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The Evolution of Wave Sliding

June 6, 2013
Jonica Hall , Maui Weekly

Summer is the time of the South swell. Gone are the northern storms that generate the giant, infamous, Hawaiian North Shore waves of Pipeline, Sunset and Jaws.

In the summer, the northern hemisphere rides the (usually) gentler waves of the southern hemisphere's winter storms. Most recently, Hawai'i's south shores were the beneficiaries of a storm generated off of New Zealand, making the whole of the state's southern shores a giant playground for surfing of every type.

As we all know, Hawai'i is the birthplace of surfing, with board surfing being the most famous among them. But many don't know that canoe surfing is as much a Hawaiian water sport as board surfing, with cultural roots that run as deep.

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In the summer, the northern hemisphere rides the (usually) gentler waves of the southern hemisphere’s winter storms.

From the first records of Hawaii-an history, surfing of all styles has been reported. Most notably, the Hawaiian ruling elite (the ali'i) was reported to be exceptional wave riders, with the choicest surfing spots carved out exclusively for their pleasure. These spots were kapu (off limits) to the commoners.

This kapu practice also translated into the types of materials used for surfing. The ali'i had their pick of the best woods for carving the most perfect surfing vessel. The rest of the population used something as simple as a banana tree trunk.

As the Hawaiian outrigger canoe is at the heart of the culture, it is conjectured that the outrigger part of the single-hulled canoe, the ama, is the genesis of the surfboard. It has been proven that a smaller canoe, from 20 to 25 feet long, is the ideal length for surfing. It may be that the smaller fishing canoes, usually built for no more than four canoe paddlers, and about the ideal surfing size, were the original model for improvised surfing.

As the fishermen approached shore, it is likely that part of their approach would sometimes include surf, and that circumstance likely and naturally evolved into surfing. It's also likely that that approach included one paddler hopping out on the ama to keep the canoe from a huli (rolling over), and in the spirit of both survival and fun, the ama would be ridden into shore.

Coincidentally, the ama of this size canoe is about the same length of the most popular surfboards used by the ancient Hawaiians.

Today's surfing canoe is a remnant of this past. Although mainly built of fiberglass, they remain short in length. And, although certainly not used for survival (in fact, sometimes quite the opposite), they are every bit as fun as we know they were for the culture that blessed the world with he'enalu (sliding on a wave).

Maui Canoe Club welcomes guest paddlers Monday through Friday for our 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. canoe outings. Please show up at least 15 minutes in advance. For more information, visit



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