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Hawaiian Princes Bring Surfing to Santa Cruz: Victorian Era, 1885

Spoiler Alert! Two Hawaiian Princes Bring Surfing to Santa Cruz: Victorian Era, 1885. You can see two of the long-lost, original Hawaiian “Princes of Surf” boards carved from local redwoods at the Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz until October 25, 2015.

July 20, 1885. The page-two column entitled “Beach Breezes” in the Monday morning edition of the Santa Cruz Surf delivered detailed accounts of the weekend seaside activities. “Sunday afternoon at the beach was one of the liveliest of the season. It was warm, very warm but tempered by a breeze, which made the heat endurable and kept people good-natured.”

According to Geoffrey Dunn and Kim Stoner in The Boards Are Back In Town, Good Times Weekly, Santa Cruz was the place to be that summer. The South Pacific Coast Railroad completed in 1880 connected Santa Cruz to the rest of the country. Hotels and boarding houses were filled with people flocking to the sea side town with all its attractions.

That Sunday offered good surf conditions according to the Santa Cruz Surf.  “The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun, at least, so said those who were ‘in the swim.’

”As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water with them, “dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves and making some nervous onlookers feel sure that they were about to be dashed against the rocks.”

Meanwhile, a bit further east, at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, history was being made. Three Hawaiian princes—David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole—were riding the waves on long surfboards.

Their boards were made out of local first growth redwoods. They were milled in the shape of traditional Hawaiian o’lo boards which were reserved in the Islands  for royalty. Prince Jonah’s redwood olo was 17 feet 2.5 inches and weighed 150 pounds; Prince David’s, 17 feet 9.5 inches, and weighed in at 175 pounds.

The Hawaiian Princes Come To Santa Cruz

After their parents died, the three princes were adopted in 1884 by the Hawaiian monarchs, King David Kalakaua and Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapiʻolani. The princes were the Queen’s nephews, related by blood. It was her husband, their uncle Kalakaua who taught them to surf Waikiki Beach.

The brothers had attended Hawaii’s finest schools in preparation for the monarchy. In 1884, David was sent to St. Matthew’s Hall a strict military school in San Mateo. His brothers,  arrived at the school the following year.

When the Hawaiian princes visited Santa Cruz, they stayed with family friends Lyman and Antoinette Swan. Antoinette also had direct lineage to royal Hawaiian bloodlines.

Wave Sliding: Surfing In Ancient Hawaii

Not just for recreation, surfing in ancient Hawaii was tightly woven into the culture. “Wave sliding” as it was called, was considered an art form.  Surfing expressed an attitude of reverence for nature and a graceful way of living–as well as an athletic skill.

All classes of Hawaiians surfed, from young to the elderly. Crafting the surfboard was a sacred activity. It involved selecting the proper tree, making offerings to the gods for taking the tree and an intricate process for shaping and finishing the board.

There were four basic categories of surfboards, classified by length and size. O’lo boards were used only by royalty. They ranged from 15’ to 18’ and were about 6 ½ inches thick. These were the surfboards the princes rode on that hot summer day in the Victorian Era.

Santa Cruz Becomes Surf City

For Santa Cruz, the Hawaiian Princes and their “wave slide” was more than a lark. That famed day became a significant moment in the history and culture of the town by the sea that would come to be known as Surf City.

Some pundits assert that this day in Santa Cruz history was insignificant. A few credit George Freeth, a part Hawaiian who became known as “the man who walked on water,” as the first to bring surfing to the mainland even though he was only a toddler when the Hawaiian princes slid the waves of Santa Cruz. Others say it was the famous Duke Kahanamoku, who knew the princes and visited Santa Cruz several times.

Judging from reports in the Santa Cruz Surf, the surfing princes were there first and they left their permanent mark. Locals later attempted their own versions of the sport. A weekly edition of the paper from July of 1896 reported “the boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.”

For decades after the Hawaiian Princes surfed Santa Cruz, redwood was shipped from Northern California to Hawaii, where it became a favored wood for surfboards.

The Fate Of The Original Boards: An Oral Tradition

The story of the Hawaiian princes and their surfing expedition in Santa Cruz became an important thread in local lore.

Authors Geoffrey Dunn and Kim Stoner originally heard the story years ago from Skip Littlefield of the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, a long time famed waterfront attraction. Littlefield had been friends with Ernest Otto, who was a young reporter at the time of the princes’ arrival in 1885.

It was widely believed that the surfing princes brought their redwood o’lo boards back to the islands with them. There was no official confirmation of this story until Mac Reed, surf historian raised in Santa Cruz, recently made a pilgrimage to the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

After extensive review of the archived holdings of the Bishop, he discovered the artifacts – two of the original surfboards ridden on that day in the Victorian Era.

One of the boards belonged to Kuhio and the other to Kawananakoa Both boards had been bequeathed to the Bishop by Kuhio’s widow, Elizabeth, in 1923 as part of the Kapiolani-Kalaniana’ole family collections.

On a cold September day in 1890, the Hawaiian Royals  shocked British bathers by introducing surfing to Bridlington, England.

The Princes Of Surf Exhibition: Museum of Art and History (MAH)

Curators Nina Simon and Marla Novo negotiated a cultural exchange with the Bishop Museum. The o’los, will be on display at MAH beginning Friday, July 3, 2015 until Oct. 27.

The Princes of Surf: Replica Boards Ride Again

As part of the festivities, surfboard shaper Bob Pearson, of Arrow Surf Shop, created replicas of the Hawaiian princes’ surfboards. Local surfers tried their luck on the boards at the mouth of the San Lorenzo. Everyone got a chance to paddle beside the historic replicas.

Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History  

5 Responses

  1. Aloha kakou, my name is Mo Kalohelani Malabanan from San Diego and I presented Hawaiian Surfing History at the Pacific Islander Festival in 2002 in San Diego. It was a honor to share Hawai’i’s gift to the world. For me to see your videos on the original Hawaiian Surfboards from 1885 is deeply touching and beyond words.” Pupukahi I Holomua” to all those that keep our gift to the world…Surfing. (United We All Move Forward)

    1. Thanks so much for visiting. I responded to you long ago, but our post dropped off so I’m trying this again. Congratulations for your role in the Surfing History Festival. This is such a special subject and so deeply important to the islands. We did a post on Princess Kaiulani, but found it difficult to get the really great details we hoped to find about her surfing. If you ever come across that topic or any other that interests you from the era, please let us know! Mahalo!

  2. What a beautiful, inspiring and much needed recognition and tribute to the origins of surfing in the United States. This sport, this ritual with the ocean so richly enhances my life, and continues to with efforts like these. I grew up in landlocked Dallas, Texas, but fell in love with all thing California, especially surfing, surf music and surf culture. I rode my first wave on a longboard in Galveston and was forever hooked. My dream was to move to Cali which I did 44 years ago in 1977. I got married, have two children that surf and with my son and one of his friends we started a surf team at Santa Monica High School, a school located 4 blocks from ocean. 4 blocks and no surf team. Criminal. The surf team was one of the most amazing and profound experiences of my life, to such a degree that I made a documentary about it.

    Password: surfing

    Pray for surf and save the oceans.

    1. Hey Chris. Thanks for posting this! Great video. We’ll connect in other posts. My friend was a member of Wind and Sea, Malibu in the 60s and an innovator in “air” as the captain of the Pepsi Skateboard Team. He was also a student at SanMo High and said that he wishes he had met you. He couldn’t agree more about the surf team. Please keep us posted with your ongoing videos. We’re only a few miles from you! Check out our post on the Surfing Princess Kaiulani in the Trailblazers Section. Thanks again for your beautiful tribute to surfing.

    2. Thanks so much for sharing your personal story. We’re based in Malibu, among surf legends. It’s always so great to see the 80-plus crowd come out when the surf is spectacular. I get what you’re saying! And thanks for posting your video. We did a post on Princess Kaiulani. So difficult to find specific information on early surfers. Please circle back if you find any good details. And thanks for visiting.

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