Today is International Surfing Day. Held annually on the third Saturday of June, International Surfing Day is an unofficial, environmentally conscious sports-centered holiday that celebrates the sport of surfing, the surfing lifestyle, and the sustainability of the ocean’s resources.
International Surfing Day was established in 2005 by Surfing Magazine (now out of print) and The Surfrider Foundation. It follows the spirit and intent of World Surf Day, established by the Usenet newsgroup alt.surfing in 1993. Surfers and ocean lovers of all kinds use the day to give back to the environment by organizing beach clean ups and dune and other habitat restoration.
Call of the Waves
Although International Surfing Day has been around for fifteen years now, the history of surfing and our love of the waves goes back far beyond that. Perhaps the most famous surf movie, and arguably the best, of all time is The Endless Summer which was released in 1966, after a limited showing two years prior in 1964. Still not far back enough.
I heard a quote once in which a surfer was describing the draw of the waves. I’m paraphrasing here but it was something along the lines of, “A surfer can just sit and watch the waves for hours. No one stares at an empty tennis court for hours.” So, how far back does this love of waves go?
Captain James Cook
On May 25, 1768, the British Admiralty commissioned James Cook to command a scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean to observe and record the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun. He was promoted to Lieutenant and given command of the HMS Endeavour. On this voyage, Lieutenant Cook would visit Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia and returned to England in July 1771.
Shortly after his return, Lieutenant Cook was promoted to the rank of Commander. In 1772, He was commissioned to lead another expedition in search of the postulated rich southern continent of Terra Australis. On this voyage, he would command the HMS Resolution.
The expedition circumnavigated the globe at an extremely southern latitude, becoming one of the first to cross the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773. Although he never found the hypothetical Terra Australis, he landed at the Friendly Islands (now known as the Kingdom of Tonga), Easter Island, Norfolk Island, New Caladonia, and Vanuatu prior to his return to England.
On what would be his last voyage, Cook again commanded the HMS Resolution. This expeditions principle goal was to locate a northwest passage around the American continent. After returning to Tahiti, Cook travelled north and became the first European to contact the Hawai’ian Islands. He made his initial landfall in January 1778 at Waimea harbor on the island of Kauai. He names the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, acting First Lord of the Admiralty. He then sailed to the northeast where he would explore the western coast of North America.
Lono – The God of Peace
The expedition then returned to Hawai’i in 1779. After sailing around the archipelago for eight weeks, Cook made landfall at Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawai’i, the largest island the Hawai’ian chain. Cook’s arrival coincided with Makahiki, a Hawai’ian harvest festival of worship for the god Lono. Along with Kū, Kāne, and Kāne’s twin brother Kanaloa, Lono is one of the four gods who existed before the world was created. Lono is the god of peace and is associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, and music.
To honor Lono, the Makahiki season spanned four consecutive lunar months, approximately from October or November through February or March. The focus of this season was a time for men, women, and chiefs to rest, strengthen the body, and have great feasts of commemoration (‘aha’aina ho’omana’o). During Makahiki, labor was prohibited. Hawai’ians gave thanks to the god for bringing life, blessings, peace, and victory to the land. They also prayed to the gods for the death of their enemies. Maka’ainana (commoners) prayed that the lands of their ali’i (royalty) may be increased, and that their own physical health, along with the health of their chiefs, be at the fullest.
Lono was believed to be circumnavigating the island on the clouds during the Makahiki. As luck would have it, the HMS Resolution, or more particularly the mast, sails, and rigging, resembled certain parts of these stories that made up the season of worship. Additionally, Cook had been sailing around the islands in the same direction that Lono was believed to travel. There were also processions that took place around the island in the same direction. Such coincidences, it has been argued, were the reason for Cook’s (and to a lesser extent, his crew’s) initial deification by some Hawai’ians who treated Cook as an incarnation of Lono.
Kūka’ilimoku – The God of War
After a month’s stay, Cook attempted to resume his exploration of the northern Pacific. Shortly after leaving, however, HMS Resolution’s foremast broke, forcing the ships to return to Kealakekua for repairs. This time, Cook was not welcomed with open arms. The Makahiki was over, and the Hawai’ians were in the season for battle and war under the worship and rituals for Kūka’ilimoku, the god of war. The Hawai’ians soon soured toward Cook and his crew, eventually stealing one of their lifeboats. In an attempt to retrieve the boat, Cook attempted to trick and take the royal chief Kalani’ōpu’u captive. He was quickly overwhelmed and eventually killed, along with four of his marines, in the fight that ensued.
The First Surf Report
Following Cook’s death, Lieutenant James King was made First Lieutenant of the HMS Discovery, sister ship of the Resolution. He was also given the task of completing the narrative portion of Cook’s journals. Lieutenant King devoted a full two pages to a description of surfboard riding, as practiced by Hawai’ians at Kealakekua. His following entry is the earliest written account of surfing:
But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the surf, & lay themselves upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that set on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alter its direct.
If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach.
The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like exercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive by very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.
The Sport of Kings
Anthroplogists can only guess at the origin and evolution of wave-riding and surfboard construction in Polynesian culture, since their’s no certainty about the timelines and movements of the Polynesians. By 1779, though, riding waves lying down or standing on long, hardwood surfboards was an integral part of Hawai’ian culture.
Surfboard riding (he’e nalu, which translates into English as “wave sliding”) was as layered into the society, religion, and myth of the islands as baseball is to the modern United States. Chiefs demonstrated their mastery by their skill in the surf. Commoners mad themselves famous by the way they handled themselves in the ocean.
Around 2000 BC, the migration of humans out of Asia and into the eastern Pacific began. Polynesians established themselves within a large triangle, with Aotearoa (New Zealand) at the south point, Tonga and Samoa along the western boundary, and Tahiti and the Marquesas to the east.
Forced to migrate into the vast region by the push of population growth and the pull of the horizon, the first Polynesians arrived in the Hawai’ian Islands in the fourth century AD. The Polynesians who made the arduous journey from Tahiti and the Marquesas to Hawai’i were, by necessity, exceptional watermen and women who brought a deep love and knowledge of the ocean with them.
The Polynesians who made it to Hawai’i also brought their customs with them, including playing in the surf on paipo (belly) boards. Although Tahitians are said to have occasionally stood on their boards, the art of surfing upright on long boards was certainly perfected, if not invented, in Hawai’i.
Commoners generally rode waves on paipo and alaia (stand up) boards as long as 12 feet. The ali’i (royalty) rode waves on olo boards that were as long as 24 feet. Several of the most famous Hawai’ian chief, including Kaumuali’i (the ruling chief of Kaua’i and Kamehameha (who would ultimately untie the Hawai’ian islands), were renowned for their surfing ability.
Share the Stoke
If you’re able to visit your local beach today (keeping local COVID-19 restrictions in mind), do a solo beach clean up and share what you picked up by posting on your social channels with the hashtag #ISD2020 and tag @surfrider. The Surfrider Foundation will be highlighting solo beach cleanup posts all International Surfing Day on their social channels.
And don’t forget, if you can, to support The Surfrider Foundation and their network of coastal defenders who protect what everyone who is drawn to the waves and the beach love!
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