Part of the surfing tradition is the mandatory pilgrimage to the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is the spiritual ground zero for modern surfing. Part of this is that the islands are smack dab in the middle of the largest body of water on the planet and are basically mountains thrust up from the bottom of the ocean. So not only is there the most distance to gather swell, but going from thousands of feet of oceanic depth to shallow reefs is a guarantee for considerable energy to be dumped on the shoreline which results in impressive and consistent surf. But there are great waves all over the planet, so the question is why do surfers everywhere look to Hawaii as their surfing spiritual Mecca?
It’s not that Hawaiian surfing predated the rest of the planet. Throughout the Polynesian Islands, surfing was practiced before Hawaii was settled. In various parts of Africa it’s been documented that people surfed on short wooden boards hundreds of years ago. But only in Hawaii has surfing been such a key component in the tapestry of the culture.
At the time that Captain Cook arrived both men and women surfed regularly. There was a complicated governance structure where kings and queens demonstrated their power and competence at least partially in the water. But it wasn’t just surfing. Overall water competence was highly valued with the youth playing competitive games involving wrestling in the water, breath holding competitions, outrigger racing, and diving under big waves in the impact zone for sport. It was a breeding ground for water competence that had not been seen at that level perhaps throughout history.
The reasons are many that surfing was such an integral part of the Hawaiian lifestyle, religion, and power structure. First of all there was a sort of natural selection because the Polynesian people that actually reached the islands had to travel hundreds of miles in really small, open, outrigger boats. The first Hawaiians were water people who were closely and deeply connected with the ocean. There was an abundance of fish, lots of edible plants, and a perfect climate for growing. Surfing requires a great deal of leisure time and energy. Ancient Hawaiians not only fished, but grew vegetables on terraced farming areas, bred pigs and other farm animals, and even created fish farms in man-made pools. In fact they were so successful in taking care of the basic life necessities that their leaders reportedly outlawed any type of work for three months out of the year for a big festival. Along with all the religious obligations and parties, a large percentage of the population simply surfed. The ruling class could surf all year as well.
But I think the main reason modern surfers look to Hawaii is the echo we still hear from the idea of surfing as both a lifestyle and a quest. The Hawaiian word for surf is “nalu”. It also means to search for the true nature of things, and is used for the liquid covering a baby at birth.
Photo Credit: Stan Shebs