Heʻe Nalu
Heʻe ana i ka lala, hoʻi ana i ka muku.
Sliding across the face of a wave, returning to the curl.
Two basic surfing maneuvers often mentioned in mele and moʻolelo on surfing.

If you like surfing, it’s hard to beat Hawai‘i! Whether you’re an avid surfer or just getting interested, there’s a lot to learn about he‘e nalu, a sport that truly was made in Hawai‘i. 

First priority: surf

[Surfing at Waikīkī, 1921] At the left is Diamond Head. From Collier's New Encyclopedia.

He‘e nalu is part of famous Hawaiian legends. For example, what’s the first thing Lohi‘au wanted to do after Hi‘iaka brought him back to life? Surf, of course! There were just two problems: (1) no waves, and (2) no surfboard. Lucky for Lohi‘au there was a goddess nearby, which meant big waves started rolling in. For a surfboard, he used Hi‘iaka’s magical skirt of pala‘ā ferns.

Not all of us get to surf on pala‘ā ferns. Still, we can be thankful that he‘e nalu was passed down to us by our Hawaiian kūpuna.

Everybody go surf

[Surfing at Waikīkī, 2014] Photo by James Brennan.Surfing is a big thing. It’s practiced around the world. Entire books have been written about this invention, like John Clark’s Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past. Back in the day, surfing was a national pastime. Everyone did it—men, women, young people, old people, ali‘i, and maka‘āinana.

To some, it was more than a pastime. They would tell their parents:

Ke hele nei au i ku‘u huaka‘i māka‘ika‘i, inā e ho‘olohe ‘olua a ua make au no ka ‘aihue, a no kekahi mea ‘ē a‘e paha, a laila, e uē nō ‘olua, akā ho‘i, inā ‘olua e ho‘olohe a ua make au i ku‘u puni ‘o ka he‘e nalu, mai noho ‘olua a uē, ‘a‘ole nō ho‘i e kulu ko ‘olua mau waimaka. (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, 12/23/1865, 1)

I am going on a trip, and if you hear that I was killed in an attack by robbers or some other incident, then cry for me, but if you hear that I died while I was out doing the thing that I love, surfing, then do not cry for me. Do not shed a tear. (Ka Nupepa Kuokoa, 12/23/1865, 1)


Surfing requires skill, strength, and stamina. Especially in the old days, when surfers would swim (instead of paddle) their boards out to the break! Surfers have to know their environment—the break, the reef, the tides, the moon phase, the winds, and the weather. All of these affect the surf session.

Surfboards grew on trees

[Koa tree] Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.Instead of buying a board at T&C Surf, our kūpuna went to their nearby forest. There they would select the right tree—not too old, not too soft, but just right. The best ones were koa, wiliwili, kukui, ‘ohe, and others.

After cutting down the tree and making offerings of prayer and kūmū fish, our kūpuna would start shaping the wood. The more they cut off, the less they had to carry down the mountain. So they got their board as close to the desired size as possible. Then they would pull the board down to the beach, where the carving would be completed. The surfboard would be stained black with plant material. Then it would be wrapped tightly in kapa and left in an appropriate place until it was time to go surf.

Pro shapers of old

Just as there are well-known surfboard shapers today, there were experts in surfboard carving in the old days. Craftsmen called kahuna kālai papa alaia he‘e nalu specialized in shaping a specific type of surfboard—the alaia. Alaia are small, thin boards of ‘ulu or koa.

Another type of traditional surfboard is the olo. It is a long board often made of wiliwili. Olo boards were usually owned by the ali‘i.

[Hawaiian man with surfboard] Diamond Head in background; Waikīkī, ca. 1890. Photographer unknown.

What do rivers, waves, and backwash have in common? They can all be surfed!

As trendy as surfing is, it truly is a thing of the past. Our Hawaiian kūpuna invented it, along with river surfing, outrigger canoe surfing, bodysurfing, bodyboarding, and sand sliding. If something could be surfed, our kūpuna were on it. Some fun, creative people, our kūpuna!

Here are some terms you’ll want to know:

He‘e nalu: board surfing. Our kūpuna would ride their boards lying on their stomachs, sitting, kneeling, standing, or with one knee up and the other one down.

He‘e pu‘e wai: river surfing. Flash-flooding rivers would create a stationary wave, like the Flowrider ride at Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park. Rides can last a couple minutes, and there’s no paddling to the surf break!

Pākā wa‘a: outrigger canoe surfing. If you’ve ever surfed at Canoes in Waikīkī, you’ve seen this sport in action. It takes an experienced steersman to catch the right wave at the right point, and to avoid hitting people in the canoe’s wide path.

Kaha nalu: bodysurfing. This is surfing without a board. In a famous mo‘olelo, Chief Haua‘iliki ditched board surfing for bodysurfing to get Chiefess Lā‘ieikawai’s attention. It worked—she called him “pupule!”

Pae po‘o: bodyboarding. Traditionally called “papa li‘ili‘i” (small boards), bodyboards were later called “pae po‘o” (to ride a wave head first, like bodysurfing but with a board).

He‘e one: sand sliding. Traditionally he‘e one involved a surfer running and sliding onto the backwash on shore with his chest.

Traditional surf contests: speed was the name of the game

Surf contests today focus a lot on the maneuvers a surfer does on a wave. If your moves are innovative, varied, and numerous, you’ll get a higher score. And it’s usually one person per wave.

Traditional surf contests actually involved surfers catching the same wave. They would ride the wave as far as they could toward the shore. The first to pass a calabash buoy was the winner.

Wanna make waves?

The sun’s up. The day is calm. You don’t have school or work. The only thing missing is surf . . . and maybe Hi‘iaka’s number on speed dial. Well, that didn’t stop our kūpuna. They have surf chants to bring up the waves.

Kū mai!Rise!
Kū mai!Rise!
Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki maiBig waves from Kahiki
Alo po‘ipū!Engulfing waves
Kū mai ka pōhuehueRise with the pōhuehue
Hū! Kai ko‘o loaSurge! Great, rough sea

Sometimes vines of pōhuehue (beach morning glory) would also be used to bring surf. If you’ve walked along Kailua beach on O‘ahu near the surf spot Castle’s, you’ve probably seen pōhuehue. Vines would be swung and made to hit the surface of the sea. What does pōhuehue have to do with big waves? In Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past, John Clark explains that “pōhuehue grows on dry sand in the backshore, beyond the reach of normal surf, so waves reach it only when the surf is larger than normal.”

Pray for surf

[Kuʻemanu Heiau] An ancient Hawaiian altar next to the Little Blue Church. Photo by George C. Slade.Just as there are heiau for agriculture, healing, and fishing, there are heiau for surfing. Ku‘emanu heiau in Kona, Hawai‘i, was a place to make offerings for good surf conditions and good sport. It also provided a good view for watching surfers and a pool to rinse off the salt after a surf session.

How to spot a good surfer: Smooth, dry, and reaching the beach

Someone in the lineup calling you a ka‘upu bird? Take that as a compliment. Our kūpuna likened the graceful gliding of seabirds over the ocean to the smooth, skillful glide of surfers on waves.

Besides being seabird-like, another sign of a good surfer was that he didn’t get wet in the waves—lalilali ‘ole. That probably meant that he never fell off his board.

To ride a wave from the break all the way to shore—and actually land on the sand, “pae i ke one”—was another display of a surfer’s prowess.

Need an excuse to go surfing?

Can’t convince your teacher that the big surf at Hale‘iwa is more important than the upcoming exam? Well, the teacher probably has a valid point. But if you could take cues from Pāpā Malaki Kanahele of Ni‘ihau, he would tell you about the time he went surfing instead of doing his chores … and he didn’t get in trouble!

As a boy Pāpā Malaki was responsible for cutting the firewood for his mother’s stove, but one day he had gone surfing and had not brought in the amount of firewood needed for cooking. His mother wanted his father to punish him, but his father advocated for his son by telling his wife, “‘O kēia ka hana kaulana a nā kūpuna,” or “This is what our ancestors are famous for doing,” a saying that is still used today by some of the older residents of Ni‘ihau. (Clark 2011, 16)


So by surfing, you are helping to perpetuate the traditions of our kūpuna. While that may not always work as an excuse not to do something you’re supposed to, it is a good reason to surf when you’re able. 

Surf spots

While you’ll find surf spots on all of the eight main Hawaiian Islands—yes, even Kaho‘olawe—O‘ahu has the most. And if you learned to surf on O‘ahu, you may have had your start at Waikīkī. Several of Waikīkī’s main surf spots from long ago are still popular today, including Kalehuawehe (often referred to as Castle’s), ‘Aiwohi (Publics), Maihiwa (Cunha’s), and Kapuni (Canoes) (Clark 2011).

[Pākā waʻa] Postcard showing canoe surfing with Diamond Head in background; Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi, ca. 1935. Photo by Kodak Hawaiʻi, Bishop Museum Archives. Used with permission.

Kalehuawehe was named for the lei of lehua that Pīkoiaka‘alalā, a famous arrow shooter, removed from his head and gave to the chiefess Kahamalu‘ihi. The two had been out surfing and had floated to the spot, which was previously unnamed. There, Kahamalu‘ihi asked Pīkoiaka‘alalā for his lei lehua, and he assented, tying the lei around her neck.

[Duck ponds in Honolulu] View of Diamond Head from the duck ponds in Honolulu, with taro fields in the foreground; Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 1910. Photographer unknown, Bishop Museum Archives. Used with permission.[Waikīkī and Diamond Head] Photo by Kristina D. C. Hoeppner, available under a Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.But the Waikīkī that Pīkoiaka‘alalā knew is much different from the place we know today. There used to be kalo fields and fishponds where today’s hotels and condominiums stand. Sadly, the once-healthy reef and abundant limu are being choked out by pollution and runoff. For all that has changed and even been destroyed in Waikīkī, surfing is still common and is here to stay.

The wave of the future

The sport of surfing is older than Hi‘iakaikapoliopele. And it has grown and spread around the world. People surf in France, Costa Rica, Japan, and Sumatra. Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians surf. Professional surfers make a living by doing “what our ancestors are famous for doing.”

Surfing, like our people, is constantly evolving. New technology has resulted in lighter, faster, more maneuverable boards. The maneuvers surfers pull off today would probably get our kūpuna kahiko pretty stoked.

The Hawaiian surf spots we know of today are probably the same ones our kūpuna surfed. The names given to those spots have meaning, and they are still relevant. By using those names and continuing the traditional practices of our kūpuna, we honor them, ourselves, and our future. And by caring for the land and the sea, the way our kūpuna did before us, we ensure a healthy environment for us and for the next generations. There is still a lot we can learn from our kūpuna, the inventers of cool.

He mele inoa no Nāihe

Nāihe of Kona, Hawai‘i, was an orator, athlete, warrior for Kamehameha I, and an expert surfer. Other chiefs were jealous of his surfing ability. And so they held a surfing contest in Hilo. Accompanied by two attendants, one being an elderly woman, Nāihe mā slowly journeyed from Ka‘ū. By the time they got there, the contest had already begun. Nāihe paddled out and the old woman went to sleep. Only after he got into the water was he told of the must-be-chanted-into-shore rule. No one could come ashore until their chanter chanted their surf chant. This rule was really in place just to keep Nāihe in the water to be rid of him. The sleeping old woman also happened to be Nāihe’s chanter! Fortunately for Nāihe, another ali‘i had his servant awaken the old woman. The woman rushed to the shore and, in tears, chanted Nāihe’s surf chant, also a name chant, part of which goes like this:

E kū, e hume a pa‘a i ka malo           Stand, gird fast the loincloth!
O ka‘ika‘i ka lā i ka papa ‘o HalepōLet the sun ride on ahead guiding the board named Halepō
A pae ‘o Halepō i ka naluUntil Halepō glides on the swell
Ho‘ē‘e ka nalu mai KahikiLet Halepō mount the surf rolling in from Kahiki
He nalu Wākea, nalu ho‘ohu‘aWaves worthy of Wākea, waves that build
Haki ‘ōpu‘u ka nalu, haki kuapāBreak, dash against our shore
Ea mai ka makakai he‘e nalu           Now sea-spray of surfing looms into sight
Kai he‘e kākala o ka mokuCraggy wave upon wave strikes the island
Kai kā o ka nalu nui           Pounded by a giant surf
Ka hu‘a o ka nalu o HikiauLashing spume against a leafy altar, Hikiau’s temple
Kai he‘e nalu i ke awakeaAt high noontime this is the surf to ride!
Kū ka puna, ke ko‘a i ukaBeware coral, horned coral on the shoreside
Ka mākāhā o ka nalu o KākuhihewaThis channel is treacherous as the harbor of Kākuhihewa
Ua ‘ō ‘ia nohā ka papaA surfboard smashes on the reef
Nohā Māui nāueue           Māui splits, trembles
Nāueue, nākelekeleSinks into slime
Nakele ka ‘ili o ka ‘ī he‘e kai           Many a surfman’s skin is slippery
Lalilali ‘ole ka ‘ili o ke akamaiBut the champion of chiefs skims into shore undrenched
Kāhilihili ke kai o ka he‘e naluBy the feathery flying sea-spray of surfriders
‘Ikea ka nalu nui o Puna, o Hilo!Now you have seen great surfs at Puna and Hilo!
          (Pukui and Korn 1973, 36–41)


Cool terminology
wave: nalu
surfboard: papa he‘e nalu
to get barreled: po‘ipū ‘ia e ka nalu (covered entirely by a wave)
surf lineup: kūlana he‘e nalu
surf’s up: ua pi‘i mai ka nalu