Girl power circa 1900: the wave of the wahine surfer

Surf Girl - - Vintage -

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.

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