An Ode to History's Most Underrated Surfers

David Kawānanakoa, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole and Edward Keli’ialonui are three surfers history has largely forgotten.

The Inertia

This is a story about the three most underrated surfers in history, and I’m going to give you their names right up front: David, Jonah and Ed. Then I’m going to tell you a little bit about them, what they did, how they did it, and why it matters. And finally, I’m going to ask you to consider the idea that, despite the almost universal opinion that, depending on when one’s wave riding voyage began, surfing was somehow better “back then,” that being a surfer, a dedicated surfer, a stoked surfer, has changed very little over the centuries; that we’re all simply pulling on a common thread that eventually unravels back to a remarkable Genesis story whose leading characters are David, Jonah and Ed, the three surfers who started it all.  

I’m speaking, of course, of David Kawānanakoa, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole and Edward Keli’ialonui, three adopted heirs of Hawai’i’s King David Kalakaua and Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapi’olani, who in the year 1885 sailed for the mainland to attend the prestigious St. Matthews Hall military academy in the northern California town of San Mateo. There the three princes would spend their summers with friends of the royal family living in nearby Santa Cruz where, after fashioning three o’lo surfboards from local redwood, they quite naturally took to riding the waves breaking at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. Having been taught to surf at Waikiki by their uncle King David, the prince’s wave riding skills enthralled Santa Cruz residents, whose thrills by the seaside generally ended waist deep.

The breakers at the mouth of the river were very fine and here occurred the very primest of fun,” reported the Santa Cruz Daily newspaper’s ‘Beach Breeze’ column on July 20, 1885.At least, so said those who were ‘in the swim. As many as 30 or 40 swimmers were out in the water…dashing and tossing, and plunging through the breakers, going out only to be tossed back apparently at the will of the waves.”

Something very different, however, was happening just down the beach. 

The young Hawaiian Princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely,” continued the ‘Beach Breeze’ column. “And giving interesting exhibitions of surf-board swimming as practiced in their native islands.”

Thus was written the very first documented account of board surfing in California – or anywhere outside of Polynesia, for that matter – and most latter-day surfing historians at least give credit to the three young Hawaiians for their role in that innovation. But not nearly enough. Because while the trio’s July south swell session at the river mouth is typically presented almost as an historical footnote in comparison to many chapters dedicated, for example, to Hawaiian George Freeth’s first arrival on the California coast some 22 years later – and certainly to Duke Kahanamoku’s scene-stealing 1913 Orange County surf demos – very little has been written about what the experience must’ve been like for Dave, Jo and Ed, despite them having”‘been there, done that” almost a quarter century before either of those other two legends of the sport.

So just imagine, you’re a young Hawaiian surfer, having been tutored in the waves of Waikiki by one of your “uncles” (the Island’s heaviest local at the time), being informed that you’re being shipped off across the Pacific to a military academy in northern California, which, so far as your perception of the world is concerned, might as well be to a distant planet. You eventually arrive there, confronted by a bewildering montage of unfamiliar people, language, food, climate, trees and animals, clothing and cultural sensibilities, toughing it out through the long, cold school year until that first summer, and the first trip south to Los Gatos, over winding Summit Road, and down through Scotts Valley to the shore in Santa Cruz. 

You’re visiting with Antoinette Swan, a woman of royal lineage and dear friend of Hawaii’s queen regent, who had moved to Santa Cruz with her husband Lyman 10 years earlier, and, after serving poi, Hawaii sweetbread and as many other Island delicacies as she could conjure, sets you up with rooms in the Wilken House Inn, located on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Cathcart St., just a short walk from the John Liebrandt’s bathhouses on the sand near the San Lorenzo Rivermouth.

And it’s all there: white sand under your feet, the smell of the sea and oh, so familiar sound of gentle breakers, rolling toward the beach in a darn good imitation of Waikiki (19th century photos show the river mouth area looking more like a delta, with rows of crumbling, breaking waves along either side.) You’re super stoked, can’t wait to get out there, so it’s off to Isaac Graham’s whipsaw lumber mill, located three miles upstream, to pick out some choice, first growth redwood planks from which to shape your o’lo (shorter alaias only suitable for commoners.)

You then lay down templates copying your uncle’s board (and his father’s and his before him) on the very first surfboards to be made in the New World, and, no doubt surprising the Californian lumbermen with your woodworking acumen, begin to carve from the Sequoia sempervirens three beautifully foiled boards with very contemporary outlines – one in particular, with its pointed nose, forward wide point and narrow squaretail, looking surprisingly similar to a late ‘50s Pat Curren gun. (We know this because Santa Cruz historian Mac Reed, doing research in Hawaii’s Bishop Museum in 2014, uncovered two of the prince’s boards in the museum’s archival holdings, both bequeathed by Kūhiō’s widow Elizabeth in 1923. In fact, during a rare visit to the Bishop archives in the early ’90s, I actually encountered these boards, but as they were then unlabeled I had no idea whose surfboards I was caressing with my ungloved hand.) But after much planing and polishing, you have your boards: Jonah’s being 17’2” and weighing 150 pounds, and David’s 17’9”, weighing 175 lbs. 

So did you float down the San Lorenzo on them to reach the lineup? Probably the easiest way to transport boards this heavy. But in any case, you got them down to the sand on that warm, July 20 day, and looking out at what considering the season must’ve been a decent south swell, knew exactly what to do; knew exactly who you were. Not a prince, not a military cadet, not an exotic kanaka, but simply a surfer. And probably not thinking about how you were the very first surfer here in Santa Cruz – or anywhere else on Earth besides Hawaii – with boards and skills like yours, but merely young guys on break from boarding school and happy to be back at the beach, you and your cousins proceeded to paddle out into “the breakers at the mouth of the riverenjoying it hugely.” 

As evidenced by the surviving Santa Cruz o’los in the Bishop’s Kapi’olani/Kalaniana’ole Family collection, upon finishing up at St. Matthews, David and Jonah, at least, brought their boards back to Hawaii with them (and you thought your board bag was heavy) by steamship. And oddly, it’s this totally relatable act that in my opinion most significantly establishes David, Jonah and Edward as our most underrated, and certainly most under-appreciated, pre-modern history surfers. In 1907 George Freeth was paid to come to California and put on surfing demonstrations, the sport’s first pro; Duke was a world famous Olympic champion, sponsored to travel the world doing swimming promos where, incidentally, he’d also surf. But the three Hawaiian princes were just kids who loved to surf, much like you and I once were, who just happened to be the very first to share that stoke with the rest of the world.

Their deserved honors, for both those reasons, are way overdue.



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