Hauʻoli heʻe Nalu la: Happy International Surfing Day

We celebrate this International Surfing Day by welcoming home the Hōkūle‘a, a Hawaiian canoe that circumnavigated the earth by following the stars.

June 17, 2017
“Ku mai! Ku mai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai,
Alo po i pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
Hu! Kai ko’o Loa.”
Arise! Arise! You great surfs from Kahiki.
The powerful curling waves. Arise with the pohuehue.
Well up long raging surf.
- Ancient Hawaiian Surf Prayer
One of the first foreigners to publish an account of surfing was Mark Twain when he visited Hawaii in 1866, describing his own surfing experience by reporting that "None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.” Christian missionaries from New England (some of the first foreigners to settle on the islands) were less impressed, particularly with surfing’s nudity and, as they converted islanders to their repressive religion, prohibited the locals from engaging in their unique cultural pastime.
1898 photo of a Hawaiian surfer at Waikiki Beach, carrying what was described as one of the last alaia boards at the time
Duke Paoa Kahanamoku with his surfboard

In one of several resurgences of Hawaiian culture that have occurred over the years, surfing became Hawaii’s most famous cultural export, thanks largely to Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who became the first ambassador of surfing, introducing the sport to California in 1912 and Australia in 1914. While surfing is now a popular pastime throughout the world, this International Surfing Day marks another great milestone for Hawaii that deserves recognition and commemorates another revival in Hawaiian culture that began back in the 1970s.

There had long been debate over the origins of the Hawaiian people on some of the most remote islands on earth: the nearest populated islands were 2,500 miles (4,000km) away. Few believed that the Hawaiian people had intentionally sailed to these islands, postulating that it was likely mere chance.

At the time the Hawaiians claimed to have first sailed to Hawaii (more than 600 years ago), no other humans (aside from the Vikings) had braved any open ocean. In the 1970s, to prove that such navigation was possible, a group of Hawaiians formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society and learned the ancient art of “wayfinding” (navigating by the stars, moon, and sun) from one of the last six men on earth in possession of such knowledge, Mau Piailug of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia. A traditional Hawaiian wa‘a kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoe) was built and named Hōkūleʻa, the Polynesian name for the star Arcturus meaning “Star of Gladness,” which leads sailors traveling north to Hawaii.

Hokule'a arrival in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976
On March 8, 1975, Hōkūle‘a set sail on its maiden voyage without any modern communications or navigation instruments only to tragically capsize, leading to the death of surfing legend Eddie Aikau who attempted to paddle for help to nearby Molokai, never to be seen again. While the Hōkūle‘a was able to successfully make the voyage to Tahiti the following year and repeated the journey a number of times over the years, its greatest voyage remained before it.

On May 18, 2014, Hōkūle‘a and her sister vessel, Hikianalia, departed Oahu on a three-year circumnavigation of the earth that would cover more than 60,000 nautical miles, with stops at 85 ports in 26 countries. On this International Surfing Day, April 17, 2017, Hōkūle‘a will complete its journey and arrive home in Hawaii.

The feat of sailing around the earth using only the stars, moon, and sun for navigation (and wave patterns, currents, and animal behavior when no celestial bodies can be seen) is an unheralded feat. In addition to preserving a feature of Hawaiian culture (by passing on the art of wayfinding to a new generation of Hawaiian residents), the purpose of the worldwide voyage was mālama honua—taking care of our Island Earth, to encourage others to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world.
Route of Hōkūle‘a’s Worldwide Journey
Thus, we welcome home Hōkūle‘a and celebrate the people and culture of Hawaii. We wish we were there to paddle our surfboards out to greet her and her intrepid crew as they return to Hawaii on this historic International Surfing Day. To learn more about Hōkūle‘a and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, visit the official website of the Hōkūle‘a.