Every December, the North Shore coastline of Hawaii is inundated from surfing fans from around the world. They infiltrate the white sandy beaches of the tropical paradise hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero’s fight for the coveted spot on the throne of professional surfing.
Theses heroes? Men and women from near and far who gather in Hawaii each year, in the hope of making their childhood dreams come true. They compete for status, prizes, attention from potential sponsors and, of course, the titles.
The scene which plays out year after year may seem so far removed from the core or spirituality of what some argue surfing is. However, rewind 250 years to a time before Captain Cook first set foot on the lone islands on the Pacific plate, and the scene would have been very similar.
Modern surfing derived from Hawaii. The Hawaiians wove surfing into their entire culture. It was a form of courtship, the primary way to gain social status and political power, and it was a part of their religious festivals. In fact, they took three months off every year to surf as a celebration of the god Lono.
The Makahiki celebration lasted from mid-October to mid-January. Hawaiians would stop work and relax, dedicating their time to surfing, dancing and feasting. Thousands would gather to participate and watch the ocean-based tournaments in which surfing was the headliner.
— Pono Express (@PonoExpress) June 21, 2016
Every year, priests would gather at the top of Diamond Head flying kites high into the wind to signal ‘Surf’s Up’. The best surfers would then paddle their longest boards to the outer reefs and the surf season would officially begin.
The finest surfers were more often than not chiefs and tribal leaders. A person’s ability in the surf demonstrated strength and skill, which also qualified a person for leadership.
The chiefs would engage the services of special servants, who would stand in crowds along the beach chanting for their leader’s skill and glory.
Contests would engage the attention of all as Hawaiians had a natural disposition to gamble. As such, competitions between rival chiefs were accompanied by high-stakes wagers, with livestock, fishing nets, canoes and even their personal freedom often won and lost.
Oahu, Hawaii 🌸 pic.twitter.com/q4Tlsgn30k
— Explore ✈️ (@ExploreVSCO) November 20, 2016
Surfing, however, was more than just a sport to Ancient Hawaiians. It was also one of the very few ways to mingle with the opposite sex.
Their belief system, Kapu, forbade men and women to work and eat together – but once they hit the waves, it was game on. Custom encouraged a man and woman who shared a wave to follow it up with a rendezvous on the beach.
Surfing dripped into every crevice of the ancient Hawaiians’ being. It didn’t end at just being a way of life – it was their philosophy.
Nalu, the word for surf, had more than one meaning. It also meant “to investigate, to search for truth and the origin of things”. It was also the same name given to the embryo sack in which babies are born: Hawaiians were literally born in surf.
Today’s scene of surfing in Hawaii may look incredibly different to that of ancient Hawaii.
But take away the TV crews, modern equipment and technology, and fundamentally it’s much the same. People brought together by their love of a sport, competing for titles, status and possibly the attention of the opposite sex, while their adoring fans chant for their skill and glory.
Sources: The World in the Curl, An Unconventional History of Surfing, Peter Westwick and Peter Nueshul, 2013 (text) & SURFING IN ANCIENT HAWAII By BEN R. FINNEY