Paddleboarding in Hawaii: Who Cares About Surf

The Waikiki beach boys began using outrigger canoe paddles with surfboards in the 1960s, as a way to keep an eye on their tourist charges and to get better pictures as the beginners made their first attempts at wave riding. Ask locals about stand-up paddleboarding, and many will reminisce about the first time they saw someone do it.


Mike Sisian helped Komako Nagai find a practice spot.

Marco Garcia for The New York Times

“I remember this one guy, he wore a construction helmet and had a cigar clamped in his teeth,” Charles Myers, an archivist at the Bishop Museum, told me as he brought out vintage black-and-white photos of Waikiki. “He used a paddle and stood up on this big, floaty tandem board to see above the water when he was teaching people to surf.”

As I examined photographs of fit young men surfing, swimming and paddling canoes — and even giving ukulele lessons to women on the beach — I thought of the tradition of the “waterman,” the athletic and aesthetic ideal to which ancient Hawaiian men aspired. The beach boys, the modern epitome of watermen, found joy in every kind of water sport and helped to popularize surfing as we know it.

One of the most famous was George Freeth, an accomplished swimmer and lifeguard who was the subject of a profile by Jack London in 1907. Freeth, who moved to California and became known as a pioneer of modern surfing, was awarded a Congressional medal for rescuing several fishermen during a treacherous storm in 1908.

What began as a matter of practicality for the beach boys started popping up in its modern form as a full-fledged sport in the past 5 to 10 years; there are now stand-up paddleboarding competitions all over the world, from flat-water races on rivers and lakes to big-wave ocean contests. Since the boards are large and stable in flat water, they are…

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