“Women on Waves”: Chatting with Author Jim Kempton on His Cool New Surf Book
The oldest known papa he'e nalu, or surfboard, was found inside the burial cave of Hawaiian Princess Kaneamuna on Hawaii Island ("The Big Island"). The torch of modern surfing was kept alive by Princess Ka'iulani until its global revival at the turn of the century. And today, the legacy of princesses and queens continues, with the number of women surfing more than tripling since the 1970s.
These are just a peek at the stories in “Women on Waves” by author and former Surf Magazine managing editor Jim Kempton. Over 450 pages, the book is both a treatise and tribute to the women who have made the sport—and culture—what it is today.
We chatted with Jim at Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort about the new book, how he got his start in surfing, and the cosmic magic of this captivating sport.
The History of (Women’s) Surfing
Women on Waves” stemmed in part from an exhibit the California Surf Museum did a dozen or so years ago, where Jim is president. That research gave him a great skeleton from which to build. And the rest is, well, history.
Even then I realized if you’re writing the history of women’s surfing, you’re writing the history of surfing,” Jim says. “Because the earliest pictures they have of surfing are of women in Hawaii. And the oldest surfboard that they know of was found in a tomb owned by a princess in Hawaii, and that dates to about 1640.
Queens and Revolutionaries
From the first wave-riding queens and princesses of ancient Hawaii, to the goddesses of Hawaiian mythology, to the women making waves in the sport today the book is a fascinating peek inside not just surfing but the culture.
I talk about Princess Ka'iulani, who was the heir to the throne when the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown, and she continued to surf throughout her entire life when surfing was kind of being pushed away and subdued because it looked like way too much fun and people did it naked ...," Jim says. "So my statement is she was the one who kept surfing alive, kept that torch burning until Duke Kahanamoku and the Beach/ boys sort of revived it at the turn of the century.
The revolutionary women highlighted span beyond the beginnings of the sport to today, from Agatha Christie in the 1920s, to "Aunty Rell" Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn in the 1950s, to modern-day favorites like first Olympic surf gold medalist (and Surfer in Residence) Carissa Moore and two-time longboard champ Kelia Moniz.
The Second Wave of Surf
Now earning the unofficial moniker “surf historian,” Jim got his start as associate editor at Surf Magazine where he went on to became editor and then publisher.
Surfing [magazine] was in my era considered sort of the bible of the sport," says Jim. “It was one of the few publications dedicated only to surfing.
Standing in front of the "Love & Aloha: Surfing in Waikiki" exhibit at Outrigger Waikiki, Jim shares more of what the surf scene was like in 1978 when he started at Surfing magazine.
That was sort of a real transition era,” Jim says. “The twin fins, the tri-fin/three-fin boards/thrusters were just being invented at that time, professional surfing had just started a year or two before so it was a real transitional period that I guess would have been the second modern era of surfing's history. You had the '50s through the '70s which was the embryonic modern period and and then the late '70s onwards."
Jim spent part of his childhood on Guam and has been a surfer himself since he convinced his parents to buy him a board after seeing the movie "Gidget" when he was just 8 years old.
“After I saw that movie I didn't wanna be a cowboy, didn't wanna be a detective, didn't wanna be a fireman, didn't wanna be an astronaut. All I wanted to do was be a surfer."
Now Jim estimates that he’s surfed in 30 or 40 countries and spends a lot of time in his favorite spot: Trestles in Southern California where he lives. He also loves iconic surf destinations like France and Indonesia, and when asked what has been part of his lifetime draw to the sport, he shares a beautiful perspective.
I have this theory that all energy moves in waves—all energy in the universe: light waves, heat waves, sound waves, X-rays. But the only place that we know of that human beings actually experience that energy is when they’re riding a wave in the ocean ... I’m not a cosmic person, but it’s kind of a cosmic experience," he says.
You can immerse yourself in the best of surf culture with "Women on Waves" available at Surf n Sea, Billabong and Roxy stores, and online booksellers. And come experience both the history and modern excitement of the birthplace of surfing for yourself at the storied Outrigger Waikiki—which, as Jim says, might be the most iconic hotel in all the islands—for a weekend surf getaway (or weeklong adventure for even more surf).