“But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore.”
After Hawaiians killed Captain James Cook in February of 1779, Lieutenant James King worked on completing Cook’s journals. In them, King dedicated several pages to describing what is now known as surfing.
“The Men … go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, … thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity.”
Hawaiians may not have been the first to surf—it likely originated elsewhere in the Polynesian islands then brought to Hawaii in the fourth century—but the “diversion” has been closely associated with Hawaii since King’s very first description of it. Some sources say that earliest surfers in Tahiti most often lay on belly boards, only occasionally standing up on them, and the stand-up version we know today was perfected, if not created, by Hawaiians.
But the sport’s history never mattered to me as a young girl, growing up with an admiration of surfers. They were just...hot. In high school I crushed on boys who wore surfer-logoed shirts and puka shell necklaces, which happened to be in fashion in my hometown—located about 780 kilometres (484 miles) from an ocean and the nearest surf spot: Rockaway Beach, NYC. I watched surf and skate films like Dogtown and Z-Boys so that I could speak with some knowledge about the topic—you know, in case it ever came up in conversation. A small part of me wished to someday get out on the waves myself, but my
fear of healthy respect for the ocean kept me from paddling out.
Until last summer. I decided to stay home during the summer for once, instead of going travelling. But, I decided, if I was staying in Vancouver, I couldn't just rest on its beaches; I should get in the water. Part of what attracted me to the city, after all, was its ocean. I practiced a selection of water sports: sailing (complicated), stand-up paddle boarding (easy), windsurfing (difficult), kayaking (fun).
After all those, I knew I couldn’t stop there; I needed to try surfing. So one summer weekend I rode the ferry to Vancouver Island and took a bus to Tofino. Since the 1970s, Tofino, on the western edge of the island, has been a popular cold-water surf spot, with over 35 kilometres of beach breaks.
I had a lesson on Chesterman Beach with about a dozen other wannabe surfers. After gearing up in our full-body wetsuits to protect ourselves from the frigid Pacific Ocean temperatures, our two young male teachers led us through beach exercises where we, flat on our bellies in the sand, practiced paddling out then hopping up on our boards.
Finally getting into the water, I paddled out into the waves. I’ve never felt comfortable in the ocean, and paddling into the deeper waters felt unnatural. I was apprehensive. But after lying on my board, feeling a few waves pass underneath me, I knew I had to turn around and at least try.
I saw a wave coming. I paddled as hard as I could, and as soon as I felt the rush from the wave, I tried pushing up on my board. Something went wrong—my paddling, my push-up, or my balance, or some combination of all three—and I crashed into the water. But I felt alive.
The next hour and a half went much the same way. Each attempt at getting onto my feet was as unsuccessful as the last, but I didn’t care. I don’t even like swimming with my face in the water, so to be out and frolicking so freely in ocean waves was a huge step for me. It wasn’t even so much about standing up anymore; it was about conquering my fear of the ocean.
Surfing is about going with the waves instead of against them. If I worked with the forces, they would carry me. I didn’t have to be scared.
This winter, I got another chance at surfing. My brother and his fiancée’s family rented a home on the North Shore of Hawaii in December, and my family went to visit over the Christmas holidays.
On my first day, the group of us went to the bay to try and catch some waves. G, my future sister-in-law’s brother-in-law, is from Australia (and therefore surfs) and was willing to coach me.
“When you see the wave coming, paddle as hard as you can,” he said. “And don’t stay on your knees. If you get to your knees, just push yourself up on your feet.”
I got into position in the breaking waves, laying back on my longboard, facing the beach of our little bay.
“Here’s a wave, Mel!” the group shouted. “Paddle, paddle, paddle!”
I dug into the water the best I could and G gave me a small push just as the wave hit me. I felt the water rush under my board and push me along. Now was my chance. I got up to my knees, a little unsteady. I glided like that for a bit, but kept thinking about G’s instruction to stand up, even if it took a bit of time. So I did. I pushed until I was on my feet.
One wave! One wave and I was on my feet already—something I couldn’t do in two hours in Tofino. It may not have been graceful, but I was up.
I couldn’t get to my feet again for the rest of the day, but, like in Tofino, it didn’t matter. Here I was in Hawaii, the heart of surfing, and I was having a great time just being in the warm water.
After a few false starts and shaky efforts, I finally caught a good wave a couple days later, on Christmas Eve. I paddled as hard as I could and grabbed the board as I felt the wave’s pressure rushing beneath me. This time, instead of me forcing myself up, it was like the wave carried me. As I got to my feet, I crouched low and glided steadily through the water.
I was surfing.
In 1907, Jack London said he had “ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave” while surfing in Hawaii. Agatha Christie, in 1922, said her surfing experience there: it was “a moment of complete triumph.”
“The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant,” Lt. James King wrote in his surfing observations, “at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.”
As for me, catching my first good wave in Hawaii was all of those: blissful, ecstatic, triumphant—a pleasure, indeed.
To surf in Tofino, there are a lot of surf schools to come from. I went with Pacific Surf School, but Surf Sister Surf School, Live to Surf, and Tofino Surf Adventures also come well recommended.
In Hawaii, I didn’t used a commercial surf school, but the following are recommended online: Gone Surfing Hawaii and Kai Sallas’ Pro Surf School in Honolulu, and North Shore Surf Girls on the North Shore.