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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

Surf Riding — Whakahekeheke. Whakaheke ngaru.

Surf Riding

Whakahekeheke. Whakaheke ngaru.

This form of recreation was a common practice throughout Polynesia, and one much indulged in, more so in the warm northern climes than in New Zealand. On our own shores three forms were practised, viz., with and without a board, and also in small canoes termed kopapa, a name which seems properly to belong to the surf board. This board appears to have been called a moki in the north, a name also applied to rude floats formerly used in crossing rivers. The following notes on surf riding were contributed by the late Tuta Nihoniho, of the East Coast: The sport of surf riding seems to have been often called kopapa on the East Coast of the North Island, a name taken from the item used to ride on, whether canoe or plank. The canoe used for surf riding, and styled a kopapa, was a small one, of which more anon. The board, or piece of plank (also page 43termed a kopapa) so often used in this sport was about three feet long. Having gone out as far as necessary for the purpose, the performer threw himself lengthways on his board with his two hands grasping the front end thereof, just as a large, healthy wave overtook him. On this wave the rider was shot ashore to be left on the sandy beach by the receding wave, whereupon he would go out again to ride another in. This sport was indulged in by both youths and adults, including females, and one might see thirty or forty riders coming in together on a big wave. Sometimes a performer dispensed with the board and rode in on the wave with his arms stretched out before him.

Fig. 6 Surf-riding in Polynesia; after Ellis. See p. 42 Miss E. Richardson

The term kopapa is also applied to surf riding in small canoes which contained two, or perhaps three, persons. These small craft were taken out seaward for some distance, and then, as a big wave approached, the men paddled strongly shoreward, the advancing wave lifting the canoe and carrying it swiftly to the beach. It is not allowed to mount the crest of the wave, or the small craft would probably capsize; it is kept in front of the crest, riding the breast of page 44the wave, hence the stern is higher than the bow. One person always steers the canoe. Should the bow swerve off the course, the man at the bow endeavours, with his paddle, to bring her head round again, and, if the steerer sees that the bow paddle cannot effect this, then he jumps overboard and holds on to the stern. With this drag at the stern, the bow paddle will now succeed in bringing her head round, and in holding it so. This surf riding, in its three forms, sometimes termed whakarerere, was a common pastime on the East Coast in summer time, in former days. Tuta Nihoniho remarks that the last time he indulged in this sport, he and two companions were being swept in shoreward in grand style, with the bow of the canoe well down and its stern high on the swelling front of a big wave, when its bow struck an unseen rock, with amazing and instantaneous results. The bow was smashed up, the rushing wave caught the canoe, hurled the stern upwards, and completely over, end for end. Meanwhile diverse members, to wit three, of the descendants of Porou, were flying through space, and vaguely wondering what had hit them, and what part of New Zealand they were going to drop on.

In Vol. Xxxii. of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, p. 35, Mr. W. H. Skinner has given us an interesting account of surf riding in small canoes, as witnessed by him at Mokau in 1884.

The surf board used by the Hawaiians, is according to Ellis, generally five or six feet long, rather more than a foot wide, sometimes flat, but more frequently slightly convex on both sides. He remarks:—"The greatest address is necessary in order to keep on the edge of the wave; for if they get too far forward, they are sure to be overturned, and if they fall back, they are buried beneath the succeeding billow."

The same writer gives an account of surf riding as practised at Tahiti, where it is called fa'ahe'e (Maori whakaheke) and horue, a word which recalls Maori horua, a toboggan sled, the holua of the Hawaiian or Sandwich Isles. Surf riding was also practised at Tonga, Samoa, and many other islands.

In his "Melanesians and Polynesians" the Rev. G. Brown remarks as follows concerning Samoan surf swimmers:—"They were very proud of the fact that they never use a surf board in those dangerous breakers. They kept themselves on the crest of the wave by a backward or forward movement of their hands."

The Maori ever strove to so train children that they would have no fear of the water, he encouraged them to practise all forms of aquatic excercises. It was stated many years ago by an old Maori that certain folk tales and myths, such as that concerning Hine-popo page 45and her marvellous feat in swimming from Kapiti across Raukawa (Cook Strait), were invented and related to young folks in order that they might feel no fear of the water.

Many remarks were made by early voyagers in the Pacific on the swimming powers of Polynesians, and, in later times, natives captured by slavers have been known to leap overboard, when far out of sight of their island home, and start to swim back to it. Commodore Byron remarked on the apparent ease with which natives swam ashore from his vessel without using their arms for that purpose, but to hold out of the water certain presents they had received. M. Labillardiere, historian of the D'Entrecasteaux expedition, describes the swimming of a native at Tongatapu, as seen in 1793:— "We admired the facility with which he executed all his movements. He swam constantly on the belly, his neck being entirely out of water, and making very short strokes with his left hand, which he kept constantly before him, while he gave a great spread to his right hand, which he carried to the thigh on the same side at every stroke. The body was at the same time a little inclined to the left, which increased the rapidity with which it cut the water. I never saw a European swim with such confidence, or with such speed."