What the First European to Visit Hawaii Thought About Surfers

The Europeans were fascinated by Pacific Islanders’ comfort in the water

Detail of a surfer in "A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee," an etching made by an artist accompanying the Cook expedition. Smithsonian Cullman Library

Long before the Beach Boys encouraged an entire generation to catch a wave, Pacific Islanders were surfing—and explorer James Cook was one of the first Europeans to see it.

James Cook’s voyages to through the Pacific are credited with “helping to guide generations of explorers, as well as with providing the first accurate map of the Pacific,” writes Biography.com. His diaries and those of some crew members are still used by historians of the Pacific region, and his influence on Pacific history is felt up and down the coast. One little-known area of history that his crew members documented was surfing.

On this day in 1778, Captain James Cook sailed past the island of Oahu, part of Hawaii. He was the first European who was recorded as visiting this and other Hawaiian islands.

“This appearing to be a new Discovery excited our curiousity much, expecting to meet with a new Race of People disctinct from the Islanders to the Southward,” wrote David Samwell, a surgeon’s assistant on the Resolution, one of Cook’s ships. Some Hawaiians canoed over to see Cook’s ships, and another crew member, Charles Clerke, wrote that the canoes they had come out in kept pace with the larger ship.

All the journals mention how comfortable the Hawaiians were in the water, like other Pacific islanders.  Ship’s surgeon William J. Anderson even wrote about the first time he witnessed surfing, or something like it, in Tahiti not long before Cook reached Hawaii:

For on walking, one day, about Matavai Point, where our tents were erected, I saw a man paddling, in a small canoe, so quickly, and looking about with such eagerness, on each side, as to command all my attention…. He went out from the shore, till he was near the place where the swell began to take its rise; and watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it, with great quickness, till he found that it overtook him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it, without passing underneath. He then sat motionless, and was carried along, at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach. Then he started out, emptied his canoe, and went in search of another swell. I could not help concluding, that this man felt the most supreme pleasure, while he was driven on, so fast and so smoothly, by the sea.

The only European amusement that Anderson could compare to it was skating, he wrote.

Clerke, a ship's officer, was the first European to document surfing in Hawaii, writes Patrick J. Moser in Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writings.

Clerke described Islanders using something that looked more like a surf board as we now imagine it: about two feet across and six to eight feet long, “exactly in the Shape of one of our bone paper cutters.”  

Upon this they get astride with their legs, then laying their breasts upon it, they paddle with their hands and steer with their feet, and gain such Way thro’ the Water, that they would fairly go round the best going Boats we had in the two ships, in spight of every Exertion of the Crew, in the space of a very few Minutes.

Pacific Islanders’ relationship with the ocean and with surfing continued to fascinate Europeans and Americans, writes Julia Blakely for Smithsonian Libraries’ books blog. Illustrations of Hawaiians surfing were common in accounts of the period.

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