Canoe Surfing in Hawaii

Are you ready to experience the trendiest, most fun, and even one of the oldest ways to experience Maui’s waters? Then get ready to experience outrigger canoe surfing; an ancient mode of transportation that, thankfully, is undergoing a renaissance. And whether you’ve been canoe surfing in Hawaii before or are just dreaming of doing so, in this article we’ll take a closer look at exactly what canoe surfing is, where it came from, and how you can get in on the fun. 

John Derrick
Published on: 06-17-2019
Published by: John C. Derrick

What is Canoe Surfing? 

Canoe surfing, also called outrigger canoe surfing, was once an integral part of life in the Islands. Canoes were used for everything from transportation of people and goods, fishing, and even entertainment. Fast forward to today and the sport we call canoe surfing most certainly finds its home in the ‘entertainment’ category. In fact, its entertainment value is simply off the charts! 

A surfing canoe is a four-person outrigger canoe; this means that it is basically what we all recognize as a canoe, with a floating lateral support on one side that boosts the vessel’s stability. And while traditional outrigger canoe hulls support six people, a surfing canoe holds only four, as the hull has more of a banana shape which allows it to maneuver and surf waves more easily. 

What Does This Mean For You? 

In a word: fun! Imagine the anticipation build as you paddle out to catch a wave, the exhilaration of riding it as you’re comfortably seated, and the joy of sharing your adrenaline rush with your fellow paddlers. It truly is an amazing experience!

Canoe surfing has many advantages over traditional wave riding. First, you don’t have to balance yourself on a surfboard; even if you’ve never surfed before, you’ll love canoe surfing. But if you have surfed traditionally before, you’ll still love the speed and thrill. Another advantage is that you’ll be paddling with a team. This means that people with differing levels of comfort with the ocean and paddling can share the adventure- no one gets left out and everyone has a blast! 

History of Canoe Surfing

Outrigger canoes have held a special place in history for centuries, especially in the Hawaiian Islands. Historians calculate outrigger canoes made their first appearance in Hawaii around 200 A.D. when Polynesian peoples braved the Pacific looking for new lands. These people carried not only their families in outrigger canoes, but also livestock, edible plants, and other necessary supplies. These vessels were invaluable in helping to sustain their new lives in the Hawaiian Islands. 

A milestone in the development of the outrigger canoe was the discovery of huge koa wood trees on the Big Island; allowing canoe hulls to be carved from a single piece of wood. This required the canoe carver to work in tandem with many other people. First, a Hawaiian priest would locate the perfect koa wood tree and helped to gather the workers- usually hundreds of men. He would also stay during the canoe building process to offer blessings and prayers. 

The hull was constructed in a special building used solely for this purpose and took several days of labor to construct. The finished hull was painted with a special mixture of charcoal and plants to help waterproof it. Those canoes reserved for royalty were also finished with hens’ eggs to impart a glossy finish. 

The final step in the canoe building process was the sacrifice of a pig and a dog, which symbolized the ‘rooting’ of the canoe into the open ocean and the ‘tearing apart’ of the ocean’s billows, respectively. 

Canoes were instrumental to life in the Hawaiian Islands, for practical uses as well as for sport. In fact, by the time Capt. Cook arrived in 1779, he documented spotting at least 1,500 outrigger canoes; a huge number in relation to the number of island inhabitants at the time. Canoe racing was very popular at that time, but as European ways gained a foothold in Hawaii, the practice waned. 

Outrigger Canoes Today

Thankfully, the sport of canoeing in Hawaii has been revived and is alive and well, once again. Dozens of canoe clubs have been formed in the state and they promote canoeing and enforce regulations for canoe names, techniques, and traditions based on ancient Hawaiian customs.

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