One hundred and fifty years ago, Mark Twain, yet to make a name for himself—his nom de plume was fresh at that point and he had yet to publish any of his celebrated novels—was on assignment in Hawaii. He had set off to explore the culture and history of the archipelago, submit copy to papers like the Sacramento Union, and document other experiences for eventual compilation in his humorous and informative travelogue, Roughing It.
For nearly half a year, Twain traversed the islands, riding horseback on “animals of the wretchedest description” and sailing schooners past old lava flow. But while journeying down the western coastline of the Big Island in an outrigger canoe—which, Twain notes, was “so narrow that if you wedged a fat man into it you might not get him out again”—he encountered natives surfing. He wrote:
“In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.”
The account was published and two drawings accompanied the short paragraph: The first, labeled “Surf-Bathing—Success,” featured three wahines happily riding waves. The second drawing portrayed a man, presumably Twain, consumed by the swell, falling heels over head, and predictably consuming “a couple of barrels,” as well. It is called “Surf-Bathing—Failure.”
Despite Twain’s quick encounter with the Hawaiian surfers and his botched attempts to “surf-bathe” himself, his concise paragraph, loaded with the hyperbole that would eventually be common to surf culture, is one of the first positive accounts of the sport. Prior to Twain’s narrative, Captain Cook had offered up quick praise for surfing, as did a lieutenant on Cook’s ship, James King, who wrote a more detailed account of the sport. (Interestingly, King’s description of surfing took place more or less in the same area as Twain’s. And Captain Cook was assassinated a few miles north of where this “surf-bathing” encounter took place, albeit a century prior to Twain’s visit.)
While Twain had witnessed and then attempted surfing, his writing unfortunately doesn’t pinpoint the exact location of the inspirational wave. He also does not state how soon after watching this “surf-bathing” does he “subsequently” attempt to surf. All that readers of Roughing It can determine is that after Twain’s encounter with the wave, he continues down the coast, completing the four-mile outrigger journey at the City of Refuge, a fortified area to where the killers of ancient Hawaii would flea, hoping to reach the gates and receive the promise of reprieve before their pursuers could avenge their murdered kin. (Think Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man, just without all the technologically enhanced hunters and live-action broadcasting.)
After the City of Refuge, Twain set off on another adventure, traveling his readers away from the sea.
Chasing Twain’s Wave
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been taking most of my wave recommendations from other riders—surfers in documentary films pointed me to swells in Ireland; surfers carving through magazine pages led me to the longest left in Peru; surfer friends in New Zealand guided me to desolate barrier islands where I was the only person in the lineup for days. But now I found myself caught up on a wave composed by a landlubber. Maybe it was Twain’s ability to see beauty in the sport. (Up until that point other writers had deemed surfing barbaric and profane.) Or maybe the place was undeniably powerful and deserved all the credit for inspiring one of surfing’s first positive reviews. Regardless, supplied with only a paragraph and a few other sentences that hinted at location, I went in search of Twain’s wave.
When I asked a few Hawaiians about the wave, I received shrugs, suggesting that they didn’t know or that they didn’t want me to know. The latter idea is a common trend in the surf world: secret waves should be kept that way for local riders (and, in this case, dead authors). But with a map, ruler, Roughing It, and the assistance of one local man, I narrowed it down to two potential waves.
The first wave required northwest winter swells to break. I was visiting out of season (and so had Twain). The other spot, a tricky reef point, would work at the time of year that Twain and I were on the island. Before setting off, my source offered one warning about the local surfers in the area: “I don’t think you’ll have much of a problem if you paddle out alone,” he said, asking to remain anonymous and pleading with me to keep the spot unnamed, as if naming this wave were akin to revealing state secrets. “But if you show up with three guys, it won’t be allowed. That I know.”
I drove—solo—down the road and veered off of Highway 11, passing palms and giant ferns and bouquets abloom in trees, a scene not much different from the pre-highway trails that Twain-upon-saddle had trotted a century and a half earlier. “The trail passes along on high ground—say a thousand feet above sea level—and usually about a mile distant from the ocean,” Twain wrote, “which is always in sight, save that occasionally you find yourself buried in the forest… leav[ing] you in a dim, shady tunnel, haunted with invisible singing birds and fragrant with the odor of flowers.”
The road descending toward the ocean winded for miles. I passed farm stands absent any vendor, still operating on the trust system, and then drove through a blackened lava field that had forbidden any growth or development.
The street that I was looking to turn down was unmarked. When it was clear that I had passed it, I flagged down another motorist.
“It’s the dirt road back there,” said the driver.
I turned around and discovered that there was nothing dirt about this lava path; it was blacker than the asphalt road perpendicular to it. Thousands of car tires had probably met a sad fate on the lava path’s igneous teeth. The slopes and holes would have been kinder on Twain’s horse than my rented Ford Focus. A road sign listing the speed at 5 MPH read more like a dare than a limitation. I crept along, waiting for the car to lunge forward without its axles. Blond mongooses had plenty of time to study the approaching vehicle, chitter among themselves, and scamper off into the hedgerows.
Somehow, the car made it into the village. The sea-worn homes advised against trespassing and owners marked their properties with beware-of-dog signs, even though the mutts roamed free among the broken down pick-up trucks.
A few of the local surfers sat on their porches. I nodded hello, they returned to their tasks.
Preceding his description of “surf-bathing”, Twain, from his canoe, had described the landscape, from the “limpid depths… [with] large bunches of branching coral” to the “dead blue water of the deep”, where he could look back toward the land and watch the surf “dashing angrily against the crag-bound shore and sending a foaming spray high into the air.”
While I stood on the beach, I took note of much the same, except that the wave was neither dashing with any emotion, nor was a foamy spray leaping to any great heights; it was just breaking in a gentle rhythm toward a large rock shelf rising a foot or two from the water.
Regardless, the tide was low and the reef was toothy, incising through the clear blue. And none of the local surfers seemed to have any interest in turning me away.
As I paddled from the channel and over super shallow reef that snagged my center fin, I considered that this might not have been the place where Twain had surfed, or at least first glimpsed the sport. A story that included a wipeout here would have focused more on lacerations and urchin needles instead of bellies full of water. Who knows though? Maybe the tide was at its highest a century and a half ago, leaving a plunging Twain far from the bottom. Or possibly Twain took his wipeouts with more machismo than most.
Since I was the only one in the lineup, when the first wave lifted itself from the dark blue—right where the reef dropped off—and met with the shallow turquoise waters, it was mine. I “surf-bathed” toward the rock shelf, cutting a quick line to the left until the wave petered out.
I paddled out for ride number two.
But that’s when I saw something longer and more worrisome than any local surfer. Or perhaps this was as local as local got.
For years, I had kept a pact with the sharks: I don’t eat you and you return the favor. But a few months back, on a date with my wife, she and the chef had suggested that I order a shark burger.
“I don’t know,” I told her and the man in the apron.
“Just do it,” she said.
He nodded in agreement.
Like a good husband, and diner, I broke my pact with one of those predators.
Now, in the waters surrounding this Hawaiian island and for the first time in all my years of surfing, I had undoubtedly encountered a shark. I felt hunted. I thought about that burger. The regret. (It wasn’t even that tasty.) My heart raced.
In Twain’s account of the City of Refuge, he had described “a monstrous seven-ton rock.” It was similar to the rock shelf set before me. The seven-ton rock in the City had been “raised a foot or a foot and a half above the ground… They say,” Twain continued, “the proud Queen Kaahumanu used to fly to this rock for safety, whenever she had been making trouble with her fierce husband…”
The fierce shark disappeared. The water pulled off the rock, which sat a foot or two above the sea. And I flew like the queen, or like anyone else charged with a crime in ancient Hawaii. I had to outrace my pursuer. The Paddling Man. There was a price on my head. Reaching the rock, I hoped, would lift that bounty.
A wave came. I paddled with all my might, attempting to control my breathing, aiming for my seven-ton rock. The wave tossed me forward and I crashed into the shelf, into a field of urchins, into the joy of little rock bites, into safety. (And I broke another fin.)
Later that day, I met with the Hawaiian who had pointed me toward the break. “How was it?” he asked.
I told him that he wouldn’t believe it. I recounted the story of the shark.
“I believe it,” he said. “That’s the resident tiger shark there. It’s where the reef drops away to super deep waters.” He told me about his friend’s run-in with that shark on an earlier date. “How big was it?”
“Maybe eight or ten feet,” I said, though I am quite bad at estimating measurements.
“Maybe there’s another shark then. The one I know about is bigger.” Then he revealed to me the local legend: in the olden days, a shark had taken human form and joined the people on the shores of the Big Island. He saw how the locals had respect for the sea. So before the shark took his leave of the land, he promised the locals that they could use these waters and he would protect this privilege by forever patrolling the area. Perhaps, I had met the creature of that legend. Had I just stayed, I would have surfed without consequence.
Or perhaps, my run in had delivered me to the Great Shark God, which Mark Twain had written about. “All of the natives are Christians, now, but many of them still desert to the Great Shark God for temporary succor in time of trouble. An eruption of the great volcano of Kilauea, or an earthquake, always brings a deal of latent loyalty to the Great Shark God to the surface.”
Whether it was the legendary tiger shark or the Great Shark God, I’m confident in my decision to flea. I’m thankful for my rock—my City of Refuge. And even with one hundred fifty years between our visits, Twain and I can come to the same conclusion. Through wipe-outs and sea-chugging, through fin-smashing and shark-chases, we discovered humility on this rough island, and we could happily claim a “Surf-Bathing—Failure.”