‘Hawaiians have been surfing for more than a thousand years’


From The Believer:

Eddie Aikau was born in 1946, and grew up with his five siblings in a Chinese graveyard in Pauoa Valley, on Oahu. Hawaiians of Chinese ancestry have lived in Hawaii for more than two hundred years, though most showed up in the mid-to-late nineteenth century to work on booming sugar and pineapple plantations. Pops Aikau and his kids maintained the cemetery grounds, digging up old bones and placing them in a mausoleum. The close-knit Aikau family spent most of their free time in the ocean. Diving, fishing, and paddleboarding animated a day-to-day existence of near poverty. As they became more proficient in the waves, Eddie and his brother Clyde started surfing with the native Hawaiian beach boys who partied with tourists and flirted with divorcées on the pristine beaches of Waikiki.

Hawaiians have been surfing for more than a thousand years. There are legends and prayers dedicated to surfing, and the practice deeply influenced and reflected Hawaiians’ social status. In Waves of Resistance, a groundbreaking study of the relationship between surfing, Hawaiian identity, and the movement for native sovereignty, historian Isaiah Helekunihi Walker identifies a “culture of respect and exchange” on the beaches of Hawaii. For hundreds of years, how one behaved in the surf defined one’s place in society. Surfing brought prestige and generated community. A poor kid living in a graveyard could make a name for himself by holding his own in ocean breaks. Pops Aikau knew this, and convinced a local teacher and activist named John Kelly to take Eddie surfing on the winter swells at Waimea Bay.

Though the ocean is placid and family-friendly during the summer months, winter swells on the island’s North Shore are about as welcoming as a New England blizzard. Originating from storms in the north Pacific Ocean, the waves at Waimea Bay, one of the fifty-one beaches covering the North Shore’s eleven miles of shoreline, may not be the world’s biggest, but, measuring from the face of the wave, they reach heights of more than twenty-five feet. From behind, they’re taller than four-story buildings. These were the waves that would come to define Eddie as a surfer.

“Eddie is Gone”, Nicole Pasulka, The Believer