Modern Hawaiian competitive style surfing vs. Ancient Hawaiian competitive style surfing image from TheInertia.com
In Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past, John R.K. Clark ambitiously compiles a complete survey of practically every reference to Hawaiian surfing history. The book is largely a surfing specific Hawaiian language dictionary, complete with relevant passages from historical writings.
Perhaps not enthralling in theory, it is interesting to meander the words of the Hawaiian language, and to discover the incredibly refined terms Hawaiians developed to describe all aspects of riding waves and the many moods of the ocean.
For example, under the ‘A’ section you’ll discover twenty-three different variations of the word ‘ale, or wave, ranging from ‘ale ‘opu’u (an open ocean wave that doesn’t break) to ‘ale kuakea (whitecap).
Clark includes a broad survey of all Hawaiian surf spots and explores the shifting nomenclature of surf breaks as Europeans came and asserted their English language names onto places that were already well known and named in Hawaiian.
We modern surfers tend to think that we’re so advanced in our wave riding. Surfing has changed much in some ways, mainly due to the efforts of audacious and driven young men. Clark’s section on competitive surfing was especially illuminating.
While Hawaiian culture was especially competitive in terms of ocean sport, Clark makes note of the ways in which modern surfing contests have altered the interaction dynamics of almost all surfers now relate in the ocean:
“Contest rules today have nothing to do with racing for distance, but rather call for contestants to execute a wide variety of radical but controlled maneuvers in the most critical parts of the wave. Contests today allow only one surfer per wave, with the right of way, or wave possession, going to the surfer who has the inside position on the wave. These rules have contributed to a major change in the way surfers in noncompetitive settings interact with each other at almost every surf spot in the world. Traditional surfers welcomed other surfers on a wave with them; it was part of the social dynamics of the sport. But today the opposite is true, with every surfer expecting his or her wave alone without anyone else dropping in or taking off in front of them. Exceptions to this rule are few…”
Had you ever before considered when line-up dynamics changed from relatively cooperative wave sliding to competitive wave hoarding? I had not.
While this shift has undoubtedly allowed the progression of surfing move toward a more radical, individualistic pursuit (along with equipment evolutions, of course), has it come at the price of the communal and social aspects of our culture, by and large? Would surfing have evolved differently had the culture norm of sharing remained in tact?