Fifty years ago the Waikiki beach boys were the suntanned demigods of Honolulu’s palm-fringed shores. After the first major resort — the Moana Hotel, now the Moana Surfrider — opened in 1901, organized beach service began on Waikiki. The beach boys came to act as instructors, lifeguards and entertainers, spreading the gospel of surfing to dreamy-eyed tourists of all ages.
They also pioneered the art of stand-up paddleboarding — also known as stand-up paddle surfing or beach-boy surfing — now all the rage among fitness enthusiasts and practiced from Cape Cod to Cape Town.
In San Francisco, where I live and surf, there’s almost always a stand-up paddleboarder in the lineup on any given morning. On days when there aren’t many waves, I envy the cruise-y ease of the paddleboarder as he maneuvers through flat water, getting exercise all the while. On a recent trip to Honolulu I decided to try stand-up paddleboarding in its birthplace.
First, I sought inspiration in the archives of the venerable Bishop Museum, founded in 1889 in honor of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family. The museum has a renowned collection of natural and cultural artifacts from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. Surfboards were once exclusively the province of royalty; the museum’s holdings include 19th-century wooden boards that belonged to chiefs and princesses, as well as other models that were used by the legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku and first introduced at Waikiki.
The Waikiki beach boys began using outrigger canoe paddles with surfboards in the 1960s, as a way to keep an eye on their tourist charges and to get better pictures as the beginners made their first attempts at wave riding. Ask locals about stand-up paddleboarding, and many will reminisce about the first time they saw someone do it.
“I remember this one guy, he wore a construction helmet and had a cigar clamped in his teeth,” Charles Myers, an archivist at the Bishop Museum, told me as he brought out vintage black-and-white photos of Waikiki. “He used a paddle and stood up on this big, floaty tandem board to see above the water when he was teaching people to surf.”
As I examined photographs of fit young men surfing, swimming and paddling canoes — and even giving ukulele lessons to women on the beach — I thought of the tradition of the “waterman,” the athletic and aesthetic ideal to which ancient Hawaiian men aspired. The beach boys, the modern epitome of watermen, found joy in every kind of water sport and helped to popularize surfing as we know it.
One of the most famous was George Freeth, an accomplished swimmer and lifeguard who was the subject of a profile by Jack London in 1907. Freeth, who moved to California and became known as a pioneer of modern surfing, was awarded a Congressional medal for rescuing several fishermen during a treacherous storm in 1908.
What began as a matter of practicality for the beach boys started popping up in its modern form as a full-fledged sport in the past 5 to 10 years; there are now stand-up paddleboarding competitions all over the world, from flat-water races on rivers and lakes to big-wave ocean contests. Since the boards are large and stable in flat water, they are easy to use.
Hotels around Honolulu have capitalized on the craze; many now offer stand-up paddleboarding lessons. For my maiden voyage I ventured into the calm turquoise lagoon at the Kahala Hotel & Resort, which looks out at the Diamond Head and Koko Head craters.
The afternoon sun glinted off the water as I stood uncertainly in the warm shallows with the relevant equipment — thick 10-foot board, long, angled paddle — I’d just rented from Kahala’s beach shack. The attendant reassured me that there was nothing to it.
“Hop on the board, start on your knees and try paddling from that stance first,” he instructed, mimicking the motions as he talked. “Keep the flat of the paddle to the back when you stroke. Then try standing up, keeping your weight to the center of the board and legs slightly apart.” He paused. “That’s it.”
Oh, and one last bit of advice.
“You might want to stay away from the waves for now,” he called as I began to paddle away. “And fall shallow!”
The paddling part was easy. As I skimmed across the water, I noted how clear it was: I could see fish, seaweed-covered rocks and the wide expanse of white sand before it met the coral bank offshore. I wanted to see even more. So I tried, gingerly at first, to stand, laying the paddle across the board for stability. With a few wobbles, I was up, sea legs found.
And then I was off, cruising around the lagoon, doing laps up and back along the beach and into the next cove. I peered into little tide pools full of fish, and at the endless horizon on one side and the sandy coastline on the other. I saw sunbathers and children playing on the beach, and a wedding party posing for photos at the country club. I followed watercraft with my eyes as they sped out to sea, and traced the contrails of airplanes as they flew overhead.
There was no route to follow; I had the freedom with the board and paddle to meander around. Unlike a regular surf session, paddleboarding didn’t have me constantly hunting for waves, and I felt a larger appreciation for this newfound perspective. It’s possible to see a lot and venture far into the water without having to know how to surf. And the “anyone can do it” maxim really does hold true here. I watched a father and his young daughter push off from the beach on a single board, the girl with a child-size paddle in hand. As we cruised by each other, we exchanged gleeful waves and grins.
In sum, it was a quiet and meditative experience, and also one heck of a workout. Once I hopped off the board on shore, I was startled to find that my legs were totally spent. With all there was to see, I hadn’t even noticed that they — along with every other muscle in my body — were working all the while to keep me in balance.
The next day I headed to Waikiki, where it all began. The surf shacks up and down the beach were busy with customers itching to make their “Gidget”/“Riding Giants”/Laird Hamilton dreams a reality. With my sore muscles from the previous day’s exertions, I decided to change it up and rent a regular longboard.
As I chatted with a beach boy and set about getting my board waxed up, a 20-something man walked by. But even in Waikiki, where the tourists were out in force on the gently rolling waves, it turned out he wasn’t interested in a regular surfboard.
“Hey, you guys rent stand-up paddleboards?” he asked.
IF YOU GO
The Bishop Museum (1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu; 808-847-3511; www.bishopmuseum.org; adult admission $17.95) is open Wednesday to Monday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The historic Hawaiian Hall, which underwent an approximately $20 million restoration and recently reopened to the public, is a must-see.
Ten minutes from Waikiki, the Kahala Hotel & Resort (5000 Kahala Ave., Honolulu; 800-367-2525; www.kahalaresort.com; doubles from $415) has 338 Art Deco-style rooms and an expansive 800-foot white-sand beach. The tranquil waters in front of the resort are protected by a reef and are ideal for beginners to stand-up paddleboarding; rentals are $30 an hour.
The Waikiki beach boys — those “perpetual adolescents of the ocean, the playboys of the Pacific,” as James Michener called them — are still working the waters with Waikiki Beach Services (808-542-0608; www.waikikibeachservices.com). Stand-up paddleboard lessons are $50 an hour and rentals are $30 an hour.