While Captain Cook was the first to report seeing Tahitians joyriding their canoes and surfboards in 1777, its no stretch of the imagination to think that Hawaiians might have been cruising in their canoes at the same time.
Imagine yourself sitting front row in a slick ocean canoe, dropping into a wave for the ride of your life. The power and force of the ocean pushes the outrigger along like a wickedly fast rollercoaster. And this thrill isn’t yours alone. You are sitting tandem with a team that is riding this adrenaline rush, each of you working every muscle in your body to stay upright. Once you’ve gotten a taste of this daredevil sport, it’s no surprise that this pastime holds a special place in history! Experience the sport yourself on Maui and now with outrigger canoe tours on Oahu too!
Hawaiians have always had a profound connection with the ocean. This quote by Hawaiian historian Kepelino paints a perfect picture of this adoration:
“Expert surfers going upland to farm, if part way up perhaps they look back and see the rollers combing the beach, will leave their work … then hurrying away home, they will pick up the board and go. All thought of work is at an end, only that of sport is left. The wife may go hungry, the children, the whole family, but the head of the house does not care. He is all for sport, that is his food.”
History of Canoe Surfing
For centuries, people didn’t have many choices in transportation. While most modes like walking, running and swimming got them from A to B, canoes offered the quickest way to transport people, water, communication and food. As life moved on, what once was a vehicle for survival became an excellent excuse for joy riding.
Of course, commoners weren’t always allowed on the waves. In old Hawaii, outrigger canoe surfing was reserved for the Ali’i, or Hawaiian Royalty. Any good king or chief was expected to know how to surf a canoe. It wasn’t until the end of the Hawaiian kapu (taboo) system in 1819 that commoners were allowed to freely participate in the sport. While royalty had a head start on the sport, its said that the strongest paddlers were fishermen. As you can imagine, paddling a fishing canoe out to sea can be physically demanding but paddling back with a canoe full of fish took superhuman strength!
It became apparent that the islanders had a fervent desire to spend as much time as possible in the warm waters, and with this devotion came the birth of canoe surfing. The Outrigger Canoe Club was started in 1908 by former New York newspaperman Alexander Hume Ford. This quirky founder educated many Americans on canoe surfing by his well-received article in the 1909 Collier’s magazine article titled “Riding the Surf in Hawaii.”
The Outrigger Canoe Club
The Outrigger Canoe Club started on a plot of land leased by the Estate of Queen Emma for $10, and was located between the Seaside and Moana Hotel on Waikïkï Beach on Oahu. Their outrigger storage and bath house consisted of two grass huts bought from a nearby zoo. In response to this mostly haole or caucasian club, the Hui Nalu (Club of the Waves) started a club for native-born Hawaiians next door to the Outrigger Canoe Club. While Duke Kahanamoku was a Hui Nalu co-founder, he was also a proud member at the Outrigger Canoe Club. These two clubs began a friendly competition, which further fueled the island’s passion for water sports.
While canoe surfing started as a mostly male sport, the Outrigger Canoe Club opened its doors to women in 1926. While much has changed since the first sighting of canoe surfing, the Outrigger Canoe Club has a mission statement embraces the ageless passion of this sport. “Its a place where man may commune with sun and sand and sea, where good fellowship and aloha prevail and where the sports of old Hawaii shall always have a home.”
Outrigger vs. Surfboard
One might wonder about the appeal of the outrigger canoe compared to the classic surfboard. Jeremy Grosvenor, an extreme water sports athlete, says that “outrigger canoes can catch a wave way before a surfboard can. The boat turns as a surfer would as it approaches the beach, though, of course, while it’s more powerful, it’s not as maneuverable as a surfboard. And, as you’re gliding on a slow, feathering wave, you can do tricks. Someone might hold up a light woman with their hands, two people might stand up and stand on their heads. . . . It’s a very long ride, on waves that break farther out — you don’t come crashing up onto the beach.”
For those that have never had the privilege of paddling out in an outrigger canoe, Matthew Thayer gives a little insight into his experience. “There is nothing quite like sitting in a canoe with a large wave chasing after you. As gravity and momentum take over, the narrow craft slices down the face of the wave like a flat stone skipping across a pond suddenly turned vertical.”
Thayer’s guide for that epic ride was legendary Hawaiian waterman Ross Kaaa. Kaaa says
“When we surf big waves, it’s almost better than sex for me. It’s a wonderful feeling just sitting in a canoe coming down a mountain of a wave.”
Most canoe surfers would agree that its not just the thrill of the wave that gets their adrenaline going. There is an aspect of true teamwork and comradery makes this water sport so special. You combine a stunningly blue ocean, a balmy breeze and a ride on Mother Nature’s roller coaster and you can call that day perfect!