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clifford gessler  : surf riding at waikiki, 1938 

Clifford Gessler  :  Surf Riding at Waikiki, 1938.

 Extracts from
Gessler, Clifford:
Hawaii- Isles of Enchantment
D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1938.

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An enthusiastic account of life in Hawaii a few years before the outbreak of the second world war.
In a detailed report of canoe and board surf riding, Gessler notes the role of the "beach-boys" instruction, including tandem riding.
He also notes that "romances develop out of these beach and surf associations," page 149.

Page 6

The grass house, the hula, the lei; the surfboard and canoe these are not Hawaii.
They are but one aspect.
Sugar and pineapples are a big part of Hawaiian life, but not all.
Many elements enter into the complex that is the islands.
All of these, modified by climate and by one another, go to make up a Hawaii that is broader and deeper and

Page 7

more puzzling than the Waikiki-and-volcano, surfboard- and-hula Hawaii of the tourists.
They constitute the day by day living and working Hawaii.

Page 52

From most accounts Kamehameha seems to have been a serious, even somber person, seldom if ever smiling, but fond of athletic games.
He was noted, even in old age, as a surf rider; he learned to ride a horse an animal unknown to him in his youth; he was skilful in the martial exercises of his people.
Vancouver saw eight spears cast at him at one time in the annual games, three of which he caught, three warded off, and two dodged.
When one visiting captain remonstrated with him on the dangers of such a

Page 53

practice, he replied: "I am as able to dodge a spear as any other man is to throw one."

Page 146

And then the Waikiki mood begins to creep over one.
Sun-mornings and sun-afternoons glide imperceptibly into the spirit; the caress of warm, clean, sea water and of mild sunshine relaxes every nerve and muscle ; live, sparkling surf tones and invigorates; soft nights and haunting island music beckon to gaiety and dancing under the stars that seem so near.
And Waikiki becomes an addiction, a passion.
Winter after winter, summer after summer, one returns again and again.
I didn't want to mention a single hotel, even less to emphasize one.
There are others at the beach as comfortable if not as lavish the Halekulani, for instance.
But the Royal Hawaiian, architecturally and by virtue of geographical location, is inescapably the center of Waikiki life and cannot be ignored, any more than its thrusting bulk and ornate style can fail to catch the eye from any angle within miles.

It is set within a huge garden of tropical shrubbery among coconut palms that waved over Karnehameha's court


Its broad verandas open upon a garden terrace where of nights one dances literally "under the stars" while the murmur of waves on the sand below the sea-wall and the low thunder of surf along the reef play a soothing obbligato to the man-made horns and strings.

By day it looks out upon a beach gay with many-colored sun umbrellas and thronged with visitors in fashionable bathing costumes, served with every attention by solicitous "beach boys."
Here an eastern lady of fashion lies prone beneath the sun while a smiling Hawaiian youth anoints her back and legs with coconut oil to encourage protective and ornamental tan.
Near-by, another bronze boy kneels over another fair visitor, kneading and manipulating the muscles in the soothing and relaxing Hawaiian massage.
Here a brown lad braids a hat of young coconut leaves ; there one with guitar or ukulele entertains a group with island songs,
pausing to remark, if applause is not satisfactorily enthusiastic, "Luffly!"

The beach boy is guide, instructor, nurse, outdoor valet, and a dozen other things.
He teaches guitar and ukulele playing, takes care of children while parents are otherwise occupied; when things grow dull he plays the clown, performing amusing antics in the water or on the sand.
No visit to Hawaii is complete without a beach boy to teach the art of surf riding and to pilot an outrigger canoe for thrilling rides under the urge of rusting waves.

Waikiki is said to be the world's most favored spot for surf riding.
The curve of shore and the formation of the reef set up long, smooth, far-running swells that carry skilful riders at times a half mile or more.

This kingly sport had been almost forgotten when, around the opening of the present century, it was revived,

Page 148

like many other native things, by a group of white men. It is not quite like anything else in the world; the nearest approach to it is skiing.
One launches the curved, slant-shapen board with a run and a smooth glide, then leaps upon it and lies prone, striking out with arms at either side, paddling out to the encircling line where the white beards of sea gods stream in the wind.
One ducks under crashing waves, glides over smaller ones, till the "break" is passed; then sits astride, watching for the bulge on the horizon that heralds the coming of a wave.

There it is, a darkening signal at the watery edge of the world.
Lying flat again, you paddle swiftly from it, straining for speed.
The wave comes on; you feel it under your feet, lifting the board. You put every ounce of strength into the last quids: arm-strokes. For a moment you hang poised on the crest. It is the crucial time : you shift position, judging quickly the height and speed of the wave; if your weight is too far back on the board, you will lose momentum and fall behind the swell; if too far forward, you and the board will dive together with a ton of water upon you, perhaps to strike hard against the coral bottom.

But if your coordination is just right you rise to the knees, to the feet; you stand erect, deftly balancing, guiding the speeding board by shifting the weight.
Shoreward you soar in the grip of the wave birdlike, godlike, exultant with the joy of that swift motion. In immediate physical sensation it approaches wings.

If surfboard riding suggests skiing, canoe surfing somewhat resembles tobogganing down a moving wall instead of a solid mountain.
The technique is similar in principle to that of the board, but with arms extended by paddles.
Spray dashes over you as you hurtle at seemingly express-

Page 149

train speed before the wave that carries the canoe often to the very edge of the sand.

One has not felt fully the magic of the islands until one has ridden a canoe beneath the moon.
The sea is silvered with mellow light; the shore is mysterious beneath the shadows of palms; the wind comes cool and soothing to the half-bared flesh.
Far out, the rim of a wave reflects the ghostly light; "Huki!" the steersman shouts; bending in time to a rhythmic chant, you plunge the broad paddle into the curving sea.
The over-taking wave hurls the canoe forward till you seem to soar clear, between earth and sky, with cool spray flying about you and the voices of the night calling in accents of forgotten gods.

Tourists: especially ladies commonly begin their surf riding in "tandem," under instruction of a beach boy.
The pupil lies forward on the board, the instructor behind and partly over her, his strong arms furnishing most of the motive power for the long pull outward bound and the swift fierce struggle to catch the wave.
When it is caught, he lifts her to her feet, and she has all the feeling of conquering the surf when in reality her brown companion has done most of the work.

Romances develop out of these beach and surf associations.
One is so carefree at Waikiki, and a stalwart surf rider has appealed to some visiting ladies as an evening escort as well.

The shore of Waikiki by night is mellow with lights, gay with music and cool drinks and dancing.
The outdoor terrace ballroom glitters with fashion; from the dance floor floats the fragrance of flower leis that match the gowns.
Either night or day, it is a place of joy: the spirit of Waikiki is careless, indolent, remote from even the island-

Page 150

tempered struggles of the town.
One can't take life quite seriously at Waikiki.

Page 349

To this extent the islands partake of tropical custom: the day begins and ends earlier, though there is no noon siesta as in the real tropics.
Most businesses open at eight or earlier and close in time to allow an hour or two of outdoor play before the early dinner time.
The volley-ball courts at the Outrigger Canoe Club and the surf outside are crowded each late afternoon with young business men.
Thus they keep fit.
The Hawaiian climate is kindest to those who are active.
Tropical lassitude is more likely to creep up on the sedentary.

Gessler, Clifford:
Hawaii- Isles of Enchantment
D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1938.

Internet Archive

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Geoff Cater (2013) : Clifford Gessler : Surf Riding at Waikiki, 1938.