The Not-So-Ancient Practice of Memorial Paddle-Outs

The memorial paddle-out for fallen Newport Beach Lifeguard, Ben Carlson. Photo: Tom Cozad

The traditional memorial paddle-out, a time-honored tradition celebrating the life of a surfer that has passed away. But where did this tradition come from?

Nostalgists may claim that it’s a derivative of an ancient Hawaiian practice, but historians say that it’s much more modern.

First, a quick dive into Polynesian history. It’s currently believed that the Hawaiian island chain was settled somewhere between 1000-1100 CE.

Early Hawaiians’ religious traditions were tied to the concept of mana. Think of it kind of like the “Force” in Star Wars. Everything has mana and your actions directly affect your mana.

From the sand, to the tip of the pier, the crowd was there to pay their respects to Newport Beach Lifeguard, Ben Carlson. Photo: Tom Cozad

According to anthropological research, Hawaiians had 10 different ways of disposing of the remains of the deceased. A few of the more routinely practiced ones included:

– Cremation: Typically considered a form of punishment (this is important later in the story).
– Sea/Freshwater Disposal: Applicable only if the deceased’s guardian spirit was a sea creature (again, worth noting for this story).
– Cave Disposal: Being left high and dry in a secret cave
– Monument Construction: Reserved for island VIPs.
– Sand and Earth Burial: One of the more common methods utilized by the peasant class.
Heiau: Usually the site of religious sacrifices.

The research does not indicate that Hawaiians paddled out to sea, joined hands in a big circle and spread the deceased’s ashes. Almost all ceremonies happened on land. As noted above, only if you were some kind of bad dude were your remains cremated. And your spirit animal had to be some kind of fish or whale or dolphin for you to be deposited back into the sea.

The Andy Irons paddle-out in Huntington Beach. Photo: Tom Cozad

When the European missionaries dropped in on the Hawaiians in the 1820s they did their damnedest to stamp out most of the indigenous customs. Had it not been for a dedicated crew of revivalists in the late 1800s to early 1900s (affectionately referred to as “Beach Boys”) even surfing – “the sport of kings” – might have been lost to the ages.

Not only are the Waikiki Beach Boys – paramount among them Duke Kahanamoku – responsible for re-introducing to the world to wave riding, but it’s largely believed that they created the concept of the memorial paddle-out.

The concept is simple enough. Friends, family and well-wishers gather on the shore with their boards and the cremated remains of their loved one. The remains are paddled out to sea, where everyone joins hands in a circle. A memorial is given, then the ashes are set free in the water. At this time everyone throws flowers and leis into the circle and splashes water up to the heavens.

Surfline founder Sean Collins’ memorial paddle-out, southside of the Huntington Beach Pier. Photo: Tom Cozad

Early Hawaiian waterman Wally Froiseth recounted that the first one he participated in was back in 1926, when he was six years old.

“I don’t know of any place that did it before Waikiki,” Froiseth told The New York Times in a 2010 story about the paddle out for three-time world champion Andy Irons. Ninety years old at the time of the story, Froiseth passed away in 2015.

Andy Irons’ memorial paddle-out. Southside Huntington Beach Pier. Photo: Tom Cozad

Over the years there have been some massive paddle outs, including the 1968 service in Waikiki for Kahanamoku, presided over by Reverend Abraham Akaka.

“Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was a man of aloha. God gave him to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give him back from whence he came,” said Akaka.

Iconic Hawaiian lifeguard Eddie Aikau’s paddle-out at Waimea Bay in 1978, musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s service at Makaha in ’97 and Irons’ in both Huntington Beach and on Kauai in 2010 are also among some of the most well-attended paddle-out services and serve as prime examples of the spiritual power of the practice.

A massive crowd of surfers paddled out to pay tribute to Andy Irons in Huntington Beach. Photo: Tom Cozad

The concept of the memorial paddle-out may not be directly derived from the ancient Hawaiians, but it was definitely born on the Islands.

Nearly one hundred years since the early surfers of the modern era came up with the idea, the paddle-out remains a key component in the rich tapestry that is today’s surf culture.

These paddle-outs are such an honor to be a part of. Ben Carlson paddle out in Newport Beach. Photo: Tom Cozad

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