About 150 years ago, a young writer named Mark Twain was journeying down the Kona coast of Hawai‘i Island by outrigger canoe when he first witnessed surfing. “We came upon a large company of naked natives of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing,” he wrote. “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!” When Twain himself tried surf-bathing, “I got the board placed right, and at the right moment,” he wrote, “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.”
Twain’s description—one of the earliest accounts of surfing—was published in the Sacramento Union in 1866 alongside two illustrations: The first, captioned “Surf-Bathing—Success,” features three wāhine riding waves, while the second depicts a man, possibly Twain himself, wiping out. The caption: “Surf-Bathing—Failure.”
With that paragraph, a map and other details from Twain’s 1872 travelog Roughing It, I’ve set out to find and surf Twain’s wave. A local surfer (who requested anonymity, as if revealing the location were akin to giving away state secrets) helps me narrow it down to two spots. The first requires a northwest winter swell, but I’m here in summer (as was Twain). The other, a tricky point wave, works this time of year.
I drive and turn down a black lava road so potholed and barbed that the five mph speed limit seems more a dare than a warning. At the coast a cluster of sea-worn homes are bedecked with no-trespassing and beware-of-dog signs. From his canoe, Twain had watched the surf “dashing angrily against the crag-bound shore and sending a foaming spray high into the air.” While this wave is hardly dashing, his description of the spot fits.
I paddle out, but I have my doubts. The wave is breaking onto a rock shelf that sticks a foot out of the water. Maybe this isn’t where Twain surfed, I think, snagging a fin on shallow reef. A wipeout here would involve far worse than ingesting “barrels of water.”
A wave lifts, and I surf it to the shelf. On my return to the peak, I spot a shadow under the surface. I’ve always had a pact with sharks: I don’t eat you; you return the favor. But a few months ago at a restaurant, my wife suggested I order the chef’s recommendation: shark burger. “Just do it,” she exhorted. I listened then, but now I regret it. The shadow charges through the wave, and I turn and paddle with everything I’ve got. The wave tosses me, and I crash onto the rock shelf, into a field of urchins. And I break another fin.
“That’s the resident tiger shark,” my surfer friend tells me later. According to legend, he says, a shark took human form and visited the people of Hawai‘i Island. The shark saw how they respected the sea, so before he returned to the ocean, he promised to protect them by forever patrolling the area. Perhaps I’d met that benevolent creature. Or maybe it was the Great Shark God of which Twain wrote: “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.”
Legend, deity or rank-and-file shark, who knows? I can’t even say whether the wave I surfed really was Twain’s. What I do know is that I caught only one wave, returned with only one fin and can call the experience only one thing: surf-bathing—failure. HH