Hawaii has long been recognized as the capital of surfing. Accounts written by Europeans who visited the Hawaiian Islands in the late 18th century described this pastime, which, like many aspects of Hawaiian society, was significantly stratified. Hawaii’s royalty enjoyed long boards made of wiliwili trees—as well as priority on waves. Commoners’ boards were made of koa wood. If a commoner dropped in on one of the alii—or stole a wave—it was a serious violation, punishable by death.
Given this long history—and the plethora of surf breaks in Hawaii—it’s no surprise that the state turns out a considerable number of talented surfers, some of whom have become household names.
Let us introduce you to some of the most famous surfers who were born in Hawaii—as well as some not-so-familiar ones whose names you should know.
Born: Honolulu, Oahu
Often called “the father of modern surfing,” Duke Kahanamoku first came to prominence during the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, where he won gold in the 100-meter freestyle and silver in the 4×200 relay. As he traveled around the world giving surfing demonstrations, he introduced the sport to the world. Kahanamoku held many different roles during his lifetime: legendary waterman, sheriff of Honolulu, Hollywood actor, Hawaii’s Ambassador of Aloha, husband, and father. You can see the statue honoring his legacy in the heart of Waikiki today, where it’s often adorned with fresh lei.
Born: Makaha, Oahu
If you don’t know Rell Sunn’s name, you should. Sunn was a pioneering female surfer from Makaha who fearlessly paddled out into the largely male-dominated lineup as surfers flocked to Oahu in the ’50s. (By the way, Sunn was assuming her rightful role in a longstanding Hawaiian cultural tradition; accounts reveal that many Hawaiian women, including Queen Kaahumanu, wife of Kamehameha the Great, surfed. ) Sunn was also an early advocate for equal pay and equal say for female surfers, and she helped to establish the Women’s Professional Surfing Association. Sunn passed away in 1998 from complications due to breast cancer. However, she is still remembered for her style and grace in the water, which are still a common topic of conversation in many Oahu lineups.
Born: Kahului, Maui
Today, Eddie Aikau is probably best known for the big wave invitational that bears his name. Many also know Aikau for his incredible bravery in the ocean, which eventually cost him his life. Aikau was present on the 1978 voyage of the Hokulea, the traditional double-hulled canoe headed back to the Tahitian Islands with the goal of tracing the ancient route of the Polynesian migration. The vessel capsized 12 miles south of Molokai. Aikau hopped on his surfboard and attempted to paddle to Lanai for help. The Coast Guard saved the rest of the crew, but Aikau was never seen again, despite an extensive search.
As a lifeguard, Aikau saved more than 500 lives on Oahu’s North Shore. As a surfer, he was renowned for his bravery in big surf, and he was one of the first native Hawaiians to win the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surfing Championship. He is formally honored each time the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational is held, and his legacy is continued by the Eddie Aikau Foundation, which promotes education and the advancement of Hawaiian culture.
Andy Irons & Bruce Irons
Born: Lihue, Kauai
In a field that’s been largely dominated by 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, there’s really only one surfer who managed to give Slater a run for his money in his prime: Andy Irons. Along with his brother, Bruce, the two are among the most famous surfers to come out of Kauai—which is saying something, as you’ll see from this list.
The 2018 film Kissed by God offers a telling glimpse into the tragic end of Andy Irons’ life and celebrates the impact he had on surfing, as well as his friends and family, especially his brother, Bruce:
Born: Lihue, Kauai
Speaking of stand-out surfers from Kauai, Bethany Hamilton certainly qualifies. After surfing in her first contest at eight years old, Hamilton scored her first sponsorship two years later. Hamilton is probably best known for the shark attack she suffered at the age of 13, in which she lost her left arm. After her recovery, Hamilton adapted her surfing style and returned to the sport to win a national title in 2005. If you want to know more about Hamilton’s extraordinary comeback, check out the 2011 movie Soul Surfer, which was based on Hamilton’s life.
Born: Honolulu, HI
A five-time World Champion and first-ever winner of the Olympic gold medal in women’s surfing, Carissa Moore is one of the most dominant names in women’s surfing right now. She started surfing at the tender age of five on the beaches of Waikiki. Moore won the Reef Hawaiian Pro at the age of 16 to become the youngest champion of a Triple Crown of Surfing event. Moore’s five titles put her within striking range of seven-time champ Layne Beachley and eight-time champ Stephanie Gilmore, two of the greatest female surfers in recent times.
Born: Honolulu, HI
You might know Gerry Lopez as “Mr. Pipeline,” the man with the most outrageously relaxed stance on one of the most intense waves in the world. Or, you might know Lopez as an influential surfboard shaper whose Lightning Bolt brand was once one of the most ubiquitous out there. Or, you might know Gerry Lopez as Subotai, friend and ally to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.
But, did you know that Gerry Lopez is also a dedicated yoga practitioner and meditator? Check out these seemingly contradictory sides to Gerry Lopez in the 2021 film, the Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez, directed by Stacy Peralta (Riding Giants, Dogtown and Z-Boys):
Born: Paia, Maui
Following in the footsteps of all-around watermen like Duke Kahanamoku, Eddie Aikau, Laird Hamilton, and Dave Kalama, Kai Lenny has embraced a broad variety of disciplines in the water. He’s skilled enough to pull off a giant air maneuver while surfing Peahi, Maui’s big wave, but he’s curious enough to try windsurfing it, too. He’s foiled his way around the world on all kinds of waves and in all kinds of conditions. He also won the Molokai to Oahu downwinder, one of the toughest paddle races on the planet. And if you doubt his prowess on a surfboard, he’s got a long list of big wave awards to his name (2019 Men’s XXL Biggest Wave, 2020 Winner of the Tow Challenge, 2021 Red Bull Big Wave Award for Biggest Paddle, 2021 Men’s Performer of the Year). If it can be done on the water, Lenny has done it. And if it hasn’t yet been done, he’s game to try.
From: Hanalei, Kauai
Big wave surfing has not always been the most welcoming discipline for women, but Keala Kennelly has never been one to shy away from the planet’s biggest waves. In fact, she was the female 2018 Big Wave World Champion, the first woman to be towed into the famous Tahitian big wave Teahupoo, and the first woman to be invited to the Eddie Aikau Invitational. Kennelly has also tried her hand at acting, appearing in the movie Blue Crush and the HBO show John from Cincinnati. Kennelly’s most recent passion, though, is her career as an international DJ.
John John Florence
Born: Honolulu, HI
One of only five surfers to win back-to-back world titles, John John Florence has been making a name for himself since the age of 13, when he became the youngest surfer to ever compete in the Vans Triple Crown. A few years later, he became the youngest surfer to win the event. Growing up on Oahu’s North Shore didn’t hurt—and it ultimately gave Florence a level of comfort and familiarity with Pipeline that few others ever experience.
In addition to surfing, one of Florence’s other passions is his sailboat, VELA, a Gunboat 48 that he took on a memorable journey to the Northern Line Islands:
From: Kalapaki, Kauai
After six and a half decades of surfing, there are few people who understand the ocean as well as legendary Kauai surfer Titus Kinimaka. One of 16 children, Kinimaka came from a family with surfing in its blood. Both parents surfed, and Kinimaka learned from his mother. Kinimaka was also a lifeguard who won the Waterman of the Year Award in 1996 from the State of Hawaii Lifeguard Association. A man of many talents, Kinimaka has also worked as a musician and an actor, and he continues to be a fixture on Kauai’s North Shore.
From: Kahuku, Oahu
When you grow up in a house that faces Pipeline, it feels almost inevitable that you’d form a deep connection with the wave—which is just what Jamie O’Brien has done. In fact, he’s won five major surf contests on the wave. However, these days, O’Brien is less focused on competition and more on freesurfing—enjoying the sport on his terms, free from the grind of the World Surf League tour and its rankings. Instead, O’Brien has become a master of the business of surfing, and he runs one of the sport’s most popular vlogs.
Born: Honolulu, HI
When you hear the name “Coco Ho,” you’re likely to hear the phrase “surfing royalty” in close proximity. Ho is the daughter of Michael Ho (winner of the Hawaiian Triple Crown, the Duke Classic, the World Cup, and the 1982 Pipe Masters), the niece of Derek Ho (1993 World Champion), and sister of Mason Ho (HIC Pro winner)—all notable surfers in their own right. (And, yes, if you’re curious, the family is also related to Don Ho; he and Derek are cousins.)
With plenty of wins under her belt, including the 2009 Rookie of the Year award, Ho has easily proven the rightful heir to this surfing dynasty. Ho was featured in the 2020 documentary, She Is the Ocean, the story of nine women who are intimately connected to the water.
Does Everyone Surf in Hawaii?
When you move out here, it might feel like it! You’ll constantly see cars passing by with a board on the roof, sticking out over the back of a truck bed, or even squeezed inside. After all, when you’re this close to the ocean—and a ton of perfect waves—why not get out there and enjoy it?!