and foreigners generally, are greatly at fault in that they do not avail thelmselves more of this easy and unequalled means of retaining health, or of restoring it when enfeebled. Bathing in fresh water, in a close bath-house, is not to be compared to it as an invigorating and remedial agent; and it is unwise, not to say criminal, in such a climate, to neglect so natural a way of preserving health, as washing and swimming in the sea. In those who live close to the water, and on the leeward side of the Islands, it is the more inexcusable, for it could be enjoyed without exposure in the dewless evenings; or in some places, a small house might be built on stone abutments over the water, and facilities so contrived that both sexes could enjoy this great luxury of a life within the tropics.”
The Ancient Hawaiian people did not consider surfing a mere recreational activity, hobby, extreme sport, or career as it is viewed today. Rather, the Hawaiian people integrated surfing into their culture and made surfing more of an art than anything else. They referred to this art as heʻe nalu which translates into English as “wave sliding.”
Religion played a significant role in the surfing lives of ancient Polynesians:
tree trunks were prayed over before they were shaped into surfboards, surf-dedicated temples were built (suggesting that there was a god unique to surfing, although the deity’s name remains unknown), waves were called forth with chants and prayers, and competing surfers always made offerings prior to entering the water.
Hawaii’s early Polynesian settlers master the art of he‘e nalu:
Hawaii’s early Polynesian settlers were among the first people to take to the ocean to master the art of he‘e nalu or “wave-sliding.”