by Matt Luttrell
No disrespect to the 1965 World Surfing Champion Felipe Pomar, but the Hawaiians most certainly invented surfing.
While I’m not doubting the veracity that Peruvian fisherman rode waves into the shore after a long day spent fishing on their caballitos de tortora (grass reed canoes), wave sliding strictly for pleasure was a uniquely Hawaiian endeavor. As such, it is obvious that the ancient Hawaiian people viewed wave sliding differently than the Mochica and Chimu people of Northern Peru. When the surf was good in Hawaii, work was ignored. Everyone headed to the beach to take part in a cultural communion. Unless you were a kauwa (outcaste or slave), Hawaiians of every caste were allowed to surf in the highly stratified Pacific Kingdom.
When Tom Blake arrived in Hawaii in 1924, the 22-year-old vagabond quickly recognized that the Hawaiian’s art form of he’e nalu (wave sliding) was THE ultimate pleasure. The royal sport of kings would completely consume Blake for the next 30 years of his life. Surfing would inspire him to write a book, Hawaiian Surfboard, which became the first exhaustive tome on the history and culture of Hawaiian wave sliding.
Yet, Tom Blake’s legacy in surfing is much more than just words on paper. The intrepid inventor revolutionized wave sliding by inventing the hollow surfboard and crafting the first surfboard fin. While these inventions remain remarkable, it would be Blake’s fascination with photography that would provide his lasting legacy. Blake’s ultimate genius manifested itself in the form of a rudimentary wood housing built for his 4×6 Graflex camera. As Blake wrote in 1935, “Down through the ages, references to surf riding have survived; first via the chant, later in writing, and now most eloquently by the medium of the camera.”
In recent years it has become vogue to reinvent the past by photographing and filming surfing on ancient hydrodynamic crafts. Modern surfers have shown tremendous skill riding the alaia (the shortboard of ancient Hawaii) in perfect trim on a wave, which the Hawaiian’s called lala (to slide, angle across the face of wave). Yet, there is no image (moving or still) that shows a caballitos de tortora and its rider sliding across the face of a wave.
Ancient Peruvians inventing surfing is an unproven hypothesis at best. Surfing is, and will always remain, a Hawaiian born endeavor.