Source Documents
dr. coan : hilo bay, hawaii, 1845 

Dr. T. M. Coan : Surfing Hilo Bay, Hawaii, 1845.
Coan, Dr. T. M.: Pictures from Hawaii.
Raub, Albert N.:
The Normal Fifth Reader 

Porter and Coates, Philadelphia, 1878.

 Hathi Trust

The conversion of native Hawaiians by Calvinist missionaries, is often cited as one factor in the rapid decline of native Hawaiian culture, including surfboard riding.
Rev. T. M. Coan, and his new wife, arrived at Hilo on the large island of Hawaii in 1834 and in twenty years his success in converting the native population lead to the the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions declaring Hawaii Christianised, and terminated the mission.
However, in this
extensive article, unusually in point form and undoubtedly recalling his early experiences when first stationed at Hilo Bay.(1834-1845?), the Rev. Coan was clearly enthusiastic, and probably experienced first-hand, the art:

The sensation is delicious, exultant, almost maddening; it is beyond anything
that the rider of horses or of the untamed velocipede can feel.

He was probably the first writer to to suggest that surfing
made one with nature, and he was just as captivated by the other local water-sports, notably cliff-jumping where he reports, from experience, that the notion that people have "their breath taken away" in falling from a height is erroneous.

The boards at Hilo are made of the firm, light wood of the erythrina; equal in length to the swimmer's height, about a foot wide, slightly oval in outline, and often convex upon both sides and polished and stained black, and preserved with great care.
While the majority ride prone, the expert will kneel, or even stand upright, a little similar to velocipedists who balance their steeds without using their hands, and even change their position upon the board while they are in motion.

Containing a number of quality surf breaks, in ancient times Hilo Bay's reputation was surpassed only by Waikiki.
It is recorded in Naihe's name chant (died 1831, eulogy?), as translated by Emerson:

Glossy the skin of the surf-man;
Undrenched the skin of the expert;
Wave-feathers fan the wave-rider.
You've seen the grand surf of Puna, of Hilo.

 On the East coast of the large island of Hawaii, the bay is open to North and South swells,
the topography steering tsunamis from earthquakes in active areas such as Chile and the Aleutian Islands.
Since 1837, Hilo has experienced one damaging tsunami every 12 years, the last three in 1946,1960 and 1975; it rightfully hosts the Pacific Tsunami Museum.
These fabled surf breaks are long gone, the first breakwater enclosing the bay was begun in 1908, extended in 1911, and completed in 1929.

Although C. R. Sail
(1892) was disappointed not to see surf-riding at Hilo (there was not surf enough) it appears that the bay was remarkably consistent.
Surfboard riding was observed during the late 19th century by the
Rev. Cheever (1851), Rufus
Anderson (1863), his daughter Mary E Anderson (1863), Isabella L. Bird (1873), Charles Nordhoff (1873), J. W. Boddam-Whetham (1876), Mrs. Brassey (1876), Frank Vincent (1876), John Caton (1878),  George Leonard Chaney (1880), S. G. W. Benjamin (1880), C. F. Gordon Cumming (1883 Marcel Monnier  (1885) Thomas W. Knox (1888), and by a contributor to the Pictorial Cabinet of Marvels (1890).

Coan does not describe surf-riding in his autobiography (1882), but gives one detailed account of canoe surfing in extreme conditions, reproduced below.

Coan, Titus (1801-1882)
American missionary to Hawaii
After graduation and ordination in 1833, he explored the Argentine region of Patagonia on behalf of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).
In 1834 he married Fidelia Church, sailed for Hawaii, and was stationed at Hilo.
Following Coan's success in converting the native population, the ABCFM declared Hawaii Christianized and terminated the mission in 1854.
Coan advocated a mission by Hawaiians to the Marquesas Islands and made two voyages there
in 1860 and a delegate of the Hawaiian Missionary Society.
In 1870-1871, he and Fidelia returned to the United States, where they gave an extensive speaking tour
In 1873 he married Lydia Bingham, daughter of Hiram and Sybil Bingham, his first wife having died in 1872.
He wrote Adventures in Patagonia (1880) and Life in Hawaii (1882) and died in Hawaii.

Life in Hawaii : An autobiographic sketch of mission life and labors, 1835-1881.
A.D.F. Randolph & Co., New York, 1882.

Sam Patch
- Genesee Falls.

PacificTsunami Museum, Hilo.

velocipede: an early form of bicycle propelled by working pedals on cranks fitted to the front axle.

Page 70

1. THE Pacific Islanders are the most expert of all people in swimming and in aquatic games.
In all of the tropical groups, nearly the entire population lives upon the seashore; the climate is warm, the people have little to do, and on windy days, when the billows roll in heavily from the mid-ocean, whole villages sometimes adjourn to the water, and spend an entire afternoon in the daring pastime of surf-playing.
2. The Hawaiian practises this sport upon a surf-board, which he calls papa he nalu, " wave-sliding board."
It is made of the firm, light wood of the erythrina; it is equal in length to the swimmer's height, about a foot wide, slightly oval in outline, and often convex upon both sides.
It is polished and stained black, and preserved with great care.
3. The natives choose a spot where immense billows, driven in by the trade-winds, break furiously upon the coast.
Sometimes a hidden reef of coral, ten or fifteen feet below the surface, or, more frequently, the black slag of a cooled lava-stream, long since disgorged into the ocean, agitates the waves sufficiently for this perilous sport; and sometimes the swimmers play in the measured surges that beat upon the sand-beaches of their bays.
4. Each person, taking his swimming-board under him, plunges into the surf, and strikes out for the deep water, half a mile or more from the shore.
He does not trouble himself to rise over the great waves that approach him threateningly: when they reach him, he ducks his head like a loon, and the billow passes thundering over him without checking his course.
Arrived at last at the outside of the reef, where the waves first begin to break, he turns, extends himself at full length upon his board,

Page 71

faces the shore, and throws quick glances behind him, watching for a larger wave than usual to ride upon.
5. Three or four waves pass, but he laughs at them, though the smallest of them would have dashed a foreign swimmer under and drowned him.
At last he sees a mighty billow approaching him.
It is the very king of waves.
6. It comes with its crest high in the air, its liquid edge already trembling and snapping in the sunlight; but it is huge, dark, and swift, and it utters a hollow roar as it sweeps down upon the swimmer.
It draws him backward for an instant toward it, as if to swallow him up; then, snatching him up in its course, it hurls him
with inconceivable speed toward the shore.
He lies upon his board on the front surface of the wave; his head is down, his heels slant upward into the flashing foam which half envelops him.
A score of his companions are dashing madly onward with him: they become a part of the billow - they shout more loudly than the roaring of the wave.
The sensation is delicious, exultant, almost maddening; it is beyond anything that the rider of horses or of the untamed
can feel.
7. But to the stranger nothing can seem more daring and dangerous than surf-riding.
To be swept along by these tremendous waves - to be "made one with nature" so intimately as this, would be death to the ordinary civilized man.
You look to see the swimmer dashed against the black and jagged lava from which he is now distant not more than the length of his surf-board.
He is going with the speed of a racer - there seems no escape for him - when suddenly he disappears from sight: the wave has
lost its victim.
By a backward movement of the hands, he retreats into the heart of the wave, sinking away from its front surface, where its whole propelling power resides.
8. He "backs his engine," as a steamboat-man would say, and instantly stops his career at the very moment when you had expected to see him dashed to pieces.

Page 72

an instant, you almost fancy that a shark has seized him - for sharks sometimes attack the swimmers - but soon he reappears from the seaward side of the wave that now shatters itself upon the lava-rock.
His head is already turned from the shore, and he is again making his way into deep water to mount another billow.
9. Some of the natives become so expert in this sport that they will kneel, or even stand upright, upon the surf-board while in full career, a feat which is a little similar to that of the velocipedists who balance their steeds without using their hands.
They even change their position upon the board while they are in motion.
10. The greatest skill is necessary to keep the surf-board at the proper angle of inclination, and to retain the right position upon the front surface of the wave.
If the swimmer gets too far forward he will be sent heels over head by the combing of the billow, or stopped instantly and hurt by the point of the surf-board striking the ground.
If, on the other hand, he rides too near the top of the wave, it will pass over him and leave him behind.
11. But accidents never happen through the unskilfulness of the swimmers.
It would be strange if they should, for the Hawaiian is familiar with the sea from his birth, and seems almost an amphibious being. Most of the native children, indeed, are taken into the sea, when but three or four days old, by their mothers; and I have known children who could swim before they could walk.
You can hardly pass one of their villages, indeed, without seeing a company of youngsters playing in the sea.
12. They have a number of games which they pursue, in and under the water, as fearlessly as school-children gambol in the play-ground.
One is a kind of goal, in which the object of the side that is "in" is to make two or three successive stations by swimming and diving so as to escape being touched by any player of the "out" party, who are the pursuers.
This game requires a good deal of

Page 73

finessing talent, to mislead your opponent in regard to the direction in which you mean to dive.
More than this, you must be able to hold your breath for a hundred seconds or more, or you will have to come to the surface to "blow," like a whale, at some critical position, and so lose your game, as I have lost it many a time.
13. Sometimes the native children fix a long pole so as to project from the bank over deep water; along this they chase one another to the outermost end, leaping in regular succession into the water.
Leaping from high, perpendicular cliffs is a favorite and daring sport with the men.
They choose a place where the water is not less than fifteen or twenty feet in depth at the foot of the cliff; then, taking a rousing run, to get fairly under way - like Washington Irving's Dutchman, who started to jump over the mountain - they bound far into the air from the edge of the cliff.
14. As the leaper falls from the dizzy height - sometimes a hundred feet by measurement - toward the water, he bends himself almost double, as in wanton muscular play; but just before striking the water, he partially straightens himself so that his whole body is slightly curved forward at the moment of the plunge, and the feet are, perhaps, a foot in advance of a perpendicular line let fall from the head.
He strikes the water without a splash, entering it with that quick, dull chuck that a smooth pebble makes when thrown forcibly into water, and at an angle with the surface, so nicely calculated that he is actually brought to the surface again by the momentum
of the fall.
With his body curved as I have described, he shoots through the arc of a circle under the water, and after two or three seconds comes up, feet foremost.
The first thing you see of him is his toes, emerging from the water fifteen or twenty feet in front of the place where he went under. No athletic feat is more daring and beautiful than this.

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15. The sensations experienced by one who falls from a great height have not, I think, been described in print.
A singular good fortune having made the writer of this article an expert in leaping in Hawaiian manner, he is able to give some account of them.
Until you are thoroughly practised in the leap, you have a decided inclination to think twice about the matter before you risk it.
You first dive at the foot of the cliff, and satisfy yourself that there is sufficient depth of water.
You watch one after another of your companions, as they bound in long parabolic curves from the edge of the cliff; but it
requires some nerve to throw yourself deliberately from a high precipice into mid-air.
16. The solid ground seems a much more comfortable place.
At last, nerving yourself, you run and leap.
Instantly you have a feeling of floating rather than of falling - such a feeling, I suppose, as a bird has when rapidly alighting from an elevated flight.
There is no sense of accelerated motion as you fall; but you feel your hair blown upward by a fierce current of air.
This does not, however, in the least embarrass your breathing.
The notion that people have "their breath taken away" in falling from a height is erroneous.
17. In an instant comes the plunge; and you must enter the water in exactly the right position, or it will hurt you almost like the solid earth.
If you enter it with a splash, you meet its resistance too suddenly, and may be lamed or stunned.
The greatest leaper, Sam Patch, thus lost his life.
Had he possessed Hawaiian skill and a sober head, he would never have lost his position while falling, as in his last leap at Genesee Falls.
Could an islander have taught him how to come out toes foremost, he might have been alive and leaping at the present day.
You, wiser than he, come safely to the surface, swim ashore, and prepare for another leap.

- Dr. T. M. Coan.

Life in Hawaii: 1835-1881.
Page 37

In order to save time and escape the weariness of the road and the dangers of the rivers, I sometimes took a canoe at the end of my tours to return home by the water.
This trip required six to eight hours, and was usually made in the night.
On three occasions my peril was great.
One description will suffice for all ; for although the difficulties and escapes were at different points along a precipitous and lofty sea-wall, yet the causes of danger were the same, viz. : stormy winds, raging billows, and want of landing-places.

About midway between our starting-place and Hilo harbor, we were met by a strong head-wind, with pouring rain and tumultuous waves in a dark midnight.
We were half a mile from land, but could hear the roar and see the flashing of the white surf as it dashed against the rocky walls. We could not land, we could

Page 38

not sail, we could not row forward or backward,
All we could do was to keep the prow of the canoe to the wind, and bail.
Foaming seas dashed against our frail cockleshell, pouring in buckets of brine.
Thus we lay about five hours, anxious as they "who watch for the morning."
At length it dawned; we looked through the misty twilight to the rock-bound shore where "the. waves dashed high."
A few doors of native huts opened and men crawled out.
We called, but no echo came.
We made signals of distress.
We were seen and numbers came down to the cliffs and gazed at us.
We waved our garments for them to come off to our help.
They feared, they hesitated.
We were opposite the mouth of a roaring river, where the foam of breakers dashed in wild fury.
At last four naked men came down from the cliff, plunged into the sea, dived under one towering wave after another, coming out to breathe between the great rolling billows, and thus reached our canoe.
Ordering the crew to swim to the land, they took charge of the canoe themselves because they knew the shore.
Meanwhile men stood on the high bluffs with kapa cloth in hand to signal to the boat-men when to strike for the mouth of the river.
They waited long and watched the tossing waves as they rolled in and thundered upon the shore, and when at last a less furious wave came behind us, the shore men waved the signals and cried out, "Hoi ! hoi !" and as the waves lifted the

Page 39

stern of our canoe, all the paddles struck the water, while the steerer kept the canoe straight on her course, and thus mounted on this crested wave as on an ocean chariot, with the feathery foam flying around us, we rode triumphantly into the mouth of the river, where we were received with shouts of gladness by the throng who had gathered to witness our escape.
Then two rows of strong men waded into the surf up to their arm-pits to receive our canoe and bear it in triumph to the shore.

A Name-Song, a Eulogy (for Naihe)
Naihe's name chant, as translated by Emerson, follows:

The huge roller, roller that surges from Kona,
Makes a loin-cloth fit for a lord;
Far-reaching swell, my malo (loin-cloth) streams in the wind;
Shape the crescent malo to the loinsó
The loin-cloth the sea, cloth for king's girdling.
Stand, gird fast the loin-cloth!

Let the sun guide the board Halepo,
Till Halepo lifts on the swell.
It mounts the swell that rolls from Kahiki,
From Wakea's age onrolling.
The roller plumes and ruffles its crest.

Here comes the champion surf-man,
While wave-ridden wave beats the island,
A fringe of mountain-high waves.
Spume lashes the Hiki-au altaró
A surf this to ride at noontide.

The coral, horned coral, it sweeps far ashore.
We gaze at the surf of Ka-kuhi-hewa.
The surf-board snags, is shivered;
Maui splits with a crash,
Trembles, dissolves into slime.

Glossy the skin of the surf-man;
Undrenched the skin of the expert;
Wave-feathers fan the wave-rider.
You've seen the grand surf of Puna, of Hilo.

Raub, Albert N.:
The Normal Fifth Reader 

Porter and Coates, Philadelphia, 1878.

 Hathi Trust

Life in Hawaii:
An autobiographic sketch of mission life and labors, 1835-1881.
A.D.F. Randolph & Co., New York, 1882.

Internet Archive


Geoff Cater (2017) : Dr. T. M. Coan : Surfing Hilo Bay, Hawaii, 1845.