Bridging the Gap: Surfing Etiquette in Hawaii

Photo by Carissa Cabrera

Photo by Carissa Cabrera

Wave /wāv/ (noun): A long body of water curling into an arched form and breaking on the shore. In Hawaiian: nalu, nanu, ‘ale.

It’s nearly impossible to think about the Hawaiian islands without thinking about surfing. From the seven mile stretch of heaven on the North Shore of Oahu with breaks like Pipeline, Backdoor, Chuns, and Velzyland to massive breaks like Peahi on Maui, those that grow up in Hawaiian waves become some of the best surfers in the world. This archipelago is an oasis, and surfers from all around the world travel here to push the limits of surfing. Given the history of this place, why is it that you see surfers fighting for the peak without respecting local culture?

These islands are sacred, and Hawaiian culture is deeply intertwined with the ocean. For thousands of years, ancient Polynesians have relied on their ocean for food, navigation, and recreation. Hawaiian culture believes that all life began from a single coral polyp. The humpback whales that migrate to the islands in the winter are sacred, as well as sharks, some fish, and dolphins. It’s believed that they are the spirits of ancestors that have passed on and are here as protective guardians, or ‘aumaka. The deep respect for the land, ocean, and inhabitants are part of what make Hawaii so compelling to conservationists and surfers from around the world.

Malama ‘aina (verb): to care for and nurture the land so it can give back all we need to sustain life for ourselves and future generations.

Any traveling surfer knows that etiquette varies in different areas, but Hawaii presents an entirely unique situation. Native Hawaiian elders, known as kapuna, are held with high regard in the community. This means it doesn’t matter if you are at a more suitable position for the drop – the wave should go to the uncle or aunty (these are terms of respect for locals that are older than you) when you are in Hawaiian waters. At more notable and famous breaks, these unspoken terms seem to be ignored, but respectable surfers know that this is the treatment Hawaiians deserve in the lineup.

There is inevitable tension between locals and haoles (white people). This tension can be better or worse depending on the interaction, person, or situation. Even on the mainland, surfers range from passive to friendly to aggressive. It is your responsibility to ‘read the room’ or gauge the energy at each break. ‘Kooking out’ at a beginner spot is one thing, but claiming a wave over an older local and then falling is considered disrespectful. This is why researching your surf breaks is so important – you must be that much more modest when approaching a ‘local’ spot.

The history of European invasion of Hawaii still cuts deep for many locals. Haoles took over their sacred land, buried their language, stifled their culture, and marginalized their race, all in the last 200 years. This type of hurt cannot be forgotten, especially when haoles are snaking their waves.

Unless you have Hawaiian blood running through your veins, you are a guest in Hawaiian waters, no matter which break you are surfing that day. We are lucky to be given the chance to share the waves with them. Respecting Hawaiian history and culture must be extended in the lineup if we ever hope to repair any polarization between us. Waves will come and go; there will always be another one. It’s time we acknowledge history and pay respect to the land, the ocean, and those who call this place their homeland.

Carissa Cabrera1 Comment