A Sport in Decline

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...

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.”