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The Ancient Art of Surfing

Article by Shannon Wianecki

Little compares to the thrill of standing on water. Balanced on a board that’s cutting across the face of a fast-moving, foamy wave, you can’t help but feel like a surfing superhero.

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The Hawaiian waters must inspire creativity; the sports of surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding were each born here. Ancient Hawaiian wave riders gave the world hee nalu, or longboarding. Modern thrill-seekers built on the theme, developing windsurfing, paddlesurfing, kiteboarding, tow-in surfing, and multi-million dollar industries of gear, instructors, contests, and movies to go along with each. Historic records name 86 individual surf breaks from old Hawaii; today surfers practice the ancient pastime at more than 1,700 spots statewide. Whatever your skill level, you’re likely to find a surf break along Maui’s coastline that’s calling out to you.

How to Catch a Wave

The secret to catching waves is simple: relax! Before getting in the water, spend a few minutes watching the waves. Make note of what other surfers are doing. When you’re ready, paddle out through the channel (the flat area to the side of the breaking waves). Waves come in sets—generally around six to a swell. In between waves, position yourself where the next one will break, facing the shore. As an approaching wave builds, kick like crazy, and catch it. You'll feel the wave grab hold of you and propel you just ahead of the white foam. Now, stand up! Raise yourself, planting one foot forward, with your body facing sideways. Keep your knees bent and try not to lean far in any direction. If you get knocked from your board and find yourself somersaulting underwater, simply hold your breath and relax. The wave will recede shortly and let you up for air.

Surf Lessons & Clinics

If you’re new to the sport, a two-hour lesson is the way to go. You’ll be spared having to load up a rental board on the roof your car and drive around in search of a safe beginner’s spot. Surf school instructors will loan you a soft-top longboard, provide onshore instruction, and guide you out through the channel to a prime surf spot. Some might even give you a helpful shove into the wave (–a tremendous help if you haven’t yet built up those big surfer’s biceps.) You may feel silly practicing in the sand in your booties, but that will be forgotten the moment you stand up and ride your first real wave.

Goofy Foot is one of the best schools, next door to “Breakwall” on the West Side. (505 Front St., Lahaina (808) 244-9283 On the South Side, try Big Kahuna, in the Island Surf building across the street from Cove Park. (1993 S. Kihei Rd. #2, (808) 875-6395)

Surf clinics or camps offer day-long, and one or two-week immersions into the world of surfing. Action Sports Maui ( hosts a variety of clinics for all ages and abilities. Maui Surfer Girls ( has gained national notoriety for sponsoring top-notch programs for wave-riding ladies. Overnight camps integrate yoga, nutritious snacks, and confidence building exercises into the surf schedule. Advanced surfers can even tackle tow-in surfing with pro waverider and program founder, Dustin Tester.

Choose Your Weapon: Longboard, Shortboard, or Sponge

Beginning surfers test their balance on longboards, just as the ancients did. Hawaiian chiefs rode olo, fifteen-foot long boards carved from bouyant wili wili trees. Commoners rode alaia, slightly shorter boards made of koa or breadfruit planks. (You can view one of these monster boards hanging outside of the Bailey House Museum.) Thank goodness modern surfboards, made of fiberglass or epoxy, are lighter than their hefty predecessors and easier to maneuver.

Longboards are typically three feet taller than the surfer riding them. Soft-tops are used by beginners. Their spongy coating inhibits high-performance, but is harder to ding up on the rocks and softer if it happens to bonk an unsuspecting surfer on the head. Shortboards come in every variety, often tailor-made for the individual surfer. The board’s length, curvature, number and shape of fins, and weight determine how fast and easily it will carve waves.

  read more: Boogie in the Shorebreak >>