Monday, 7 June 2010

Surfing: The Sport and its Lore

Between 1860 and 1910 surfing almost died out in Hawaii. Then Alexander Hume Ford, a journalist and the precocious playwright of The Little Confederate, came to the islands in 1910 looking for dramatic material. Instead he found a culture to trumpet to the world. He was particularly struck with the possibilities of reviving surf riding, which by then was practiced only occasionally at Lahaina.

He soon learned how to surf and started to teach others the old sport. He begged the site for the Outrigger Canoe Club from the Queen Emma estate, and before long he had made the surfer the image of Hawaii. Ford also helped found the Pan-Pacific Institute to make Honolulu the cultural and intellectual center of the Pacific.

Nathaniel B. Emerson contends that the sport was not restricted to nobility in the old days, as so often is heard. In ancient times the boards were ridden in a reclining position. The ancient olo (long) board was comparatively narrow and thick--about six inches--and convex on top and bottom, which made it too unstable for a standing ride. Some of the surfboards of koa wood used by the old Hawaiian chiefs have been found to weigh as much as two hundred twenty pounds, compared with the twenty-five to forty pounds of today's plastic boards.

The wiliwili boards were sometimes eighteen feet long and weighed one hundred fifty pounds. They were stained black, dried in the sun after use, rubbed with coconut oil, and put under a roof until needed again. Only chiefs used these big boards, which were thicker, tapering and convex on both sides, in contrast with the six-foot boards, made of koa or breadfruit wood, which were thin and nearly flat. Modern boards are six inches wider than the ancient eighteen-inch boards, flat on the top with a slightly convex bottom.

Back in the 1930's, when the hollow surfboard was not yet wholly accepted, Tom Blake and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku conducted a lifesaving test with a sailor "drowning" one hundred yards behind his ship. The surfers had the man back aboard before a lifeboat manned by six men was free from the ship. That is why the American Red Cross considers the hollow surfboard the most efficient kind of lifesaving equipment ever invented. A Hawaiian rescue squad always has one.

One of the early surfing authorities, Tom Blake, pointed out that the average ride on a surfboard at Waikiki is not over two hundred yards, and the surf must be running blow-hole-break to make the ride. When the surf gets a little larger it is called first-break, and a rider can cover a maximum of three hundred yards. Only about three times a year does the great kalahuewehe, or Castle-break, run. With it you can ride the maximum distance all the way to shore.

Surfing has its mythmakers as well as its humorists. Umi was perhaps the world's grumpiest surfer in history. He was the high-living son of a king of Hawaii who insisted for his son's safety that Umi travel incognito on his pleasure and adventure trips.

Once Umi got wind of a surfing carnival at Laupahoehoe on the Big Island and sent a challenge. He raced against one of the local petty chiefs, named Paeia, for the high stakes of four large outrigger canoes (two-thousand dollar value). Umi won after a most exhilarating contest. But several years later, when he became king at his father's death, he went to Hilo to have Paeia sacrificed at the local heiau for allegedly bumping his board slightly during their contest.

From A Guide to Hawaii/Dolphin, 1965, Authentic Hawaiiana, pp. 32-34

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