ROLLING THROUGH THE AGES
Girl power circa 1900: the wave of the wahine surfer
Words by Katharine Purcell Photos courtesy Hawaiian Historical Society G liding along the faces of a late spring swell in 1910, a Honolulu native, Josephine Pratt, easily won the first ever corporate-sponsored surf contest wearing a skirt and woollen stockings. With her triumphant ride into history, Pratt took the first Clark Cup –and the last one for the day. The boys’ heat was postponed because the waves had grown so large that the judges couldn’t see the surfers. Pratt’s board was an eight-foot plank that lacked both buoyancy and fins. She explained to reporters how she would paddle for a wave, balance on water and wood, and then, “slide diagonally across the wave as it rushed on like a cyclone up to the beach.”
The Clark Cup Contest, organised by the godfather of modern surfing, Alexander Hume Ford, became the model for modern surf contests. Orchestrating a meeting with the president of Clark Tours, Ford set up a strategic trade: Waikiki surf exhibitions for tourists by the Outrigger Canoe Club, in exchange for trophies and nonstop press.
Regardless of this pivotal South Shore season, when young women ruled local contests and newspaper coverage, Ford and another early surf apostle, writer Jack London, kept their promotion of the sport squarely within the realm of the boys and men, as their articles secured surfing as the means for a perfect modern-age escape. Somehow, both writers failed to mention that just as many wahines (women) could be found in the Hawaiian line-ups. Yet women were busy surfing. In fact, in spite of dowdy western fashions first enforced by missionary in the 1800s, Hawaiian women never gave up the practice of he’e nalu— riding the waves. And they taught the art to other women who arrived from all corners of the world.
They were following a call to the waves that echoed back to ancient Hawaiian epics. The Goddess Hi’iaka, sister to Madame
Pele, surfed the islands, protecting both mortals and the ecology from the whims of her sibling. By the 1800s, when the tales were shifting form from chant to print in Hawaiian-language newspapers, surfing stories of the immortals became interwoven with dirges for those who had passed.
These songs of memory map favourite surf breaks and styles; lyrics recorded in 1865 and gathered by surf historian John Clark, tell how one woman, “enjoyed surfing so much that at night she dwelt upon the morrow’s surfing and awakened to the murmuring of
the sea to take up her board.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, wahine visitors also discovered the sport. Alice Roosevelt, eldest daughter of US President Theodore Roosevelt, almost missed her ride to Japan because she was having such a blast in the waves of Waikiki. A few years later, Charmaine London, Jack’s wife, picked up the sport from pal Alexander Hume Ford. In her Hawaiian memoir, she describes riding into the Waikiki shore and stepping off the board at the feet of some astounded tourists. Early twentieth-century English-language Hawaiian newspapers also recorded wahine surf adventures in the Sports and the Society pages.
By the time the 1910 contest was held, both the press and the public were primed. The ocean, however, was not read in on the contest agenda, and the opening ceremony was met with lake-like conditions. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser notes that several OCC girls saved the day by paddling out, finding a few wrinkles to ride, and entertaining the visitors. Later in the spring, when an incoming swell coincided with the arrival of another boatload of tourists, the contest convened.
That morning, giant South Shore rollers grew in the strengthening trade winds.
The surfers paddled far out and Josephine Pratt, ‘the queen of the surf,’ flew along the waves. Her blue bathing costume could easily be spotted in the line-up, and her graceful drops and endless rides astounded the crowd. As a monster wave broke, those on shore lost sight of Pratt and assumed that she’d wiped out. But she reappeared from the froth and rode into victory.
The skill and dedication of Pratt and her sister surfers were respected in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Wahine surfers needed neither the attention of the media nor the brief nod of acceptance from their cultures. Early records from the Outrigger Canoe Club recall orders for more surf racks and lighter boards for the female membership. One original OCC club member recalls how, as a toddler, he would perch on the nose of his mother’s board and catch rides. When the swell grew, she would tie him to the old Moana Pier, keeping him safe as she paddled out to catch the bigger sets.
Wahine surfers continued to find their places in the Waikiki line-ups. Later, they worked the tourist stands and expanded their adventures on the North Shore. Meanwhile, Jack London and Alexander Hume Ford were capturing the world’s imagination with stories of male surfers, and, for several generations, surfing became known as the domain of men and boys.
In the years following the first Clark Club Contest, media attention turned from the wahine surfers to a growing list of champion wahine swimmers from the islands. The Stockholm Olympics of 1912 marked the first time women were allowed to compete as swimmers and divers. As if foretelling the future, Josephine Pratt remarked to a reporter that, “swimming is one of the sports that a girl may enjoy and indulge in without being ‘strange’ or ‘out of the swim.” Western codes of conduct deemed it perfectly acceptable for women to be in the water—so long as they stayed beneath the surface. In 1917 the Clark Cup was awarded to one more wahine surfer before it disappeared. The silver trophy was finally returned to the Club in 2002, a reminder that women surfers have a strong tradition, and that many before them have cast off the concerns of life on the shore to fly along the face of a wave.
This group photo shows a wonderful sequence of bathing costumes, and the woman at the back may be Queen of the Surf, Josephine Pratt.