Though the origins of surfing — called he`enalu in the Hawaiian language, which translates literally to “wave sliding” — are lost to history, Hawai`i, and particularly Hawai`i Island, is where it is acknowledged to have evolved.
“In pre-European times,” writes Ben Finney and James D. Houston in their excellent book, Surfing, A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, “surfing was more than just catching and riding an ocean wave. It was the center of a circle of social and ritual activities that began with the very selection of the tree from which a board was carved and could end in the premature death of a chief — as was the result of at least one famous surfing contest in Hawaiian legend.”
Finney and Houston go on, “(William) Ellis, that adventurous missionary who hiked around the island of Hawai`i, described the islanders’ mass reaction to a sudden run of good waves: ‘the thatch houses of a whole village stood empty ... daily tasks such as farming, fishing and tapa-making were left undone while an entire community — men, women and children — enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water.’”
Surfing lapsed into the background once the Boston missionaries arrived in the islands in the 1850s and began dissuading the Hawaiian people from showing their bodies and partaking in the traditional culture they had practiced for so many thousands of years in favor of a more prudent lifestyle. But by the early part of the 20th century, surfing had seen the beginning of a revival.
Indeed, when we think of surfing, the first images that come to mind are likely of the legendary Duke Kahanamoku on Waikīkī Beach from those days; or the 1960s and ‘70s, when big wave jockeys on O‘ahu’s North Shore began riding the face of 20-foot curlers at Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Haleiwa, where the Triple Crown of Surfing was born and is still conducted.