The Coast News Group
A good spot for he’enalu. Photo by Chris Ahrens

Waterspot: He`enalu and surfing’s elusive definition

Surfing definition:  “Person rides wave on stick.”

— Corky Carroll

As a young gremmie in the early ‘60s, I never did try to describe or define surfing. I rode waves as often as possible and to the best of my ability. As I got older, however, I became more philosophical about my favorite activity. Not until I began writing about surfing in the mid-1970s did I face the impossible task of trying to define it. The Hawaiians called it he`enalu, which is sometimes translated, “a study of the wave.” This seems about right to me.

From the time I first noticed surfing, during a late ‘50s screening of “Gidget” until today, its meaning has changed. Still, from the day of that joyful baptism until now, the words joy and freedom are closely associated with it. That day in 1958, running home from the Gar-Mar Theater in Montebello to tell my dad about surfing, I found myself stumped when trying to describe the activity adequately. Without goalposts, rules, or points, it did not fit the criteria of a sport. This was something else.

I didn’t get my first surfboard until 1962. By then, surfing was everything to me — affecting everything from the music I listened to, the way I dressed, combed my hair and spoke to how I behaved on land and in the water. Looking back on those days now, I see that my view of surfing was limited only to what I was doing: standing on a fiberglass and foam surfboard over nine feet in length. I had no concern for bodysurfing, belly boarding or mat riding.

I paid close attention to surf competitions and was well aware of the top-ranking surfers. By the 1970s, competition had gone out of style, and this thing called “soul surfing” had taken over. While soul surfing has an elastic definition, it seems more concerned with the feeling of riding a wave rather than how it looks to others. Assigning a number to how someone rode a wave seemed absurd to many of us.

Professional surfing arrived with the Australian invasion of the late ‘70s, and with it a return to points for maneuvers. Points were good because points translated into money. Pro surfing has grown a lot since then, and so has the opposite branch know as soul surfing, or what is now called “free surfing.”

My personal evolution and devolution have taken me into various forms of wave riding, from longboards to mid-sized boards, kneeboards, mats, alaias, and paipos. I believe I have ridden around 100,000 waves and yet am still no closer to defining surfing than I ever was. Maybe each surfer should define it for themselves. To some, it is a sport played for points and money where a board is mounted, and the energy of the ocean is harnessed. To others, it is tapping into the energy of waves. Someone else might even consider it a religion.

It now seems useful that he’enalu is a word without a clear definition. I like thinking of myself as a student of the wave. As with the studies of all things associated with nature, this course is infinite. And so, I feel I am actually further from saying what surfing is now than I was half a century ago. I only know that it is among the most enjoyable and free feelings I have ever experienced. I can’t explain it, but if you surf, you know exactly what I’m talking about.