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Museum Exhibition Explores The History Of Surfing In Hawaii


Surfing - yay - will be part of the Olympics for the first time this summer when the games are scheduled to be played in Japan. But if you want to really know about surfing, you should, of course, head to Honolulu and a new exhibition on the sport's history and culture. Reporter Heidi Chang has our look.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: Hawaii is known as a mecca of surfing. And each year, top surfers gather on the island of Oahu to compete.


RANDY RARICK: During the winter months, which start usually about mid-October and run through 'til about mid-March, you've got the best surfers in the world and the best waves in the world right here on the North Shore.

CHANG: That's Randy Rarick, who helped launch surfing's first pro tour in 1976. He was also a consultant for the current exhibition at the Bishop Museum called "Mai Kinohi Mai: Surfing in Hawaii." In Hawaiian, that means from the beginning. It includes multimedia displays, historic photos and a jukebox.


SOL K BRIGHT: Duke Kahanamoku, the pride of all Hawaii, surfing on a nalu, appearing like a manu. You would think a moment he wore a feather garment (singing in non-English language).

CHANG: Duke Kahanamoku was a native Hawaiian who won three Olympic gold medals in swimming, says Rarick.

RARICK: But his dream after his first win was to get surfing in the Olympics because he won as a swimmer. But his passion was surfing.

MICHAEL WILSON: He was arguably the greatest surfer of all time, both in terms of his ability to surf and his true aloha spirit.

CHANG: Michael Wilson designed the exhibition at the Bishop Museum.

WILSON: What surfing is today is in a great part because Duke traveled the world and shared his love of surfing with the world.

CHANG: For the exhibition, Wilson recreated a famous wave that Kahanamoku rode in 1916.

WILSON: Duke Kahanamoku, on a wooden board with no fins, surfed a wave that was over 25 feet tall on its face. And he surfed it for over a mile. And we wanted to have the audience experience that moment. So we built a 27-foot tall wave and put a replica of Duke's board in it. And people can stand on that board and feel like they are there in the presence of this wave.

CHANG: Kahanamoku is known as the father of modern surfing, but Wilson says the sport began centuries earlier.

WILSON: It's hard to say where surfing began. People have been riding waves for thousands of years. And in 1777, a year before Captain Cook came to Hawaii, he was in Tahiti. And he recorded Tahitians riding waves on canoes for pleasure. But it wasn't until he came to Hawaii where he first recorded people on boards standing up surfing waves.

CHANG: Most historians think Hawaiians developed modern surfing when they arrived here 1,500 years ago. John Clark was also a consultant for the exhibition. He's the author of "Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions From The Past."

JOHN CLARK: Hawaii is the birthplace of modern surfing because Hawaiians took it to a skill level that no one else did anywhere. One of the things they did was develop surfboards that you could stand on. Modern surfing is based on standing up on a surfboard and maneuvering that surfboard on the wave.

CHANG: Clark says other early surf cultures existed off the coast of Africa, Peru and Japan. Through researching Hawaiian language newspapers going back to the 1800s, he discovered surfing was a national pastime in the Hawaiian Islands. And it was open to all.

CLARK: There was gender equity. Men and women surfed equally. And they surfed together at the same time. So if royalty was surfing, that would have included men and women, kings and queens. And when the commoners were in the water, it was exactly the same thing - men and women, boys and girls.

CHANG: Clark says the museum has the greatest collection of traditional surfboards in the world, including one that belonged to a Hawaiian prince who introduced modern surfing to California.

CLARK: Surfing left the islands when Prince Kuhio and his two brothers went to school in California. And in 1885, on a summer break, they made themselves three redwood surfboards in Santa Cruz and went surfing there. They were the first ones to introduce surfing outside of Hawaii.

CHANG: In addition to showcasing some of the oldest surfboards known to exist, the show also features boards belonging to some of the world's top surfers, including Hawaii's Carissa Moore, who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic surf team.

Now 28, Moore is the reigning women's world surf champion. She says what's helped her along the way is her outlook on life. And it's captured in a new documentary called "RISS."

CARISSA MOORE: The whole film was centered around three concepts, which was chasing your dreams to live authentically, like, embrace all of who you are and to take time for others to show other people respect, be patient, be understanding and just treat each other with more love.

CHANG: And those are the principles the four-time world champ will take to Tokyo when she competes for the first Olympic medals in surfing later this year. For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang in Honolulu.


KAʻAU CRATER BOYS: (Singing) Surf, surf... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Heidi Chang
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