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A Sport in Decline

Hawaiian surfer, around 1890.
19 century Hawaiian surfers
King Kamehameha III

Syphilis and cholera, new laws and prohibitions, endless work hours, overthrow and annexation—all these things conspired to remove wave-riders from Hawaiian lineups throughout the nineteenth century; the era came to be known as surfing’s own Dark Ages. But just how bad did things get? Modern sources almost all put the sport’s low point on a narrow continuum ranging from dire (“surfers had become an endangered species”) to defunct (“surfing had vanished”). Nineteenth-century reports, though, a...

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The islanders’ skill level dropped off; most riding was now done either prone or kneeling. “Old surf-riders,” one writer noted, “will tell you that none of the present generation have the skill and courage displayed by their ancestors.”