February 14 is most commonly associated with Valentine’s Day… or the day in which lovers declare their devotion to the special person in their life. To most of the population February 14 means red roses, chocolates and the baring of one’s soul to a secret beloved. To true sports lovers, however, February 14 is not a day of celebration, but it is a day of remembrance and mourning. February 14 commemorates the day the world’s first surf journalist, James Cook, lodged his last report when he and four of his fellow reporters were killed by enraged locals at Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii.
Early surf reports
Without getting into the details or participating in any discussions on the rights and wrongs of his untimely demise (academics and historians are still arguing over this stuff, hundreds of years later) as an alternative to the soppy crap we will be served up on the internet, on television and on the radio about Valentines Day, its interesting to reflect upon those early surf reports by Cook and his crew and the impact that they must have had on English readers who couldn’t even dog paddle let alone surf, back then, and limited their sport to a spot of cricket or the hunting of unfortunate English countryside wildlife.
Two years before Cook sailed his ship, the Discovery, into Kealakekua Bay to meet his date with destiny, he and his men had been exploring the Society Islands (Tahiti). One morning, while his crew were trading metal tools and goods for provisions with local Tahitians on the beach, Cook and one of his officers, Lieutenant James King, took a stroll around a nearby headland. While they were admiring the beautiful lagoon surrounded by a coral reef, Cook spotted something that sparked the following conversation.
James Cook: Hey, check that out. What the fuck? Quick Kingy, grab your gun. There is some bastard trying to nick something from one of the ships and he’s making a run for it in a canoe!
Lieutenant King: Nah, Jim. Chill. He’s just “surfing”, mate. That’s what these Tahitians do. See. He’s not trying to get away. He catches the wave out near the reef, rides it to the beach… then paddles back out to the reef to catch another one. That’s nothing. He’s just riding a goat boat. Wait until you see the locals doing it standing up on a board.
James Cook: You’re taking the piss? Standing up? Bollocks!
Lieutenant King: Freakin’ brilliant isn’t it. Should make a good story in your next journal entry. The punters in London will love it.
James Cook: Mate, they won’t believe it. Ninety-nine percent of us Brits would be grovelling on the beach begging for freebies and here is this bloke not giving a tinker’s cuss about the trinkets being offered on the beach. He just wants to be… what did you call it… “surfing”?
That night Cook logged (in his journal) the world’s first known surf report and became the world’s first surf journalist. Here is part of his report.
“He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He then sat motionless and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach. Then he started out, emptied his canoe, and went in search of another swell. I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea; especially as, though the tents and ships were so near, he did not seem in the least to envy or even to take any notice of the crowds of his countrymen collected to view them as objects which were rare and curious.”
Cook never did take up the sport that he obviously admired so much. Most likely he couldn’t swim so surfing might have been a bit out of his reach. Despite his admiration for the Tahitian surfers, and the Hawaiian surfers that he came to know on his next voyage, it didn’t stop him from finding a way to cause serious offence to the Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians) resulting in him ending up bobbing up and down, face down, in the beautiful and calm waters of Kealakekua Bay, with a spear in his back. Sad day! February 14, 1779 saw Captain James Cook log his last report from the Pacific Islands.
Kingy takes up the cause
The death of the intrepid (but culturally clumsy) explorer, on Valentine’s Day, did not end the tradition of enthusiastic surf reporting that he started. The cudgel was taken up by none other than his good mate Lieutenant James King. Kingy went on to describe Hawaiian surfers, surfing spots, surfboards, surfing traditions and rituals in his own journal titled, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Vol III. His own admiration and envy of the skill and courage of Hawaiian surfers from the point of view of a milky-skinned limey who could barely dog-paddle the width of a Berkshire duck pond could not be more obvious when he said “the boldness and address, with which we saw them perform these difﬁcult and dangerous manoeuvres was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited”.
Cooky and Kingy may not have exactly set the world on fire with their unique brand of cultural insensitivity but at least, on February 14, we can remember them for their contribution to the fine art of surfing journalism and publishing. Where would Tim Baker, Alby Falzon, John Witzig, Reggae Ellis, Phil Jarrett, Sean Doherty and Doug Lees be today without their pioneering efforts.
Happy Valentine’s Day!