Honolulu Lite

Charles Memminger

Early Hawaii surfing
writers wiped out

"In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing."

SO begins Mark Twain's not-so-politically correct description of surfing, published in a 1872 memoir. He continues: "Each heathen would then paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, taking a short board with him, then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightening express train could shoot along at a more hair-raising speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I struck the bottom with a couple of barrels of water in me."

Twain's clunky attempt to describe surfing is actually one of the better literary accounts attempted by the first westerners to view surfing in Hawaii. From Capt. James Cook to the earliest missionaries, the haole just couldn't quite comprehend what they were seeing, and had even more trouble putting it in writing.

AN INCREDIBLY COOL little book with the incredibly stuffy title of "200 Years of Surfing Literature -- An Annotated Bibliography," has just been published by Kauai surfing historian Timothy T. DeLa Vega. It is the most comprehensive list of published surfing writing I've ever seen, but the dazzle is in the details. Serious researchers will be able to find names, dates, publications and chapter references of just about any historical surfing writing. But the casual reader will get a kick out of snippets of early descriptions of surfing. The journalists knew they were seeing something amazing, they just couldn't quite describe it.

Adolphe Barrot, visiting on a French sloop of war in 1836 put it this way: "T'words noon, the entire female population of Kealakekua assembled to bathe ... then they plunged thence entirely naked into the waves which were breaking upon the shore; a plank, six or eight feet in length, and pointed at one end, enabled them to sustain themselves on the crest of the waves. It was indeed a singular picture."

When the haole tried to surf, the picture was not so pretty. Adventurer Edward Perkins noted in his 1854 journal: "The art of surf-riding is not so simple as it would seem ... a roller caught me as it broke and ... whirled me along in every conceivable attitude (until) I was compelled to abandon my aquatic sports for the remainder of the day."

Even more bizarre are the early drawings of surfing. The artists managed to put the surfers riding behind waves, beside waves and where there were no waves at all, everywhere but actually on the face of a wave.

Luckily, photography finally game along to clear up what these early writers were trying to describe.

This book is a must for anyone whose ever attempted -- as a writer put it in 1873 -- to stand "in the midst of foam seething like champagne, on the crest of a rushing sea-avalanche."

E-mail DeLa Vega at or call 808-335-2704.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Charles Memminger, winner of National Society of Newspaper Columnists awards, appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. E-mail


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