Partnerships A Brief History of Hawaii and Big Wave Surfing

How a small set of islands in the Pacific Ocean gave birth to big wave surfing and its champions

5 min

We look back at the giants — the surfers and the swells themselves — that have made big waves a big deal, with a focus on the Hawaiian origins of this extreme sport.

The earliest written record of Hawaiian surfing, or “hee nalu,” as it’s known in the local language, dates all the way back to 1779. Lieutenant James King, who served under the explorer Captain James Cook on his final voyage around the world, observed the islanders riding wooden boards on the waves at Kealakekua Bay. “They seem,” he wrote, “to feel a great pleasure in the motion that this exercise gives.” If only King could see the way this pastime has evolved…

Fast-forward about 150 years. Most scholars of the sport agree that Hawaii is the birthplace of big wave surfing, and that it got started around the mid-20th century. While surfers had previously stuck to some of the island’s western shores, they began exploring other fronts. Ultimately, it was on the north-facing beaches of Hawaii’s islands where serious surfers, like Greg Noll and Phil Edwards, began to take on bigger and gnarlier waves. While 15-foot breaks were once considered “big,” within a couple of decades, surfers were seeking out, and riding, bonafide monsters.

For native Hawaiian Kai Lenny, the Gen-Y surfing legend, big-waves pulse through his veins. He’s been surfing in what is essentially his own backyard from an early age and he recognises how fortunate he is to have grown up in Hawaii, or what he calls, one of the best places on the planet for waves.To hear more from Kai on the magic of Maui’s shores, have a listen to this episode of The Edge Podcast.

But who paved the way for surfers like Kai? Who took on Hawaii’s epic walls of water, riding them to shore? Let’s dive into big wave surfing history and meet some of its stars.

1950s: Finally, surf season at Waimea Bay

For surfers, Waimea Bay on Oahu’s northern shore was steeped in taboos and haunting stories. For one, it was at Waimea where Dickie Cross perished in 1943 while trying to paddle back from a vicious swell 3km away at Sunset Beach. But the big, alluringly rideable waves sent out a siren call, and in 1957, Greg Noll finally paddled out and famously surfed a 25-footer. From that moment on, the floodgates of big wave surfing were open.

1960s and 70s: Big wave surfing goes pro

California-born surfer Phil Edwards is often considered the first professional surfer. He’s also remembered as the first to surf the Banzai pipeline in Hawaii. Nicknamed Pipeline or Pipe, this surf reef break on Oahu’s north shore was tempting with its huge waves and cavernous reefs. In 1961, Phil was caught on film riding several larger-than-life Pipeline waves. The footage was later included in the film Surfing Hollow Days and the Pipe became an epic surfing destination.

 

Eddie Aikau, Hawaii native, transformed big wave surfing. A skilled lifeguard and surfer, Eddie proved himself as a mythic waterman throughout the 70s, surfing  massive waves at Sunset Beach and Waimea. In 1978 he set sail with the crew of the Hokulea, a recreation of an ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. A storm hit, and Eddie, true to his lifeguarding instincts, paddled out for help. He was never seen again, but his shadow looms large on today’s big wave surf scene.

1980s and 90s: The Momentum Generation takes the surf stage

 

Brock Little was a scrawny teen when he showed up at the 1987 Eddie Aikau Invitational at Waimea Bay. He wasn’t even an official contestant, but that didn’t stop him from catching some big ones and convincing the judges to slip him into the competition as an alternate. He placed third and from then on, he became a fixture of the big wave community, training with and mentoring several up-and-coming surfers in what became known as the “Momentum Generation.”

 

Wednesday, January 28, 1998 on the North Shore of Oahu. The sun was shining and the waves were 40-footers. Haleiwa Harbor was closed, so the action moved a few miles away to a launch spot called Phantoms. Some surfers, like Brock Little, got stuck in traffic and missed the monster tides, but Ken Bradshaw was in the right place at the right time and surfed a wave of epic proportions. Whether it was 70 or 80-feet…that’s lost to time, but Ken became a big wave hero.

Kai Lenny wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer (WBP201B.BA0632)

2009 to today: Kai’s the limit

Paddle-in pioneer and homegrown Californian surfer Greg Long ascended to big wave royalty in December 2009, winning the Quiksilver Big Wave International at Waimea Bay. He coasted along a 40-foot surf, beating ten-time world champ Kelly Slater. He also won the 2009 Quiksilver event in memory of Eddie Aikau. (This event marked Kai Lenny’s first time competing at the super serious waves of Pe’ahi.) Later, Greg performed surf stunts that were used in the film Chasing Mavericks, a biopic about American surfer Jay Moriarity.

In 2016, Kai Lenny won first place overall at the Stand Up World Series, which for the first time ever was held in Maui, also known as Kai’s backyard. A few short years later, in 2019, after several other major wins, he became the youngest ever inductee into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame.

Pe’ahi, on the north coast of the windy island of Maui, was nicknamed Jaws after the movie, not because of the danger of sharks, but because of the unpredictable danger of the waves themselves. Need we explain why that makes it a favourite spot for big wave surfers? Winter 20-21 brought an epic surf season at Jaws, highlighting the sheer talent of Billy Kemper and Kai Lenny. Billy won Ride of the Year and Kai cemented his fame. 

For more immersive big wave action, spend a day with Kai in this short video , or enjoy this 5-part video series courtesy of Red Bull.

Kai Lenny wearing the TAG Heuer Aquaracer (WBP201B.BA0632)