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The earliest written account of surfing, or hee nalu in Hawaiian, was by Lieutenant James King in 1779 just months after Captain Cook’s death. He described Native Hawaiians riding a wood plank on the swells of Kealakekua Bay on the island of Hawaii. Even he could see how fun the sport was, writing, “… they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion that this exercise gives.”
The History of Surfing
Surfing is believed to have originated long ago in ancient Polynesia, but later thrived in Hawaii. It was once a sport only reserved for alii (Hawaiian royalty), which is why surfing is often called the “sport of kings.” King Kamehameha I himself was known for his surfing ability. With the end of the Hawaiian kapu (taboo) system in 1819, commoners were allowed to freely participate in the sport. However, when western missionaries arrived in the 1800s, they discouraged Hawaiian customs like hula and surfing.
In the late 1800s, the “Merrie Monarch” King Kalakaua, one of the last reigning monarchs of the Hawaiian Kingdom, revived the hula, signaling the return of Hawaiian cultural pride. Then in the early 1900s, surfing was revitalized on Waikiki Beach. During this era, Duke Kahanamoku, who grew up surfing the south shore waves, was a Waikiki Beach Boy who taught visitors how to surf and canoe. Duke later won multiple Olympic gold medals for swimming, and eventually became known as the “father of modern surfing.” Today, a bronze statue of Duke welcomes visitors to Waikiki, where first-time surfers are still catching their first waves.
In the ’50s, surfers began to ride the big and powerful winter waves of Makaha on Oahu’s west shore and Waimea Bay on the North Shore. Big wave season in Hawaii happens roughly between November and February on Hawaii’s north shores. You can watch surfers on every island, but some of the best surfing competitions in the world are held on Oahu’s North Shore in November and December, including the biggest them of all, the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing. If you’re planning to watch the pros in action during these events, be sure to get to the North Shore early because traffic can be heavy.
When and Where to Watch Surfing
During the winter, the islands’ north shores generate big swells, while in the summer, the south shores enjoy a bump in size. Oahu’s North Shore is a legendary surf spot featuring viewer-friendly beaches at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline.
Almost every island offers surfing lessons where you can learn the basics of the sport. Lessons run from one to two hours and are taught by experienced surfers in gentle breaks. Longboards are used to make it even easier for first-timers to learn, and a push from your instructor will help you get started. Waikiki Beach is still one of the best spots in Hawaii to get on your feet and ride your first wave.
Take a Surfing Lesson
Stand-up paddle boarding is a variation on surfing that is becoming very popular Hawaii. In stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), riders stand upright on wider, longer boards and use a paddle to maneuver. Great for a core muscle workout, SUP is often used more for fitness rather than for riding waves. Lessons are highly recommended for your safety and for the safety of your fellow beachgoers and surfers.
Stand-Up Paddle Boarding
Note: Heed all warning signs when surfing or stand-up paddle boarding. Consult your instructor about changing conditions, strong currents and reefs. Use your own best judgment to determine whether a particular beach is appropriate for your ability level.
Experience Surfing in Hawaii
SURFING LIKE ANCIENTS - It’s a peaceful morning at Kahana Bay on Oahu’s Windward side. There isn’t a single soul on the sand – a far cry from the bright lights and buzz of Waikiki. The waves here are legendary. Once, long ago, a Kahana Bay Chief challenged the Goddess Hiiaka – sister of Pele, the Goddess of fire – to a surfing competition in these waters. It did not go well for the Chief…More
HEALING THROUGH SURFING - Dustin Tester stands in the warm waters of Olowalu Beach giving a wide-eyed 10-year old her first surfing lesson. Dustin grew up on the beaches of Lahaina. Her grandfather helped build the A-Frame cabins just offshore – the same cabins she runs her Maui Surfer Girls surf camp out of today. She has an infectious energy. That energy helped her survive one of the most dangerous waves in the world…More
"Tip 1: Take “CAUTION” signage seriously - even if others are surfing there. If a beach is posted, then it’s because it’s DANGEROUS! "
"Tip 2: Watch the waves break first for at least 10 minutes, before getting into the water, so you can time the waves and understand how they are breaking."
"Tip 3: Make sure you’ve chosen the right kind of board for your level of expertise. Trying to surf with a board that is too advanced leads to fatigue, frustration and increases the chance for a serious wipeout. "
"Tip 4: Keep your knees bent while surfing for more control of the board and a longer, safer ride. "
"Tip 5: Don’t completely close your fingers when paddling. Keep them slightly open to be more efficient. Sometimes the smallest of details can save energy, allowing you to surf longer and be less tired."
"Tip 6: Rash guards help prevent your skin from getting rubbed raw and reduce the amount of sunscreen necessary to prevent sunburn. "
"Tip 7: Focus your attention to where you want to be and you will get there sooner. Don’t look around… wherever your head is pointed is where you’re going to end up on a surfboard."
"Tip 8: Use only Reef Safe Sunscreen. Research has shown that even small amounts of chemicals found in commonly used sunscreens can bleach coral (and they’re probably not too good for humans either)."
"Tip 9: If other surfers are around and you’re a beginner, ask the locals if they mind if you surf with them. It’s only “pono” (right) and will garner their respect."
"Tip 10: Take time to analyze your mistakes. For example, if your center of gravity was off, think about bending the knees more or moving your feet to feel more centered on the board as necessary. It makes for more fun, safer ride."
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