Captain James Cook was sailing the HMS Discovery on his third voyage into the Pacific when, on January 18, 1778, he discovered an uncharted Polynesian archipelago. The natives called their home Owhyhee—later transliterated as “Hawai’i”—but Cook christened them the Sandwich Islands in honor of his friend and supporter, John Montague, first Lord of the Admiralty and fourth Earl of Sandwich. The Islanders greeted Cook with reverence, believing the Englishman was a white-skinned, red-bearded god.

Captain James Cook HMS Discovery

Cook traded iron nails and other geegaws for supplies and was in turn offered the chieftain’s daughter, whom the good captain politely accepted. Yet these Hawai’ian Islanders would soon prove Cook’s undoing. Returning to the Big Island of Hawai’i in January 1779, Cook found the natives restless. In the midst of ritual warfare for their god Lono, the Islanders stole one of Cook’s precious “cutters,” a small sailboat essential for exploring in advance of the main ships. Cook retaliated by kidnapping a chief.

The result was a mêlée, leaving Cook and two of his marines dead.
Cook’s discovery of Hawai’i may not have been fortuitous for the good captain, but it did lead to the world-at-large’s discovery of the sport of surfing.

All this surfing sensation—the culture and fashion, the movies and music, from Gidget to the Beach Boys and those bushy, bushy blond hairdos—goes back as far as the 1770s. And beyond.

Lieutenant James King took over the Discovery and the task of completing the ship’s journal. Before fleeing Hawai’i, King devoted two full pages to describing his bizarre findings as practiced by the Islanders at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast:

Whenever from stormy weather or any extraordinary swell at sea the impetuosity of the surf is increased to its utmost heights, they choose that time for their amusement, which is performed in the following manner: Twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet they plunge under, suffering it to role over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way, by swimming out into the sea.

The second wave is encountered in the same manner with the first;…as soon as they have gained by these repeated efforts, the smooth water beyond the surf, they lay themselves at length on their board, and prepare for their return. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always much larger than the others, and to flow higher on the shore, the rest breaking in the intermediate space, their first object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge.