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How a chance encounter on Kaua‘i—and a quiet session at Hanalei—opened a window into the island of Ni‘ihau’s isolated and obscure surf culture.
By Chris Cook
Light / Dark
Here on Kaua‘i, kings of my surfing generation—the post-WWII-born surfers who were young but also well into longboarding when the shortboard revolution began full throttle in 1967—are dying.
It is the summer of 2022. A paddle-out is happening in a few days at Pine Trees for Dick Brewer, one of the most influential surfboard shapers of the first phases of the shortboard era, who died a few weeks ago at his Princeville home. Around 1970, he and Skip Harmon, transplanted California surfers, turned a series of abandoned storefronts that dated back to Hawai‘i’s sugar-plantation days into surfboard dream factories in sleepy Lawa‘i and Hanapēpē.
In those years, I rode a 6’2″ Brewer/Harmon tri-fin with a Hanapepe Surf Shop label, a dark-blue-tinted bottom rolled up over the rails. Its nose resembled a dolphin’s beak, and a narrow concave, situated directly underneath the front third of the board, sought to give a surfer the speed of that marine mammal. The fin cluster was an 8-inch center fin augmented by two 3-inch fins at each corner of the board’s square tail.
Brewer’s designs of that era were experiments—vehicles of romantic idealism that also displayed his engineering skill. More than surfboards, they were fiberglassed symbols of surfing’s rapid evolution, providing those lucky enough to ride one with a vision into new depths of wave involvement.
A mystical, electrical energy, seemingly pointing toward an incredible future, flowed during that era, connecting the mainline surfing tribes: Australia to Hawai‘i to California. Some of us hoped surfing would lead to a life of enlightenment in the decades ahead, free flowing to the then-very-distant end of our lives.
But a mix of tragedy, reality, avarice, selfishness, materialism, and overcrowding lay in the future. Some escaped into drugs and insanity, never to return. Some went over the edge in faraway Southeast Asian islands. Some coped with the change, settled down, and found regular subsistence as waiters, contractors, carpenters, lawn tenders, government workers.
And some continued to live on Kaua‘i outside this curve, among them my friend Carlos Andrade, a Hawaiian-Portuguese Kaua‘i-born surfer and waterman. Rising from a family with deep roots in old Kaua‘i, he helped to pioneer modern surfing on his home island and lived a life of amazing accomplishment.
He once told me of his days in early 1960s Kaua‘i, of riding lefts with other local teenagers at Pākalā Village on the southwest coast. He recalled how old Mrs. Robinson, descendant of the owners of Ni‘ihau—which serves as the backdrop to the Pākalā surf break—welcomed his crew. She enjoyed the beauty of the scene, sitting in her rocking chair at her home, looking out at the handful of local surfers gliding along peacefully in the perfect waves.
Carlos moved on to adulthood after attending college in Point Loma, California. He married and moved to dreamy Limahuli Valley in Halelea, the House of Pleasure, the district of Kaua‘i running from Hanalei to Kē‘ē Beach.
He surfed the north shore of Kaua‘i in the early shortboard years with his friend Patrick Cockett, a Kaua‘i teacher and the son of a plantation doctor. They were among the local boys in the Hanalei lineup, along with pioneer and Kaua‘i-born surfer Nick Beck, plus Joey Cabell, Rusty Miller, Bunker Spreckels, Vinny Bryant, Mike Diffenderfer, and other notable off-island surfers.
Much more happened in Carlos’ exceptional life: With his lovely and charming wife, Maile, who was a notable master weaver, he raised three wonderful children in the old way (as much as possible), enrolling his youngest son in an ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) immersion school when such schooling was a new trend. He built a soulful, off-the-grid home of found lumber, where he dwelt with his family at remote Pila‘a, south of Kīlauea.
He also carved his own canoe out of a long albizia log and sailed legs of the epic Hōkūle‘a voyage to Aotearoa and back. He recorded slack-key songs with his band, Nā Pali, creating smooth, lyrical music that drew out the soul of the island. He was a natural writer and his words flowed out beautifully onto the page and into his work. Nā Pali eventually joined forces with blues singer Taj Mahal and headed overseas to tour in Europe and beyond, promoted as “Taj Mahal & the Hawaiian Hula Blues Band.”
Embracing higher education in middle age, Carlos excelled, earning a PhD in geography with a focus on Hawaiian issues and becoming a leader in the Hawaiian studies program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Now in the third decade of the twenty-first century, waking up every day as an old man, I’ve just received a text alerting me that Carlos is in hospice care. The tragic news brings to mind a special, late-1990s surf session I experienced with him—an episode that manifested at the mouth of the Hanalei River.
At that time, Kaua‘i’s north-shore community was in an uproar over the overflowing number of commercial tour boats operating along the Nā Pali Coast out of the Hanalei River. This culminated in a demonstration that drew protesters from around the island, who made a human chain across the river to block the Zodiacs and Radon tour boats attempting to enter the ocean.
Carlos and I casually ran into each other that day. In the quiet aftermath of the protest, we noticed our mutual friend, Ilei Beniamina, the Niihauan adviser to Native Hawaiian students attending Kaua‘i Comunity College, standing nearby.
She greeted us and introduced us to a Ni‘ihau surfer, a member of the Keale-Kanahele family. He spoke no English—only the Ni‘ihau dialect of the Hawaiian language. I do not recall his name. He was a fellow wave rider from a unique subculture, having spent his life on the isolated island, a rare personage who lived in the ways of old Hawai‘i, a stark contrast to the contemporary, mostly haole, surf clan at Hanalei.
Geologically older than the windward islands of O‘ahu and others to the east, the bulk of Ni‘ihau is made up of half of an extinct volcanic crater. The island is arid and lightly vegetated and marks the western end of the inhabited Hawaiian archipelago. It sits about 18 miles southwest of Kaua‘i across the Kaulakahi Channel and is home to the last major population that speaks Hawaiian as a first language.
An average of 22 inches of rain falls annually. Shallow lakes retain freshwater during winter rains but run dry in warm summer months. Niihauans employ ingenious methods of water conservation, including cultivating food plants like coconut trees in holes 2 to 4 feet deep.
British explorer George Vancouver introduced sheep and cattle to Ni‘ihau in the early 1790s. These and other fauna that were brought in later further dried up the already arid environment, which in turn diminished the Indigenous art of weaving thin, soft makaloa mats when the tall, grass-like sedge plants the islanders used for crafting lost their habitats. Craft-makers turned to stringing Ni‘ihau shell lei instead, the art of which today is the most notable aspect of Ni‘ihau in the culture of Hawai‘i.
In 1824, the Kamehameha kingdom of Hawai‘i and Maui gained complete absentee control of Ni‘ihau and Kaua‘i after a battle near Hanapēpē. In 1864, Kamehameha V offered large blocks of lands located in O‘ahu and Ni‘ihau to the immigrant New Zealand ranching family of Elizabeth Sinclair.
The family chose to live and ranch on their own isolated island, and their tight control on visitors made Ni‘ihau known as the “Forbidden Island.” Eventually, Kamehameha V sold Ni‘ihau to the Sinclair clan for $10,000 in gold acquired by sale of a large South Island plantation. Prior to the exchange, a petition signed by Niihauans, which was sent in the late 1850s to Kamehameha III, pleaded for any sale of the island to go to its residents. After the transaction was completed with the Sinclairs, a number of Niihauan families departed the island.
By 1900, the Sinclair family had married into the Gay and Robinson families. Cattle ranching, charcoal making, and honey making remain among the industries they introduced. World War II brought national attention to Ni‘ihau when a Japanese navy fighter pilot fleeing the Pearl Harbor attack crashed on December 7, 1941, and threatened the main village. Despite being shot by the pilot, Niihauan Benehakaka Kanahele killed the Japanese airman with help from his wife, Kealoha Kanahele, and was awarded the first WWII civilian medal of valor in the entire United States.
Today, Ni‘ihau is owned by the Robinson brothers, Bruce and Keith, who are elderly and reside on the west side of Kaua‘i. Income for resident Niihauans comes from sales of their famous lei pūpū (shell lei) and from exclusive bighorn sheep and wild boar hunting tours, in addition to revenues generated from the US Navy missile facility and its tracking equipment located on the island.
The modern-day life of the Niihauan community extends to the town of Kekaha in west Kaua‘i. There, Hawaiian-language Ni‘ihau schools and churches thrive. A number of Niihauans split their lives between the two islands.
This migration away from Ni‘ihau is akin to that of the Tongan people, the majority of whom now live in Auckland and Hawai‘i, away from their home islands. Some estimates currently place the Ni‘ihau in-place population at fewer than 100.
In the late 1990s, to commute to Kaua‘i, Niihauans commonly rode in a surplus Navy landing craft across the Kaulakahi Channel. Back then, Kaua‘i would have seemed like a foreign land to Niihauans.
This was the context in which Ilei introduced us to her friend.
“Can he borrow a surfboard?” she queried, raising her eyebrows.
Looking offshore, we noticed the swell was running from the north— not a good direction for primo Hanalei rights, but good enough to produce a middling longboard wave. We came up with a surplus board and passed it, along with a bar of wax, to Ilei’s companion. Then the three of us sluiced our way offshore, trudging over the shallow sandbar at the Hanalei rivermouth before reaching the deep channel cut by fresh river water.
On the other side of the cool river, we reached the coral reef and paddled out toward the bowl break. Ilei’s friend climbed on his longboard, sans leash, from the tail and made his way up the deck. Immediately, his style looked to me like a Bishop Museum exhibit of ancient Hawaiian ways come to life as he took off, dog-paddling, his arms and legs in sync, rather than paddling with his arms while his legs stayed at rest.
The mediocre north-swell conditions kept the lineup at a minimum at the Hanalei bowl. We were pretty much alone. Carlos knew the conversational ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i of his reborn language and struck up a conversation about surfing in Hawaiian. Our new Niihauan friend spoke a dialect where the letter “t” was pronounced in place of the modern-day “k,” similar to that of the Marquesan homeland of the early settlers of Kaua‘i.
One passage of the back-and-forth chat ran on about how the Niihauan and his surf buddies once drove to Po‘ipū Beach on the south shore of Kaua‘i to watch the maneuvers and jostling crowds out in the water, a style of surfing antithetical to the friendly, recreational norm on Ni‘ihau. He then took off on a wave, sweeping fluidly into a deep, laid-back arch, a picture of ancient Hawaiian papa he‘e nalu surf-riding.
It seemed to me as if Carlos and I had been transported back to a world of surfing dimetric in spirit to the heavily populated breaks spread across Hawai‘i today: three friends at an uncrowded wave. At one point, I closed my eyes and simply listened to the lilt of Hawaiian words weaving with the splash of the waves and was again carried back to old Hawai‘i.
Later, other windows into the secrets of Ni‘ihau surfing arrived from Ilei. Her dual mastery of English and the Ni‘ihau dialect of the Hawaiian language made her a rich source of Niihauan culture and history for me, someone who does not speak the Hawaiian language. In the right mood and at the right out-of-the-way place, she would happily offer rare accounts of life on her ancestral island, describing in detail, for example, an annual fall-season surfing contest still held in modern times, but which dates back into Hawaiian antiquity.
My recollection of passages from her narrative includes a description of how surfers would paddle out to open the festivities carrying a lau lau bundle and “feed” the reef to prime the waves. About a dozen wooden surfboards were ridden, each with a name and a mele (song) or oli (chant) associated with it.
The judging took into account the length of ride, the skill needed to connect sections, and the trick of kicking a landmark rock standing above the surface in the break. Markers designated the start and end of what could be called a surfing field. (The buoys placed at Mākaha during the annual surfing championships held in the ’50s and ’60s reflect this ancient Hawaiian practice.)
Meanwhile, Carlos pursued his own research on Ni‘ihau surf culture, interviewing Niihauan surfers in the process. Esteemed Native Hawaiian surfing historian John RK Clark recently sent me a note about Carlos’ Ni‘ihau surfing mo‘olelo collecting.
“When I was researching Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past (2011), I spoke with [Carlos] at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa,” he wrote. “He focused our talk on Pae I Ke One, an unpublished manuscript he had written in 1995. The manuscript is based on interviews he conducted with three Native Hawaiian surfers from Ni‘ihau: Papa Malaki Kanahele, Apelahama Kahu Nizo, and Papa Kalihilihi Niau. Pae I Ke One is a wealth of unique information about traditional surfing. With Carlos’ permission, I used excerpts from it in Hawaiian Surfing, in addition to the articles on surfing I found in Hawaiian-language newspapers. Those excerpts from Pae I Ke One comprise the majority of the information about surfing on Ni‘ihau that’s in my book.”
The late Reri Tava of Hanalei, a 1960s Tahitian dancer in Waikīkī who held a PhD in geography with a focus on Hawaiian studies, also documented some of these Ni‘ihau surfing traditions in the book Ni‘ihau: The Traditions of an Hawaiian Island, which was co-authored with Niihauan descendant Moses K. Keale Sr. One passage illuminates the tie between paniolo horse-back riding and surfing skills. A nineteenth-century account claims that the ali‘i (traditional Hawaiian royalty) drew surfers away from the waves and toward horse handling and racing by allowing commoners to own and ride the animals beginning in the 1820s.
Other pieces I’ve found offer additional scraps of information. “A Native Surf Rider who can stay four minutes under water” is how a Honolulu newspaper headline in December 1893 publicized the waterman skills of 26-year-old Niihauan James Opu. According to the article, the ocean exploits of this surfer had gained him a starring role at the Hawaiian Village exhibit at the upcoming California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 in San Francisco, the first World’s Fair held west of the Mississippi.
Opu was scheduled to ride waves at Cliff House Beach, tame a shark that was transported live from Hawai‘i, and paddle an outrigger canoe in a lagoon— all to the delight of the 2 million visitors who would tour the exposition grounds. “The board which he will use is now to be seen at T. W. Hobron’s office,” the report continued. “This one has been made to order of redwood, which Apu [sic] says is preferable to koa, being so much lighter. It will be painted black, that color being most obnoxious to sharks. This surf-board is twelve feet long and when performing Apu [sic] stands erect on it and goes through a variety of wonderful feats in balancing, etc.”
The rough and cold winter surf in San Francisco likely kept Opu onshore at the fairgrounds, for no record can be found of his paddling out for a session at Cliff House. He does, however, reemerge in the news in 1901, touted as “Opu and the Surf Riders of Hawaii” ahead of his appearance at the Hawaiian Village that was rebuilt for the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York.
Among these rare and obscure bits of Niihauan surfing lore, I’ve also uncovered a set of pre-twentieth-century photographs of Ni‘ihau surfers in situ. I discovered them in the mid-1980s, thanks to a tip from Ni‘ihau Shell Lei author Linda Moriarty, which led me to a late-nineteenth-century edition of the Journal of American Folk-Lore, published by the American Folklore Society, headquartered at Columbia University in Manhattan.
It is well documented that American Folklore Society researcher H. Carrington Bolton traveled to O‘ahu in 1890 to observe and sample the “barking” or sonorous sands of a leeward O‘ahu beach, which were reported to resonate with a sound when stepped on, known to occur only at a handful of locations in the world as tiny, hollow spheres in the grains rub together. This particular location was found along the tracks of the old Dillingham Oahu Railway and Land Company’s Honolulu-to-Kahuku line, a narrow gauge railroad track that ran down what is today Ke Iki and Ke Nui roads on the North Shore of O‘ahu.
Bolton was an inventor, and the commercial value of his chemical formulas, along with family wealth, provided him with the funds to explore the outer limits of his research obsessions. Preceding his inquiry into the barking O‘ahu sands, he’d sailed to Saudi Arabia to study similar dunes. He also traveled to Kaua‘i to examine the famous Nohili dunes barking sands. As a folklore collector on assign- ment, Bolton additionally sought to observe and record local games, knot-tying traditions, tales, myths, and more.
Once in Hawai‘i, he became drawn to recording Hawaiian surfing for the American Folklore Society. On O‘ahu, more than a decade prior to the rebirth of surfing as a lifestyle at Waikīkī, Bolton was advised to travel to Ni‘ihau to find what was termed “authentic surfing.” Thus he loaded his bulky, and prohibitively expensive, glass-plate photo equipment and chemicals aboard the monthly steamer heading to Ni‘ihau and, about a week later, returned to Kaua‘i in an open whale boat.
During this excursion, the New York–based chemist photographed a close-up of four malo-clad surfers standing alongside tall wooden surfboards, surrounded by Niihauans adorned in their Sunday best—likely a posed photo. Lacking a telephoto lens, Bolton did his best to capture surfers riding waves, with one of his photos showing surfers on a far horizon offshore of Ni‘ihau. Prints of these photos and more from Bolton’s surfing photo gallery are rumored to have been stolen from a Kaua‘i collection in the 1970s, never to be seen again.
After he arrived home, Bolton projected the glass-plate surfing photos in Manhattan as a segment of an illuminated magic-lantern show for the American Folklore Society. I discovered a copy of his photo of four Niihauan surfers on location in a pile of musty old newspapers, stashed in the basement radio-station room of The Garden Island newspaper. (I once served as a reporter and later as editor at Kaua‘i’s daily newspaper of record.) Accomplished and avid Kaua‘i-based surfing heritage collector Tim Dela Vega located the offshore surf photo in a collection from the Smithsonian, perhaps the earliest documented photos of surfing in the world.
According to his accounts, Bolton’s Ni‘ihau host, Niihau Ranch manager George S. Gay—who came to Ni‘ihau as a teenager in the mid-1860s—regularly surfed the waves around the island. “Here I witnessed, by the courtesy of Mr. Gay, the sport of surf-riding, once so universally popular, and now but little seen,” wrote Bolton upon his return to Manhattan in a report that appeared in the American Folklore Society’s journal.
Six stalwart men, by previous appointment, assembled on the beach of a small cove, bearing with them their precious surf-boards, and accompanied by many women and a few children, all eager to see the strangers, and mildly interested in the sport. After standing for their photograph, the men removed all their garments, retaining only the malo, or loin-cloth, and walked into the sea, dragging or pushing their surf-boards as they reached deeper water. These surf-boards, in Hawaian [sic] “wave-sliding-boards” (Papa-he-nalu [sic]), are made from the wood of the viri-viri [wiliwili tree] (Erythrina coralloden-drum [sic]), or bread-fruit tree; they are eight or nine feet long, fifteen to twenty inches wide, rather thin, rounded at each end, and carefully smoothed. The boards are sometimes stained black, are frequently rubbed with cocoanut [sic] oil, and are preserved with great solicitude, sometimes wrapped in cloths. Children use smaller boards…. As commonly described in the writings of travellers, an erroneous impression is conveyed, at least to my mind, as to the position which the rider occupies with respect to the combing wave. Some pictures, too, represent the surf-riders on the seaward slope of the wave, in positions which are incompatible with the results. I photographed the men of Niihau before they entered the water, while surf-riding, and after they came out. The second view shows plainly the positions taken, although the figures are distant and consequently small.
Apparently Gay, a spry 40 years old and a veteran surfer in 1890, paddled out with the gremmie chemist from New York. “A few days later, on another beach, I was initiated in the mysteries of surf-riding by my host, who is himself quite expert; and while I cannot boast of much success, I at least learned the principle.”
Bolton continued by urging others back on the East Coast and beaches beyond to try surfing. “[I] believe that practice is only needed to gain a measure of skill. For persons accustomed to bathing in surf, the process is far less difficult than usually represented.”
In a footnote to his article, the author collected earlier published descriptions of surfing in Hawai‘i: “[James Jackson] Jarves speaks of the men as ‘boldly mounting the loftiest wave, and, borne upon its crest, rushing with the speed of a racehorse towards the shore.’ Miss [Isabella] Bird says they ‘keep just at the top of the curl, but always apparently coming down hill with a slanting motion.’ Miss [Constance] Gordon Cumming writes of the man ‘poised on the rushing wave.’ The engraving in [Charles] Nordhoff’s Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands, page 51, shows the surf-riders on the seaward slope of the waves, in which position they could not advance.’”
In addition to Bolton’s exposures, even older surfing photos may exist from Ni‘ihau. Teenagers from the Sinclair family were taught to surf on the island by locals. Francis Sinclair, one of the teens, is reported to have practiced photography in Hawai‘i in the 1870s and may have created images waiting to be discovered.
Victorian travel writer Isabella Bird encountered the Sinclair-Gay surfing clan at Makaweli Valley in west Kaua‘i in 1873. In her book The Hawaiian Archipelago, she observed, “They are thoroughly Hawaiianised. The young people all speak Hawaiian as easily as English, and the three young men, who are superb young fellows, about six feet high, not only emulate the natives in feats of horsemanship, such as throwing the lasso, and picking up a coin while going at full gallop, but are surf-board riders, an art which it has been said to be impossible for foreigners to acquire.”
Nearly 30 years ago, I received a kind letter from Steve Pezman, the cofounder of The Surfer’s Journal, encouraging my friend Carlos and me to unveil Ni‘ihau to the surfing world. We declined then, deferring to the local custom of shielding Ni‘ihau’s beaches from outside intrusion.
Now, with the kupuna years of my life passing by, and with news of a new account of the Ni‘ihau coastline soon to be published elsewhere, I feel the need to share my knowledge of Ni‘ihau surfing. That which has been passed down to me by others, ones who have faded into the past, needs to be recorded, lest these accounts disappear, as will I before too long.
Though scarcely recognized as a key location in the early years of modern surfing, Ni‘ihau, now isolated with but a handful of surfers at best riding its waves, could be said to precede even Waikīkī in launching the modern era of surfing.
[Feature Image Caption: Ni‘ihau’s north coast, with the crescent-shaped island of Lehua just offshore. Even today, access remains strictly controlled, with landings prohibited by the island’s owners. Photo by James L. Amos/Getty Images.]