By Jan TenBruggencate

3_10_13 Nawiliwili harbor

One-man outrigger canoes in Nawiliwili. Photo by Bernard Gosset

Some folks write about tow-in surfing as if it’s a new thing.

Tow-in surfing is the concept of using another vehicle—often a small speedboat or personal watercraft—to deliver a surfer to a fast-moving wave.

But of course, it is far from new. Just as early Hawaiians invented surfing, they also invented the concept of assisted surfer delivery.

Surfing, whether using boards or canoes or both, was a sport of kings.

The monarch who united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule, Kamehameha, was trained in both board surfing and canoe surfing, and he often would join the two sports.

So did his favorite wife and queen, Ka`ahumanu. (Famous women surfers are common in early Hawai`i.)

Kamehameha and Ka`ahumanu were noted for their participation in the sport called lele wa`a, in which they would ride with their surfboards on a canoe. The canoe would catch the wave. And then they’d leap off the canoe onto the wave and surf it to shore.

A long canoe can catch a wave before a surfboard can, and in deeper water. As the canoe picks up speed on the face of the wave, a surfer can take advantage of the canoe’s speed to leap onto the wave and get a longer ride that would otherwise be possible.

Hawaiian outrigger canoe in Nawiliwili. Photo by Bernard Gosset

Hawaiian outrigger canoe in Nawiliwili. Photo by Bernard Gosset

There are stories about the two great Hawaiian royals, Kamehameha and Ka`ahumanu, riding the waves side-by-side. It would have been quite a sight, since both were reported to be impressive human specimens, Kamehameha near seven feet tall and Ka`ahumanu near six.

Kamehameha’s son Kauikeaouli, who reigned as Kamehameha III, participated in lele wa`a with his sister, Nahi`ena`ena. They were famous for surfing he breaks at Keauhou.

It is much the same concept as a modern surfer being towed into a large open ocean swell that he or she could never paddle fast enough to catch.

Kamehameha the Great loved surfing almost to a fault.

In the 1919 book, Napoleon of the Pacific, author Herbert Gowan says “Kamehameha was a great adept and loved surf-swimming almost next to war. Even in his old age he maintained a reputation for skill in this daring and exhilarating exercise.”

Hawaiian employers sometimes complain that it’s hard to keep the work force working on days when the surf is up. This, it turns out, is not a new problem.

On one occasion, Kamehameha’s martial arts instructor Kekuhaupio sought him out, and suggested he might want to spend a little less time surfing and a little more time attending to the affairs of governance and conquest.

Jan TenBruggencate

Jan TenBruggencate

Historian Abraham Fornander in his classic Account of the Polynesian Race, wrote that Kekuhaupio found Kamehameha surfing with relatives and friends, was displeased and said so: “Gently reproaching Kamehameha for wasting his time in what he considered as unprofitable pursuits and in pleasures while the times were so unsettled.”

Today, you can read about modern surfers who “invented” tow-in surfing.

Well, Kamehameha and Ka`ahumanu might have had something to say about that.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.