In my earliest surfing memories, I’m streaking along a turquoise Waikiki comber, the flamingo pink of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to my left, the volcanic and majestic Diamond Head to my right, and about six or seven fellow wave riders on either side of me, one of which is an outrigger canoe, steered from the stern by a dark-skinned and muscly beach boy, a half-dozen white and paunchy and severely stoked tourists riding in front. I didn’t pay much attention to this at the time (I was just trying to stay on my feet!), but in my many Waikiki sessions since, the outrigger canoe has been a recurring theme. You don’t see this in the lineups of Malibu or Rockaway or Bondi. It’s very specific to Hawaii, and it’s a reminder of wave-riding’s Polynesian roots.
Outrigger canoes were originally developed by the Austronesian speaking peoples of the islands of Southeast Asia for sea travel. They were used to transport these peoples both eastward to Polynesia and New Zealand, and westward across the Indian Ocean as far as Madagascar. Outrigger canoes first arrived in Hawaii around 200 AD, some big enough to hold up to 80 people. They carried essential items like edible plants, water, and animals. Voyagers followed the migration patterns of birds—that’s how they discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
The rugged, jagged, volcanic Hawaiian terrain made it tough to move stuff around by sea, but the outrigger canoe was supple and streamlined—it became a necessity for tasks like fishing and transporting goods and people. Like early surfboards, early outrigger canoes were built from koa trees, with prayers and blessings from a kahuna. When Captain Cook landed on the shores of Hawaii in 1778 he reported seeing at least 1,500 outrigger canoes. But again much like surfing, Calvinist missionaries frowned upon and eventually banned outrigger canoeing.
They enjoyed a revival in the late 19th century. In 1908, the Outrigger Canoe Club was founded on Oahu. In 1975, historian and Polynesian Voyaging Society member Herb Kane designed a replica of a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe, which he named Hōkūleʻa, or “Star of Gladness.” A year later, using exclusively Polynesian navigation techniques, the Hōkūleʻa departed from Honolua Bay in Maui and arrived successfully in Tahiti 34 days later. Today, Outrigger Canoe Racing is the State sport of Hawaii, and an interscholastic high school sport.
And what about those wave-riding outrigger canoes we see at Waikiki? Story goes that the ancients would paddle out to fish in their empty canoes. On the way back in, canoe full of fish, heavier and harder to paddle, they’d take full advantage of the free-ride assist of waves. So began the stoke. Soon they were paddling out not to fish, not for transport, but simply to ride waves—and have a damn good time!