Paddle-out: the origins of the surfers memorial circle

June 11, 2020 | Surfing
Paddle-out: the surfers memorial circle celebrates and honors the life and legacy of loved ones who have died | Photo: O'Neill

The paddle-out is a spiritual symbol of surf culture.

It's a traditional Hawaiian tribute to the life and legacy of people who passed away.

In most cases, the paddle-out is a floating memorial held in the ocean, a few yards from the shore, where surfers and other water sports participants honor someone they cherished.

Paddlers often carry flowers and Hawaiian leis on top of their boards and in their teeth to the place where they will celebrate someone's life.

As they arrive at the selected location, surfers join hands, form a human circle, say a few words, chant, and splash the water.

The circle aims to represent the way the ocean brings people together.

In some cases, family and friends of the honoree pour his or her ashes in the water.

There are also paddle-outs held to protest against the construction of buildings and landmarks, the destruction of nearby parks and marine life, oil spills, offshore drilling, and water pollution.

Paddle-out: a symbolic rite of passage that showcases traces of connection and separation, departure, and continuity | Photo: O'Neill

Hawaii''s Ancient Burial Rituals

The exact origins of the memorial paddle-out are not 100 percent clear, with historians diverging on this practice's temporal roots.

The majority believe that the tradition is not as ancient as many of us think it is and could have nothing to do with pre-historical Polynesian rituals.

Anthropological research reveals that Native Hawaiians had around ten different ways of disposing of the remains of the one who departed.

And nearly all were land ceremonies.

Cremation, sea or freshwater disposal, cave disposal, monuments, sand burials, and heiau temple burials were some of the most common funeral practices.

The studies do not indicate that Hawaiians paddled out to sea, joined hands in a big circle, and spread the ashes of the dead.

Only those whose spirit animal was a dolphin, whale or fish would be deposited into the ocean.

So, where did this surfers' tradition come from? Contrary to popular belief, the paddle-out is not an ancient ritual.

Paddle-outs: surfers carry flowers and leis on their surfboards to pay tribute to the fallen | Photo: Shutterstock

The Waikiki Beach Boys

According to most historians, the paddle-out was born in the Hawaiian islands, but only in the 20th-century when the Waikiki beach boys introduced it in Oahu.

The earliest reports of a paddle-out date back to the 1920s.

Legendary surfing pioneer, Wally Froiseth, said one day that he participated in his first paddle-out in 1926 when he was just a six-year-old kid.

"I don't know of any place that did it before Waikiki," Froiseth told the New York Times in 2010.

The ever-growing Hawaiian surfing community started developing the belief that by honoring and saying farewell to their loved ones, the departed would show their presence with a wave passing under the circle of surfers.

The tradition was later exported to mainland America and became a mystical foundation of surfing.

The paddle-out became a regular practice in California in the late 1950s. Every time someone dear to the community died, surfers would take a moment to remember the deceased's life.

The circle represents the way in which the ocean brings people together - it's a coping mechanism for both religious and secular groups.

It is also a sacred, outdoor memorial ceremony for people to be alone with everybody in an introspective reflection.

As a social event, it is also a moment for compassion, solidarity, camaraderie, mourning, and self-analysis.

Paddle-outs: the surfers' floating memorial dates back to the 1920s | Photo: Shutterstock

Paddle-Outs Matter

In 2018, Margaret Gibson and Mardi Frost, researchers at Griffith University's School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, conducted a series of interviews with surfers from both Australia and Hawaii, who had participated in paddle-out ceremonies.

In the paper titled "Surfing and ocean-based death ritual: the paddle-out ceremony," the academics detail the importance of the ritual in surf culture.

"The dead symbolically taken out into the ocean with or without cremains are the central subjects of a ritual that releases or places their spirit into a meaningful biographical space," Gibson and Frost conclude.

"The mourners as surfers are acknowledging and retracing an existing memory-space, which reconnects with the deceased in an immersive mode of embodied existence."

"The paddle-out ritual embraces the temporality of an individual life amongst family, friends, and community within the timelessness and eternity of the ocean."

"It celebrates and acknowledges the human condition of mortality in a nature-based, highly physical, and affective ritual process."

Paddle-out: surfers join hands, form a human circle, say a few words, chant, and splash the water to celebrate someone's life | Photo: Shutterstock

Connection and Separation, Departure and Continuity

The paddle-out is an ocean-based ceremony consisting of a mix of spiritual, metaphysical, and ritual actions that acknowledge, remember and celebrate a fallen peer.

It's a symbolic rite of passage that showcases traces of connection and separation, departure, and continuity.

"It provides a transformational experience of emotional release while also creating and renewing bonds and group solidarity," the Australian researchers note.

The human circle is a key symbolic practice that tightens the community by getting participants face-to-face with each other in a particularly emotional moment in time.

One of the longest-standing paddle-outs takes place every year on the North Shore of Oahu to honor the life of the legendary Hawaiian surfer-lifeguard, Eddie Aikau.

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