Santa Cruz surfers, circa 1939. (UC Santa Cruz)

The Hawaiian princes who brought surfing to California

In the summer of 1885, three Hawaiian princes, on break from their studies at a Bay Area military school, paddled into the ocean off Santa Cruz on 17-foot redwood planks.

The strange exercise was recounted in the pages of the Santa Cruz Daily Surf: “The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming as practiced in their native lands.”

It was on that warm Sunday afternoon that the first instance of board surfing was documented in California.

Members of the Hawaiian royal family, David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui, and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole were brothers who had been sent across the Pacific to be educated at St. Matthew’s Hall, a rigorous military academy in San Mateo. They spent summers with family friends in Santa Cruz, where they had surfboards carved out of local trees.

The teenagers returned to Hawaii after just a few years. But they had unwittingly left a gift to California, where a new kind of relationship with the sea was awakened. Reports in the Santa Cruz press described growing numbers of locals riding waves like the Hawaiians — “standing the whole way.”

The three Hawaiian princes in their cadet uniforms, circa 1885.
Hawaii State Archives

Before long, Santa Cruz was calling itself “Surf City.”

The lore of the Hawaiian princes was shared orally for generations. Then in the 1990s, Santa Cruz researchers excavated the history from archival documents and photos in Hawaii and California, stirring up a wave of local pride. In 2010, a plaque honoring the princes was added atop a bluff overlooking the beach. A few years later, two of the princes’ original redwood surfboards, stored and largely forgotten at a Honolulu museum, were loaned to Santa Cruz for an exhibit.

On the final leg of the journey, the boards were escorted into the city’s downtown in a procession of 38 classic woodie surf wagons. At an unveiling ceremony, a solemn hush fell over the room. The Santa Cruz Sentinel captured the moment: “In the world of surfing, they are the Rosetta Stone, the Shroud of Turin, the Hammer of Thor. They are the paintings on the cave walls at Lascaux, Shakespeare’s first folio, Babe Ruth’s first bat. They are the First Surfboards.”

This article is from the California Sun, a newsletter that delivers must-read stories to your inbox each morning . Sign up here.

Get your daily dose of the Golden State.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.