We promised to tell you more about where surfing came from. This is the first of a two-part series sharing the history and evolution of surfing and how it played a vital role in the Hawaiian culture, sometimes taking priority over daily chores as a competitive, religious and community pastime. A favorite long boarding wave on Kauai.

Before we pe deep into the history of surfing, it’s important you know the basics. Here’s the breakdown of the surfing anatomy: the


, the


and the


. Though modern day surfing has added many gadgets and accessories, these three basic elements are all one truly needs to partake in the sport. Part two of this story will include moolelo (stories, legends) about Hawaii surf spots, as well as common rituals associated with surfing. I can almost guarantee you’ll learn at least one new thing from this two-part series; I definitely did, and now when I surf, I’ll be sure to share what I learned with others in the line-up.


Before a surfer can even think about surfing, there has to be waves. Waves form hundreds of thousands of miles out at sea before traveling toward land. Wind is the primary wave-building force. It hits the ocean’s surface for long periods of time, creating rough seas and stormy conditions. The waves that leave these storms are called “


,” and they are similar to how ripples roll outward from a pebble dropped in a pond. The swells start to peak as the water’s depth gets shallower. This is where a surfer catches the wave, before it crashes back into the ocean and disappears into millions of fizzy bubbles. Forming far out at sea before nearing land, waves like these are a surfer’s dream.

Despite its name – which means peaceful ocean – the Pacific can get pretty rough. Storms throughout the Pacific can generate swells that sometimes head for Hawaii. Word gets out pretty quickly when waves are on their way, either from the nightly news reports, the Internet, telephone hotline or a smartphone app. There are numerous websites that provide the daily surf outlook for Hawaii and beyond. One from the National Weather Service shows where swells are headed and measure their size with a color-coded illustration. Buoys out in the middle of the ocean help track swells that pass under them. They can provide up-to-date readings of how big swells are and how consistent the waves will be.

Some surfers live by these surf forecasts. They’re aptly called

wave chasers


swell chasers

, similar to storm chasers, who track tornadoes or hurricanes on land. My boyfriend and I have a friend here on Oahu who just took an impromptu trip to Japan after reading surf forecasts for the coming week. And yes, we’re very, very jealous.

VIDEO: A Maui surf trip with my family. Putting it all together – the wave, the board and the surfer – and some fun stuff in between.


There are several ways to ride a wave – by canoe, kayak, surfboard or scratch it all and just use your own body. Ancient Hawaiians made their boards out of koa or ulu (breadfruit) trees. They could weigh up to 150 lbs. and be thicker than the vertical length of your hand. These boards, called

‘olo boards

, were 16 feet long and only used by chief. Children used smaller boards that were less than four feet tall. (The Bishop Museum has a collection of these ancient boards on display.)

Boards have come a long way since then. They’re now made with molded plastic foam or balsa wood and sealed with water-proofing fiberglass or epoxy. This makes the surfboards much lighter. There are two basic categories for boards:




. Shortboards are usually no longer than seven feet and have more maneuverability on waves than a longboard. Longboards can be anywhere from nine to 12 feet in length and are more buoyant than shortboards. Beginners should learn to surf on longboards before jumping on a shortboard, as they’re easier to paddle and balance on.A stack of surfboards shows the evolution in their design.

Some important board design evolutions since ancient times:


(acts as rudders to hold the board in the wave and allow one to steer),


(attaches from the tail of the board to the surfer’s ankle or calf, preventing him/her from losing the board and having to swim for it) and


(surfer rubs this all over the deck of the board to create traction and prevent from slipping off). Hawaiians didn’t have wax and instead made scratches on their boards. Today some surfers have added lengthened canoe-paddles to the mix and stand-up paddle into the waves.


My sister, Ariel, walking the nose in Maui. Today’s surfers do more tricks on waves than in ancient times.

With a wave to ride and a board to stand on, the surfer can enjoy the ultimate ocean experience. The best way to understand surfing would be to take a lesson and try for yourself. But generally, a surfer should sit where the wave peaks. When a wave approaches, he/she will lie on the board facing the shore and paddle with both arms. A push forward from the wave signals the surfer to stand up on the board and ride the moving water beneath. Easier said than done, but when done, it’s hard to let go.

Kauai & Wave Photo Credit: Noa Myers

Source: Finney, Ben and Houston, James. Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport. San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996.


  1. I love oceansports in any capacity! I’m so glad we’re in the more modern day, where our boards are much lighter making it easier to handle, and to manuever. I have a quiver of ocean toys, boards, stand up boards, one man canoe, and a paddle board. When the urge hits me, I grab a toy and get wet. The ocean is the best way to distress and feel good. After your work out, you feel like a million .. Its one of the many reasons, I love livin’ in Hawai’i. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again..Hawai’i No Ka Oi!! Mahalo Alyssa!

  2. Many fond memories of Honolua with the fam. Can’t wait for spring break! Again, well written blog…really enjoyed it!

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