Origins of the Soul Surfer

by Don Cadora

Who is the Soul Surfer?

Gerry Lopez, the patron saint of modern soul surfing | photo Jeff Divine

Gerry Lopez, the patron saint of modern soul surfing | photo Jeff Divine

First coined in the 1960s, the term “Soul Surfer” denotes a wave rider with the ability to merge with the wave.

Soul Surfers surf for the sheer joy of it. They revere the ocean, itself, as a living being. They opt for a simple life in order to maximize time in the water.

All who look upon the Soul Surfer’s impassioned style are healed. He or she may not be the most radical shredder, but all onlookers are moved by their somatic expressions.

The Soul Surfer concept can be applied to various other arts. Especially where the practitioner is recognized for having that “something special.” Even a marathon runner can be a Soul Runner if form and spirit are emphasized in the running.

But surfing is special. It has overtly spiritual roots.

Owl Chapman | shortboard pioneer, soulful charger | photo Jeff Divine

Owl Chapman | shortboard pioneer, soulful charger | photo Jeff Divine

All surfers would be Soul Surfers had the original Hawaiian tradition been passed on intact. The modern day EXTREME sportsman flaunts a grotesque mutation of the founding spirit of surfing.  

Back in the day, the Kahuna’s of Hawaii used surfing as a religious tool. They paddled out to honor the gods like Lono, associated with fertility, agriculture, rainfall, music and peace.

The art of surfing was a way of expressing gratitude and demonstrating spiritual power—through extraordinary feats of wave riding.

The Kahunas were shamans, wizards, and experts of art and healing.

They chanted spells to christen new surfboards, beckon swells,  and invoke courage.

Ancient Hawaii was ruled by a code, Kapu—denoting sacred, holy, marked-off or forbidden. Kapu regulated eating, cultivation of food crops, weather prediction, surfboard building, and surf conditions prediction.

The Kapu code even included surf condition manipulation. If there were no waves, you made them. With a little divine assistance.

Surfing was called The Sport of Kings. Chiefs were usually the ones riding the biggest waves. In fact, certain reefs and surf breaks were “marked-off” for royalty only.

Other more meager breaks were left to the common folk.  If by chance you happened to be surfing near someone of royal blood, it would have been the gravest of offenses to drop in on them. For our non-surfer readers, “dropping in” means riding in front of someone else who has already caught the wave from “the inside”. A real no-no to this day! Don’t do it.

Common folk had surfboards that were about 12 feet long. Royal sticks could span up to 24 feet. Size mattered, as did performance in the ocean.

The Duke (Kahanamoku), with surf stick | Waikiki 1930

The Duke (Kahanamoku), with surf stick | Waikiki 1930

Colonization brought a gradual end the Kapu system. By the 1800's Calvinist missionaries were insisting that the Hawaiians wear restrictive clothing, go to western schools, and get serious.

Surfing was seriously discouraged by these prude pilgrims. The missionaries later claimed that native Hawaiians simply “lost interest” in surfing after learning to live modest Christian lives. Don’t believe the protestant propaganda!

James D. Houston and Ben Finney writes in Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport,

“For surfing, the abolition of the traditional religion signaled the end of surfing’s sacred aspects. With surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods and other sacred elements removed, the once ornate sport of surfing was stripped of much of its cultural plumage.”

Tom Blake | helped bridge the gap between ancient and modern surfing, practically invented the surfer-drifter lifestyle and did so with panache

Tom Blake | helped bridge the gap between ancient and modern surfing, practically invented the surfer-drifter lifestyle and did so with panache

Craig Anderson | zenith of the modern soul surfer | photo Tom Hawkins

Craig Anderson | zenith of the modern soul surfer | photo Tom Hawkins

But the Soul Surfer carries the almost-extinguished torch towards the horizon, reminding us what all surfers could be. Wave-riding wizards, killer kahunas, gnarly nobles, and shredding shamans.     

 

Resources:

From Polynesia With Love, The History of Surfing From Captain Cook to the Present - By Ben Marcus

http://www.surfingforlife.com/history.html