Riding with the Professor

College Credit for Surfing? Ian Masterson wrote the curriculum.
Story by Sonny Ganaden. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

Ian Masterson stands beside the rain-slicked highway a mile from his home, watching the sunrise. ‘Iwa birds fly upwind, and rain clouds are riven with dawn colors. “Some people call this place Surf Gate,” he says, after the nearby gate across a road leading into the valley at Kualoa Ranch. “It’s been in a bunch of movies. It’s also called Rainbows. The name of the point, though, is Kalaeoka‘ō‘io.”

I recognize the spot from having driven by it dozens of times, but I’ve never looked as closely at it as Masterson has: He dedicates whole pages of his master’s thesis to images of its refracted light, its sea spray and to the small, A-frame wave that breaks offshore. The point is also the boundary between Kualoa and Ka‘a‘awa, two Windward O‘ahu ahupua‘a, or ancient land divisions. It’s here, says Masterson, that quite possibly human beings first surfed on boards.

We paddle out to the break, me on one of Masterson’s favorite boards, a ’70s single-fin intail, and he on an alaia, a traditional wooden surfboard that he cut from a log, shaped and waterproofed in a manner done for centuries in the Islands. “I made this one in the older style, my own shape but from templates of boards at the Bishop Museum,” he says. It’s not the prettiest board in the lineup; it’s stained by the kukui nut paste and oil he used to seal it. It’s not the easiest board to ride, either: Ask any diehard surfers who’ve tried alaia, and they’ll probably tell you it’s like learning the sport all over again. But Masterson makes it look absurdly easy; he paddles for a waist-high wave and pumps across its face like he’s been doing it all his life. Because, mostly, he has.

Ian Materson, known as the “Surf Professor,” teaches "surf studies" at several schools and colleges on O‘ahu. He also makes surfboards, such as the traditional wooden alaia board seen here.

“This whole place is made of waves,” Masterson had told me a few days before as we stood at the boundary between Kualoa and the ahupua‘a just south of it, Hakipu‘u. It took me a moment to understand that by “whole place” he meant not just the ocean, but the land, too. I expected a New Age sermon on stardust and vibrations, but he instead pointed to a shallow ribbon of whitewater a hundred yards offshore. “That wave breaks no matter what the tide or swell is doing,” he said. “It’s a natural guidepost.” He went on to explain that swells from all directions gather and break at the spot because of rocks just under the surface, possibly remnants of an ancient fishpond. (Kualoa, Masterson had told me, is likely where Polynesian navigators first landed and settled on O‘ahu—as early as the third century ACE.) “One day I was surfing Waimea, and it came to me: ‘Hakipu‘u’ is an old Hawaiian way of saying ‘gathering and breaking.’ Then I came here and saw it. Even the formations of the mountain behind us—this whole valley has forms that fold in on themselves. It was surfing that helped me make that connection: This is the valley of waves.”

Reviving centuries-old knowledge, board-shaping and wave-riding techniques is just part of Masterson’s philosophical and holistic approach to surfing. In his role as “the Surf Professor,” he teaches surf-related courses to grade-schoolers and to students at three O‘ahu colleges. As a practitioner, Masterson has charged Waimea bay on days of consequence, ridden many of O‘ahu’s breaks on a variety of the pre-contact-style boards he’s made and even once, after a particularly nasty wipeout, set his own broken fibula while underwater.

It’s only recently that surfing has gotten attention as an academic subject. Surfing and academia mix like kukui nut oil and saltwater: They’re usually antithetical, as any surfer who’s tried to finish a paper during an inviting swell knows. But Masterson is one of the few people bridging that divide, pioneering surfing as a legitimate academic subject and rediscovering the daily practices of those who surfed Hawai‘i’s waves before Western contact.

It’s a summer school morning, and “Kumu Ian,” as the kids call him, has his feet in the sand at Kualoa Regional Park, telling the story of the one-toothed shark demigod Mano-niho-kahi, who cruised the waters of Windward O‘ahu. It’s a one-man show: Masterson lunges at the students like a malevolent shark, then changes his voice to sound like the women who fought the fish deity. As Masterson retells the epic struggle, he interjects questions about mathematics (“The shark was six fathoms long, how many feet is that?” he asks; “Thirty-six!” comes the students’ reply), geography (“What’s the name of the island behind me?” “Mokoli‘i!”) and Hawaiian language (“What do we call a canoe?” “Wa‘a!”). The students are rapt and Masterson’s stoke is contagious.

“The curriculum is simplified from what I teach in the college courses. I try and keep the kids moving,” Masterson says during a break as he sets stakes for moa pahe‘e, a traditional Hawaiian game in which players slide darts over an expanse of grass. “What do you notice about this shape?” he asks students while holding the torpedo-shaped dart lengthwise. “It’s wider at one end,” a student responds. “Exactly!” says Masterson. “This is just how a surfboard makes contact with the surface of the water: With the weight at one end and the taper at the other, it maintains momentum as it slides.” Like surfing an alaia, the game is harder than it looks. Only two students manage to slide the dart between the stakes.

Masterson’s expertise, which he makes every effort to share, is the result of a life lived as a surfing autodidact. Born in Malaysia to free-spirited parents, he and his two siblings have lived in Windward O‘ahu since 1980, when his mother, who traces her ancestry to Augusto Dias, one of the first Portuguese immigrants to Hawai‘i, returned to the Islands of her birth. “I felt so connected to this place,” says Masterson, “and as a young haole, I had the insider/outsider perspective.” In high school Masterson studied, surfed and founded the reggae band Dread Ashanti with his brother and friends. He was accepted to the University of Southern California but returned home to care for his ailing mother at the end of his freshman year.

For the next decade Masterson worked as a contract archeologist and lifeguard, but he wanted to study surfing. There was nothing in the course catalog at Windward Community College, so he took classes in anything even tangentially relevant: anthropology, Hawaiian language, history, horticulture, geology, geography, navigation—subjects he would later fuse into his own courses, Pacific Surf Science & Tech; Wahi Pana: Mythology of the Hawaiian Landscape; and Polynesian Surf Culture among them. When his mother died in 1999, Masterson began teaching and graduated at the top of his class with a bachelor’s in anthropology from Hawai‘i Pacific University and later with a master’s in Pacific island studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His thesis, “Hua ka Nalu: Hawaiian Surf Literature,” cites what may well be everything written about the origins of surfing, in both English and Hawaiian, until that time.

In person Masterson is a force of nature, a bebop conversationalist who footnotes his own sentences and is always doing something with his hands. His writing is similarly intense and improvisational, not unlike his surfing. In one chapter of his thesis, “Surfing Is a Poetic Vision,” Masterson highlights the ways in which wave-riding was once regarded in the Islands. “Surfing is a ritual practice integrated into Hawaiian forms of worship,” he writes. “Layered meanings must be explored as poetic visions encoded with environmental and cultural information.” In a later essay, “He‘e Wahine i ka Lani: Goddess in the Surf,” Masterson notes the gender dynamics in the surfing-related chants and legends of ancient Hawai‘i. “Women surfers held their own in the surf, displaying great prowess and attracting the highest ranks of kapu chiefs with their beauty and mana,” he writes, “chiefesses like Keaomelemele of Kealohilani, Keleanuinohoana‘api‘api of Maui, Hinahanaiakamālama of Hilo and Māmala of Kou Harbor in Honolulu.” If the oral tradition is to be believed, nothing leads to romance like the surf date.

The study and practice of surfing is, for Masterson, a gateway to a broader discussion about what it means to live in Hawai‘i. He’s part of an intellectual movement to reverse-engineer various systems indigenous peoples created to survive and prosper on isolated islands, and in so doing has revealed just how adept they were at things we now take for granted. Take surfing, for example: It was once thought that pre-contact surfers were kooks who rode straight to shore on the whitewash of a broken wave, the way a beginning surfer might. Masterson disagrees, citing fellow author and waterman John Clark and historian Puakea Nogelmeier, in arguing that Hawaiians rode “lala,” or diagonally. “‘He‘eana i ka muku la, ho‘i ana i ka lala’ refers to a maneuver familiar to all surfers—cutting back into the wave crest, and then returning diagonally along the wave face,” Masterson writes.

The study of surfing’s origins led Masterson to the work of surf innovator and writer Tom Blake, who along with Duke Kahanamoku ushered in surfing’s modern era. Like Masterson, Blake researched and replicated pre-contact surfboards. In the 1920s Blake restored a renowned 148-pound koa wood olo—the largest and heaviest of the traditional Hawaiian board types—once ridden by high chief Abner Kuho‘oheiheipahu Pākī, the father of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Blake wrote that one way to cure a board in the traditional fashion was to bury it in the mud “near a spring, for a certain length of time to give it a high polish.” Masterson has cured boards this way. “It hardens the wood after drying, prior to sealing it with kukui nut paste,” he tells his summer school students. “Blake and Duke wanted to get the best ride possible, and that was the start of the surfboard industry. Innovation is part of the tradition.”

That tradition demands dedication. “Hollywood has portrayed surfing as a sport for drifters,” Masterson says while his summer school students crack kukui nuts using stone mortars and pestles. They’ll turn the nuts into a dark paste used to seal and waterproof surfboards and canoes. “Surfing was a national pastime in Hawai‘i,” says the surf professor while his students grind away. “There’s danger, real work and worship involved in it.”

Class the next day is at Masterson’s house on a quiet rural street in Kāne‘ohe. In addition to being in his head, the history of surfing is also in his backyard: The sheds in which Masterson stores his hundreds of boards are as large as his house. In them are the pre-contact boards he’s shaped, a quiver of early models by Hobie Alter and Bing Copeland, and a fleet of 1950s orange single-fins once ridden by beachboys at Waikīkī. As his students watch from the grass, Masterson wrestles a massive mango wood board out of the shed. Like Blake, Masterson shaped the board based on a template he created from Pākī’s olo. “The displacement of this olo is two hundred pounds,” he tells the class, lifting it at its center point for display. “It doesn’t ride like a regular board; you have to stand in the middle and step in the opposite direction of where you want to go.” His youngest daughter Madeira plays on the board while he directs students to evaluate and discuss the qualities of the various types of surf-boards. Masterson holds up a purple Dick Brewer single-fin, shaped for him in 2008 off of a template from the 1970s. “Surfers believe in the magic surfboard: the board that’s right for you and the way you want to express yourself on a wave,” he says.

The hundreds of surfboards in Masterson’s collection offer students an opportunity to evaluate and discuss the qualities of a variety of designs.

Back at Rainbows, we sit bobbing in the water, aligned with rock formations that, according to legend, represent ancient spirits. “I feel humbled to be among the deities of this place,” Masterson says. “I came to these studies as a surfer, but I came out of it as a cultural practitioner.” We take in the folded cliffs and watch ‘iwa soar on invisible thermals. “This wasn’t some fringe sport, or something people did when they should have been working,” Masterson tells me between waves. “The real story of surfing, of the act as a traditional cultural activity on the boundary of culture and nature, is so beautiful. Surfing means a lot of things to a lot of people. But if you celebrate the sport, you must know that it’s embedded in a living culture, in a living people.”HH

Story by Sonny Ganaden. Photos by Dana Edmunds