Dating back to 1779, when Lt. James King, who served under James Cook, described native Hawaiians riding waves with wooden planks, the Islands have been the epicenter of surfing's expansion around the globe. In 1885, three Hawaiian princes attending military school in California made their own boards out of redwood and rode waves in Santa Cruz, officially introducing the sport to the mainland. Years later, Olympic swimmer and famed waterman Duke Kahanamoku's surfing exhibitions helped popularize it in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere.
Continuing that tradition of showing the rest of the world how wave riding is done, a few weeks ago in Tokyo, where surfing made its debut as an Olympic sport, Oahu native Carissa Moore won the gold medal.
"It was a sweet victory," said Dustin Tester, a former competitive surfer who now owns and operates Maui Surfer Girls school and camp. "Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, and we were definitely excited about Carissa bringing home the gold. We have that pride here of surfing coming from Hawaii, and it was really important."
Surfing is certainly one of the first images conjured when mainlanders picture Hawaii, and with travelers returning to the Islands this summer following pandemic lockdowns, surf schools are seeing a tidal wave of students. It helps that it is an activity that is largely unaffected by social distancing protocols or other Covid-19 restrictions.
Indeed, Maui Surfer Girls, which offers both co-ed classes and separate camps for teen girls and women, is as busy as ever. Nearly every camp session for 2022 is sold out, the earliest that has ever happened. The current waitlist for daily classes is approaching 100 people, the most Tester has ever seen.
"So many people want outdoor activities after being in the pandemic for a year and a half," Tester said. "We've got a lot more people contacting us than we can take."
For travelers headed to Hawaii who want to try out their wave-riding abilities, Tester offered a few tips.
• Book well in advance: During the busy summer months, and during vacation periods such as Spring Break or Christmas, Tester recommends booking a surf lesson at least two months ahead. Surf schools like hers get permits to operate in certain areas, and Tester is very mindful of not abusing the privilege by taking on more students than an area can handle.
"We don't want the waves to become overcrowded, and we want to make sure we leave space for locals," she said. "I could hire five more instructors to take out the people on the waitlist, but one reason we're successful is because we try not to overbook and keep things manageable so everyone has a great experience."
• Early surfers get the best waves: Conditions tend to be best in the morning, before the tradewinds pick up, making the water choppy and paddling a pain. Stay on mainland-time and take the earliest class offered.
• More fitness, more fun: Maui Surfer Girls only requires that participants know how to swim, but Tester says a certain level of fitness can go a long way. Surfing requires a healthy amount of paddling, balance and lung power. Spending some time prior to the trip working on fitness, in or out of the water, can make the actual surf lessons both more rewarding and enjoyable.
"Surfing is a very demanding sport, and ocean conditions can change rapidly," Tester said. "People should just be aware that it's a pretty good workout, and maybe going to the luau the night before your lesson and having a few mai tais is not the best idea."
• Trust the process: Maui Surfer Girl's two-hour classes start with a half hour of on-land instruction covering everything from water safety and basic surfing skills like popping up on the board to how to properly position in the water to catch a wave. There is a lot to process once in the ocean, and the dry-land training is important to feeling calm, comfortable and confident out in the waves.
• Be pono: The Hawaiian word pono is often translated as "righteousness," but it really refers to a more complex idea of consciously behaving with respect for yourself, others and the environment. Be deferential to the locals. Wait your turn for a wave and do your best to stay out of the path of others. Wear reef-safe sunscreen for your outing on the water (it's Hawaii law). Most surf breaks in Hawaii are generated by reefs, and surfers should be careful not to step on the fragile corals. "Use your paddling skills, not your walking skills," Tester says.