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skinner : nz canoe surfing, 1923 

W. H. Skinner : Canoe Surfing in New Zealand, 1884.

Skinner, W.H.: Surf-riding by Canoe.
The Journal of Polynesian Society
Volume XXXII Number 1.
No. 125, March 1923, pages 35 to 37.
New Plymouth, New Zealand.
Printed for the Society by Thomas Avery.

This very rare account of canoe surfing in New Zealand in 1884 confirms that surfriding was widely practised across Polynesia.
The account specifies:
1. the importance of selecting suitable surf riding condtions.
2. the activity was enjoyed by the whole community, either as participants or audience.
3. the surfriders included women.
4. canoe surfing was liable to misadventure, with "wipe-outs" a "great amusement of the crowd of onlookers".
Critically, Skinner's closing comment, "Alas! that we were to witness such a scene ever again", emphatically implies that the canoe surfing he observed in 1884 is no longer in evidence, undoubtedly like many other indigenous practices.

For other reports of Maori canoes and surfriding, see:

1838-1843 Ensign Best : Norfolk Island and New Zealand.
1847 George Angas : New Zealand Canoes.
1921 S. Percy Smith: Surfriding in New Zealand.

Page 35


DURING the Summer of 1884 the writer was engaged upon the survey of the costal lands lying between the Mokau and Awakiuo rivers - Auckland-Taranaki Coast.
A small native settlement, called Te Klturi, was situated on the north bank of the Mokau, adjacent to the ferry route over that river, and here resided what was left, about thirty, of that portion of the once numerous body of the Ngati-Maniapoto tribe that occupied the fertile strip of costal lands between the two rivers mentioned, during the first half of the 19th century, and the generations beyond.
The large number of strongly posted old pas, long deserted, and now only traceable by their deep fosses and protective works, bears ample testimony to the large popluation that once occupied this country, an occupation that went back to the Tangata-Whenna, who were settled here and to the south, long prior to the coming of the"Tainui," with the ancestors of the present native occupiers.

The active head of Te Kauri village was Wetere Te-Rerenga, but the elder brother, Te Rangi Tuataka Takeri,* was the real chief of the little settlement, and his final word was law in all matters of ancient Maori rite and custom.

One beautiful day in January, 1884, I had come in from my camp to confer with Te Rangi.

The Kauri village was deserted by all but a few old women, who informed me that the people were on the sea beach, a short distance away.
On arriving there I found the whole population gathered, taking part in, or watching and encouraging the contending parties, in a most exhilarating sport, or pastime, that was proceeding at the mouth of the river (Mokau).
The leader in this animated scene was Te Rangi, a man at this time about sixty years of age, well set up and preserved.

The sport engaged in was "surf-riding" in canoes, something quite new to me.
Two small handy canoes, varying in length from eighteen to twenty-five feet, were being used, in each of which were two paddlers, the steersman, and one in the prow.
The position chosen for the "surf-riding " was ideal for the purpose, and here, ...

*For the genealogies of these brothers see page 667 (Appendix) of Tregear's "Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary."

Page 36

... doubtless for generations past, the old time Maori had indulged in this sport.
This canoe running had to be taken at  a certain time of the tide - about three-quarter flood - to fit in with the locality chosen (or similarly situated positions).
The condition of the sea, too heavy, or insufficent break, also had to be considered.
This in fact was essential.

On the occasion I am writing about - January, 1884 - the day was beautifully fine, the tide about three-quarter flood, and the sea compartively smooth outside, with an accompanying light break or rollover the bar, a quarter to one-third of a mile seaward.
The bar had the effect of breaking up and reducing the ocean roll to a negotiable size for the small canoes to ride on, by the time the wave reached the "surfing" course which ran along abreast of the sand spit, forming the north side of river bank in this locality.

I arrived on the scene just in time to witness Rangi and his partner launch out for a "run."
Having got his canoe into the desired position, he awaited a suitable oncoming roller, just keeping a slight forward movement on the craft until the roll had approached within a few yards of the stern of the canoe, when the steersman gave a short word of command, and the two plunged their paddles into the tide, and with a few powerful strokes got the required "way" on to enable it to be taken up by the roller as it caught the stern of the canoe.
The rest was left to the action of the wave, and the steersman.
The canoe, if properly handled, was now rushing through the tide, keeping just roughly a little short of its own length in advance of the wave, with a cascade of water thrown off from either side of the prow, its expert hellsman as rigid as one cast in bronze, watching intently the gradual curling of the roller (the bowman inactive, with paddle drawn in), until at the moment he judges the time has come, with a swift twist or turn of his paddle (a movement so deft and graceful that it could scarce be detected by those watching close at hand) the canoe was turned sharply to the right, the wave breaking as it passed beneath its keel, and riding gracefully down the outter slope of roller, turned seaward to repeat the manouvre.
Had the steersman misjudged his time for turning by a fraction of time, disaster would have followed, and herein lay the skill of the surf-canoer.
Rangi never made a mistake in this respect, but time and again the other less skilIful gamesters, some of whom were women, misjudged the time when the wave would break, and running on just a fraction too long, were driven prow under and swamped, or caught on the turn by the breaking wave and capsized, in either case the occupants of canoe receiving a thorough ducking, to the great amusement of the crowd of onlookers.
The swamped canoe was brought ashore, bailed and refitted, and set off  again with another pair of "surfers" to try their skill, or luck, in this exciting game.Page 37

The most lasting impression made on my mind in this surfing incident , was that of the poise and skill of Te Rangi Tuataka Takere, the high-born rangitara, as he sat statue like, steering - paddle firmly grasped, his fine muscular figure and clean cut tattooed features, reproducing, with the general surroundings, a grand picture of pure Maoridom as it had been for centuries prior to A.D. 1884.

Alas! that we were to witness such a scene ever again.

Skinner, W.H.: Surf-riding by Canoe.
The Journal of Polynesian Society
Volume XXXII Number 1. 
No. 125, March 1923, pages 35 to 37.
New Plymouth, New Zealand.
Printed for the Society by Thomas Avery.

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Geoff Cater (2010-2016) : W.H. Skinner: Canoe Surfing in New Zealand,1884.