The way that surfers honor the fallen among us — with a floating memorial service — sets us apart as a tribe. It’s how we honor our heroes and our brothers and sisters who share a love for the ocean. This ritual, the memorial paddle out, has an ancient feel that seems to suggest it has roots in pre-historical Polynesia or Hawaii.
But historians would disagree with that origin theory. Experts believe the phenomena was indeed birthed in Hawaii, but in much more modern times — and by the likes of Duke Kahanamoku himself.
In this tradition, surfers paddle into the ocean with flowers or leaves around their necks or between their teeth, and join hands to form a floating circle. One or more people offer words or remembrance about the departed. And then the whole party erupts in hoots and cheers, splashes the water, throws the flowers into the air and, if ashes are present, spreads them.
While the history of paddle outs are hazy, experts of Hawaiian culture don’t believe the ritual comes from ancient islanders, who buried their dead on land. Instead, the first known paddle-outs can be traced to early 20th Century in Hawaii, where they were undertaken by the “beach boys.”
This group of watermen, sometimes called the Beachboys of Waikiki, which included Kahanamoku, worked in the hotels on Oahu, teaching mainlanders how to surf and enjoy the ocean. A beach boy named Wally Froiseth, who was born in 1920, has verified this theory from personal recollection. He attended his first one at the age of 6. “I don’t know of any place that did it before Waikiki,” he told The New York Times.
Froiseth might be the best source on this topic. Search it on Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing and you’ll be greeted with the message “No matching entries found.” Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, the authors of the book “The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing” are likewise stumped about the origins.
According to Surfer’s Journal founder and publisher Steve Pezman, also quoted by the Times, paddle-outs migrated to the mainland in the early decades of last century and “then spread along with the sport, especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s after the movie ‘Gidget’ came out,” notes the Times. Since then, this aspect of modern surf culture has reached every part of the globe where surfers reside.
When a surfing great dies today, as the world saw when Andy Irons passed away in 2010, paddle-outs may take place in several countries, with hundreds of surfers joining hands in tribute. In the case of the In Memory of Eddie Aikau contest, the paddle out is done each season.
Of course, no memorial paddle out would be complete without another distinct surf tradition: the belief that the deceased being honored has shown their presence with a wave passing under the circle of surfers. Or with a swell, like last year’s “Brock Swell,” thought to have been sent by big wave legend Brock Little, who had recently succumbed to cancer.