Native Affairs Summer Series - Ancient Māori surfing

By Wepiha Te Kanawa

When we think surfing origins, Hawaiʻi frequently springs to mind and surfing royalty like King Kamehamehaa. But, we’re often unaware that Māori were surfing here several hundred years ago and that we had our own wave riding rangatira. That’s according to one Māori surfing specialist.

Jhan Gavala has turned his love for the ocean into a PhD research project about ancient Māori surfing. He believes Māori surfing began nearly 700 years ago in Taranaki.

“I think this [Taranaki] is a really important place for Māori surfing, [for] the orgins of Māori surfing here in Aotearoa”, says Gavala.

His research has uncovered accounts of early Māori leaders who were distinguished surfers.

“From what I found to date, he says, “written by Pākehā, in the Pākehā journals, talking about our Māori ancestors, one particular figure who's been noted as one of our early surfers is Te Rangituataka from Ngāti Maniapoto.”  

Gavala says the journals recognise that the Maniapoto chief, his brothers and whanaunga were renowned Māori surf riders in the 1800s.

According to the surfing expert, there are different historical descriptions of how ancient Māori were surfing the waves, ranging from what Gavala believes may have been waka hourua (double-hulled canoe) and waka kōpapa (simple hollowed-out log canoe) to reports of Ngāpuhi surfers riding a board called a moki.

He says he’s also found some Māori were surfing using hue, or gourds.

“The Māori would scoop them underneath their underarms and they would surf face forward, just like you would be body surfing, on the waves,” says Gavala.

His next project is to recreate ancient Māori boards from a variety of native plants. He hopes to trial them at this year’s Māori Surfing Nationals.