These brief notes illustrate that surf riding was wide spread across
Pitcairn Island, 1821.
extended stay at Matavai Bay in Tahiti in 1788-1789, Midshipman
Fletcher Christian led the
on the Bounty, setting Captain Bligh adrift in a longboat.
to Tahiti, Christian was desperate to find a sanctuary from
punishment by the Royal Navy and
settled the then uninhabited and remote Pitcairn Island with
some of the mutineers and a number of,
As the mutineers
progresively eliminated themselves by misadventure or murder,
Pitcairn became a intergated
English and Tahitian influences.
settlement was disovered in 1808 by Captain Folger in the
Topaz, who reported his surprising find
to the British
was litle official interest in pursuing what was now merely
remnants of the mutiny.
European influence on Pitcairn was principally evident in a
resurgent Christianity, Polynesian culture
strong bond with the ocean, most noteably a continuation of
surfboard riding in relatively difficult
A number of
vessels visited the island before the Surry in 1821,
when the inhabitants were observed surfing on
Dr. Ramsay reported:
Capt returned and told me that after loading the boats
which was done by swimming through the surf with
the fruit, they to his great astonishment amused
themselves by taking a flat board about 3 feet
long, on the upper side smooth and on the under a ridge
like a keel, and went out on a rock and waited
till a large breaker came and when the top of it was close
on them, away they went with the piece of
wood under their belly on the top of this breaker and
directed themselves by their feet into the
little channel formed by the rocks, so that men the surf
left them they were only up to their knees in water. They are
very dexterous in keeping off the rocks which to us would
be inevitable death."
- page 7.
Pitcairn surfboards were built of local timber, the
incorporation of a "ridge like a keel" appears to be
unique and is
not recorded in any of the reports of traditional surfboards
of Tahiti or the Hawaiian Islands.
It appears to
be a design feature intended to give the board directional
stability (commonly known as a fin and
accredited to Tom Blake in 1935), developed by a combination
of the Tahitian native design and the
seaman's knowledge of boat building.
there is a very remote possibility that it was added to give
board structural strength.
In 1823, a
British whaler, Cyrus, left two of her crew on
Pitcairn, John Buffett and John Evans, who provided an
European influence, but this was minor in comparison to the
significant social dislocation resulting
arrival of Joshua Hill in 1831.
Due to the
pressure of an increasing population on the small island,
several attempts were made to relocate the
before there was a major relocation to Norfolk Island in 1856,
where the descents of the Bounty
continued their enjoyment of surfriding.
Rapanui (Easter Island), 1827.
discovered by xxx in xxxx, Rapanui is the most eastern of the
islands of the Polynesian triangle.
Its location off
the coast of South America led some anthropologists, noteably
Thor Heyerdahl, to doubt the islanders' Polynesian ancestry.
visitors immediately recognised the island had passed its
cultural apex, evidenced by the desecration of the famous stone
statues, and extreme enviromental devastation with the complete
erradication of the native timbers.
The lack of
timber severely limitted the islanders ability to construct
canoes and restricted their access to fishing resources.
Jacob Roggeveen, in command of three vessels, was the first
European to sight Rapanui on Easter Day in 1722. He is said to have reported the islanders "swam out to
the visitors by the thousands, accompanied by small reed
The weather was very variable, with thunder, sheet lightning and
The wind unsteady from the North West, and occasional calms* so
that our shore expedition could not be undertaken with any
prospect of success.
During the forenoon Captain BOUMAN brought an Easter Islander on
board, together with his craft, in which he had come off close to
the Ship from the land ; he was quite nude, without the slightest
covering for that which modesty shrinks from revealing.
This hapless creature seemed to be very glad to behold us, and
showed the greatest wonder at the build of our Ship.
He took special notice of the tautness of our spars, the stoutness
of our rigging and running gear, the sails, the guns — which he
felt all over with minute attention — and with everything else
that he saw ; especially when the image of his own features was
displayed before him in a mirror, seeing the which, he started
suddenly back and then looked towards
the back of the glass, apparently in the expectation of
discovering there the cause of the apparition.
After we had sufficiently beguiled ourselves with him, and he with
us, we started him off again in his canoe towards the shore,
having presented him with two strings of blue beads (1) round his
neck, a small mirror, a pair of scissors, and other like trifles,
which seemed to have a special attraction for him.
1. The original has coraelen, meaning beads.
A great many canoes came off to the ships : these people showed us
at that time their great cupidity for every thing they saw ; and
were so daring that they took the seamen's hats and caps from off
their heads, and sprang overboard with the spoil (1) ; for they
are surpassingly good swimmers, as would seem from the great
numbers of them who came swimming off from the shore to the ships.
1 The edited Journal here has a footnote to the effect that "the
posterity of this generation were not less thievishly disposed
than their fathers," and refers to Cook's, De la PeVouse's, and
Kotzebue's accounts of their respective experiences with them in
Finally, as to their seagoing craft, they are of poor and
flimsy construction ; for their canoes are fitted together of a
number of small boards and light frames, which they skilfully lace
together with very fine laid twine made from the above-mentioned
vegetable product Piet But as they lack the knowledge, and
especially the material, for caulking the great number of seams of
their canoes, and making them tight, they consequently leak a
great deal ; on account of which they are necessitated to spend
half their time in baling.
Their canoes are about ten feet long, not counting the high and
pointed stem and stern pieces.
Their width is such that, with their legs packed close together,
they can just sit in them so as to paddle ahead.
TO EASTER ISLAND. Page 93
At 8 o'clock in the morning we came to an anchor in this bay in 18
fathoms, gravel, coral, small shells, and fine sand. We moored
East and West with one anchor to the E. and a kedge to the W.
We saw some natives swim off and pass on board of the Commodore;
the rest remained on the sea beach, in loose cloaks, shouting with
delight and giving other signs, all intended to make us aware of
their docility and of their desire to come on board or to see us
Page 100 THE VOYAGE OF CAPTAIN DON FELIPE GONZALEZ
Sunday, 18th. The natives continued to gather on board in greater
number than on the preceding days, so that on this day there have
been more than 400 in the frigate. What with men and women they
collected in such crowds that it became necessary to send away
some in order to make room for others, as we could not contain
them on board.
THE VOYAGE OF CAPTAIN DON FELIPE GONZALEZ TO EASTER ISLAND. 121
On the 17th of the said [month], day dawned with the horizon
clear, and a moderate breeze from the Eastward.
At five in the morning we got under way in both launches and made
sail towards the Cape of San Antonio.
Half a league before reaching the cape we came abreast of a point,
off which were a quantity of rocks or boulders sticking up out of
the water; and saw that two little canoes were coming out from
among them with two men in each, making for the Santa Rosalia's
launch ; so we waited for them in order that they might join our
They gave the people of the said launch plantains, Chili peppers,
sweet potatoes and fowls; and in return our men gave them hats,
chamorretas, &c, and they went off contentedly with these to
These canoes are constructed of five extremely narrow boards (on
account of there being no thick timber in the country) about a
cuarta 1 in width; they are consequently so crank that they are
provided with an outrigger to prevent them from capsizing ; and I
think that these are the only ones in the whole of the island.
They are fitted tpgether with wooden pegs in place of nails.
132 APPENDIX I.
Next day we stood in with our ships to look for a harbour,
whereupon one of the natives came off in a small skiff
[schiffgeri] to meet us some two miles off the land.
We took him aboard our vessel and gave him a piece of linen cloth
to wrap about his body, for he was quite naked; and we offered him
beads and other trinkets, all of which he hung round his neck
together with a dried fish.
Rapanui in 1827, Hugh Cuming noted the islanders swimming out
to the vessel with supplies for the visitors, principally
plantains (bananas), a practice reported on many other
standing into the Bay on the West side of the Island which
appears to be the most highly cultivated,
saw the Natives collected in great numbers on the Rocks
and on nearing the shore they took
to the Water and swam onboard each person having a small
Net or Basket or a Bunch of plantians
on his Back for Sale or barter."
were exchanged for fish hooks (made from metal) and timber,
indicative of the lack of local resources:
where [were] particularly partial to Wood and Fish hooks
for one only the[y] gave a Net or Basket full of Fruit or
skill at swimming is common to many reports of early European
contact across the Polynesian triangle:
at which the[y] are very expert as I ever witness'd,"
to canoes, the Rapanui's had constructed diminutive craft made
from small shrubs to assist their swimming in difficult
the Sea becomes rough which occurd in the afternoon some
of them made use of small Balsas or Bundle of Flags about
2 Feet long, Six Inches thick at one End and tapering to a
point at the other. this
the[y] place betwixt their legs to assist them in
small "Balsas or Bundle of Flags" were not surfboards, they
were certainly an elementary floatation device of considerable
comments in his notes on the text:
further notes (MS pp.7-8) how the Rapanui make use of “small
Balsas or Bundle of Flags about 2 Feet
long” that taper to a point at each end to assist them in
swimming out to the Discoverer, this pora
(type of raft) was first mentioned by Lisiansky (1814:1:58).
In footnote 9,
Steven Roger Fischer suugests the craft were of Polynesian
origin and are not diretly related to the reed boats (pora) as
used by ancient Peruvians:
a physical description of this raft, see Métraux
(1940:208). Pora were
also used for surf-riding. Their use
most likely originated uniquely on Rapanui for want of
appropriate wood to construct proper
vaka; i.e., they would probably not represent an
importation of similar Peruvian craft, as Heyerdahl
has repeatedly suggested."
- Fischer, Steven
Roger:Hugh Cuming's Acount of an Anchorage at Rapanui
(Easter Island) November 27-8, 1827. Journal of
Polynesian Society, Volume 100, Number 3, 1991, pages 303
1838: Admiral du Petit-Thouars reached Easter
Island from Mexico.
He was still a great distance from shore when shouts were
heard from two Easter Islanders they thought to be
swimming, "... but we were much surprised to perceive that
these natives were each riding astride a reed roller in
the form of a sheaf of corn.
To be sure of a favourable reception they brought us
bananas, sweet potatoes and yams enveloped in their
The swimmers also brought Petit-Thouars a most peculiar
wooden image representing a double head without body.
The eyes were inlaid with black obsidian inserted as
pupils into white bone.
Although he did not land, Petit-Thouars sailed close
enough along the coast to notice two types of dwellings.
He described the boat-shaped reed houses as large and
bright when seen from the sea, and added: "One could also
distinguish a very great number of small houses, black and
round like ovens."
- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) page 61.
(who visited in 1934) mentions the pora or tusk-shaped reed
boats that played such an important part in the ceremonial
bird-man swimming competitions.
He does not trace their origins, since neither the reeds, the
type of craft, nor the custom of competing for the election of a
sacred man were native to Polynesia.
The craft was of a type characteristic of the Peruvian coast.
The largest pora,
according to Metraux, could carry two men, and thus had the same
capacity as the tiny local canoes.
The wooden canoes had an outrigger, and thus were definitely of
Polynesian origin, but they were so poorly constructed that
Metraux made no attempt to track down their exact prototype in
any specific area within Polynesia.
Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989) pages 167-169.
In 1989, following his several ocean crossings on rafts and a
reed boat, Thor Heyerdahl examined the ancient legends of the Easter Islanders:
The texts cited by the two old men included a
description of the original fatherland:
"Hotu Matua and his followers came from a group of islands
lying towards the rising sun, and the name of the land was
Marae-toe-hau, the literal meaning of which is 'the burial
In this land, the climate was so intensely hot that the
people sometimes died from the effects of the heat, and at
certain seasons plants and growing things were scorched and
shrivelled by the sun." Thomson says: "It is difficult to account for the
statement, so frequently repeated throughout the legends, that
Hotu Matua came from the eastward and discovered the land by
steering towards the setting sun, because the chart shows no
islands in that direction which would answer the description of
- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989)
He then concludes:
Hotu Matua had fled in search of one
island he knew had been settled by his own kin. Yet the early settlers' were no longer there when Hotu
Matua arrived. Nothing is said about the time span between the voyages of
Machaa and Hotu Matua. Perhaps Easter Island was known to both as a secure place
of refuge, too far away from their common homeland for the arms
of revenge to reach them. The humble description of the first king as a refugee makes
the beginning of the island's history sound more like a
realistic tribal memory than an invented hero-myth. The two ships of Hotu Matua were described as ninety feet
long and six feet deep, each carrying one hundred and fifty
people. No seaworthy canoe or log raft could have been built to
such measurements, but a reed ship could. The Easter Islanders use the term vaka-paepae,
"boat-rafts," for these vessels. This could very well have been a boat-shaped reed raft
structurally related to the little totora floats that survived
on the island until the Europeans arrived. A landing from the east in such ships would make sense, as
they were made of the totora reeds cultivated in vast quantities
for boat- and house-building in every river valley on the
continent east of Easter Island. If we accept that the flimsy Easter Island mini-canoes were
the modest survivors of proper Polynesian dug-out canoes, then
the tiny local reed floats could be correspondingly modest
vestiges of former South American reed ships. Neither type could have carried men to Easter Island if
they had only been of the size seen by the Europeans. Only large reed bundles could have been combined to make
vessels of the impressive size cited for Hotu Matua's
"boat-rafts." And the peculiar Easter Island reed huts would match the
length, depth, and shape of such watercraft turned upside down.
Perhaps the first arrivals lived in their overturned boats
after landing? If so, this would explain the curious boat-shaped
design of the Easter Island reed-houses.
- Heyerdahl: Easter
Amoungst a plethora of
divergent theories as to the origin of the easter islanders,
Thompson (1906) considered the Polynesians as
one of the purest of all known people, and suggested they were
Caucasians of the Alpine branch who had learnt the art of
seamanship from the Phoenicians before they reached the Persian
Gulf and pushed on to Polynesia by way of Sumatra.
- Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989)
of Easter Island. Bernice P.
Bishop Museum Bulletin 160, Honolulu, 1940, page 208.
Yuri: Voyage round the world in the Ship Neva.
A man holding a small pora
on Easter Island was shown in an ilustration by Radiguet and
du Dupetit-Thouars: Voyage
around the World on the Frigate Venus, Paris, 1841.
Rapanui islander padles a replica pora, circa 1985. - Heyerdahl: Easter Island (1989)page
Left: Construction of replica pora, Rapanui, circa 1985
- Heyerdahl: Easter Island(1989)
1500 miles to the north east of New Zealand, to the east of Fiji
and about half way between Samoa and Tonga, it was first sighted
by Captain James Cook in 1774..
Cook recorded the
natives were distrustful of strangers and he was refused
permission to land, describing the region as the "Savage
brought o the island by Peniamina in 1846, after he was
converted during his stay at
were completely converted to Christianity by the end of the 19th
place thereafter and the island was declared as a part of the
In an article
for the Journal of Polynesian Society (1902, page
215),S. Percy Smith, detailed the canoes and fishing
practices of the Nuie islanders, drawing parallels with other
all Polynesians, the Niue people are expert canoe men. Even to
this day they go in their little canoes right round the
island on fishing expeditions, on the weather side of
which rough seas are experienced. Every
dark night fleets of canoes are to be seen along the
leeward coast with their bright torches ('hulu') engaged
in catching flying or other kinds of fish,—it is a very
pretty sight to see them. A canoe
is a 'vaka', as it is in all other parts in some form of
that word; but 'foulua' is also a canoe,
now applied to ships, which are also called 'tonga'. The
canoes have outriggers, which are fastened by two arms to
the canoe itself. The hull
is dug out of a log, with a topside lashed on and enclosed
for a space both fore and aft. The seams
are caulked with a hard gum called 'pili', and are often
ornamented with shells and a little very rough carving. The Niue
canoes are more like the 'va'a-alo-atu' or Bonito canoes
of Samoa than any others I have seen, but they are not so
well-finished nor so long. A Niue
canoe is from 12 feet to 25 feet in length, about 18
inches or 2 feet deep, and somewhat less in width. They
carry from one to three or four people. The
outrigger is called a 'hama'; a double canoe is
'vaka-hai-ua', but not now in use. The
paddles are termed 'fohe', and are shaped as seen in Plate
these the canoes can be propelled at a considerable pace,
and they sometimes sail, the sail being a 'la', the mast a
natives manage their craft very adroitly in coming onto
the reef in rough weather, for at that time the little
chasms ('ava') in the reef are not available for landing
comment, "manage their craft very adroitly in coming onto
the reef in rough weather", probably indicates some form
of canoe surf riding, a familiar practice across Polynesia.
In a section
on Amusements (page 217), Smith notes:
another amusement, called 'Fakatu-lapa' or 'Fakatu-peau',
which again is common to the race everywhere, but seems to
have been practised more in Hawaii than elsewhere."
Percy: Nuie Island and Its People. Journal of
Polynesian Society, Volume 11, Number 4, 1902, pages
5.5 Ellice Islands
Islands, now known as Tuvalu, are located in Oceania.
The island group
consists of nine coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, about
one-half of the way from Hawaii to Australia.
Kennedy in his index to Field Notes on the Culture of
Vaitupu Ellice Islands (1932) indicates a reference
to surf-riding on page 112.
Donald Gilbert: Memoir No. 9. Supplement to the Journal
of the Polynesian Society. Field
notes on the culture of Vaitupu Ellice Islands. Journal of
the Polynesian Society, Volume 41, Number 9, 1932, pages
321 to 328.
In 1912, a
goup of Ellice islanders demonstrated their surfing skill, and
some native traditions, at a Sdydney surf carnival:
successful surf carnival was held at North Steyne, Manly
on Saturday afternoon, 28 December 1912. The
display was witnessed by 15,000 spectators. ... One of
the prinipal attractions was the presence of a team of
native swimmers from the Ellice Islands. They
entertained the crowd with their quaint songs and war
dances, combined with clever exhibitions of surf and boat
displays in the breakers. 139.
Sydney Morning Herald 30 December 1913, Daily Telegraph 30