In a small town just north of San Francisco, Ca, this pair of canoe paddles were discovered in the attic at an estate sale. At first glance in the darkness, I looked right past them because they appeared to be nothing more than old, wooden poles among the brooms and mops, and... old wooden poles in that corner. But looking down my eye caught the form of a canoe paddle with something written on the blade. I pulled them out of the pile and took them to the light. Both read: Hui Nalu.
Being an art, Native American artifacts & antiques dealer in California for 35 years, I am somewhat familiar with Hawaiian items and I recognized the language, approximate age, and most importantly, the untouched surface on the paddles. After paying, I went home to research the name.
What repeatedly came up was a variant of:
Hui Nalu surf club was founded in 1908 by Duke Kahanamoku, Knute Cottrell and Ken Winter at the Moana Hotel in Waikiki.
Also, the Hui Nalu surf club was still going strong in 2016. I spent the next four hours glued to my computer in a crash course of Hawaiian history (and history of surfing), surfboards, Hui Nalu and Duke Kahanamoku. Could these paddles possibly be from the early days of the Hui Nalu surf club?
Where Did The Name Hui Nalu Come From?
I found differing accounts of exactly where the name Hui Nalu originated.
“...when all were in a dilemma over finding one (name) that would challenge the already-organized Healanis and Myrtles. Sitting on their boards off Waikiki one afternoon waiting for a rideable swell, Duke pointed seaward and said “The name of our club is out there. The swells coming in, spill into a hui (gathering). And nalu (surf) is what we ride. See? Add them up and you get Hui Nalu, The Surf Club.”
Ben Marcus 2013, Surfing USA
“The idea for Hui Nalu originated in front of the Moana bathhouse. Waikikians Duke Kahanmoku, Knute Cottrell, and Kenneth Winter were sitting under a hau tree, trying to think of a name for their new club. The men suddenly noticed an enormous wave, and when Kenneth shouted “Nalu,” the three simultaneously cried out, “Hui Nalu! The “Club of the Waves”
Dan Cisco, Hawai_i Sports 1999
I thought the best way to go forward would be through the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, so I sent in a query. I quickly received replies from the museum staff who set me straight about the type of paddles I have. I had thought they were outrigger canoe paddles but learned they were more likely river canoe paddles given the form and the copper blade guards. I believe someone from the museum suggested that I put an official request for information that could be presented to the elder Hui Nalu members, which I did.
What I can add to that is that the paddles are skillfully hand carved from solid planks of wood, and retain the (most likely) untouched varnish surface. What I thought were stencils saying Hui Nalu applied to each, were actually hand painted on each blade in a gold/coppery paint. No stencil was involved. Under a loupe you can see the brush strokes. They are two different sizes, approximately 65” and 62” and the wood is a hardwood. I took them to a friend who builds custom acoustic guitars and he handed me a partially worked plank of maple (which he feels is close) and said “your paddles feel a bit lighter and they could be maple.” In the antiques world, I have handled a number of antique maple items and these look like 100 year old maple that has been in a barn/attic in a constant daily heating/cooling cycle that affected, most visibly, the varnish surface. I am quite confident on the age of the paddles but as to why approximately 100 years ago someone would paint Hui Nalu on each paddle, I don’t know.
One of the most interesting responses I received from my initial queries came from the historian of the Bishop Museum, DeSoto Brown who replied:
“One coworker suggested that these look more like paddles used for North American canoes in lakes and rivers, and the metal edging along the bottom suggested protection from striking rocks in shallow waters. Hawaiian canoe paddles traditionally have not used metal this way, and still don’t.
But certainly these are connected in some way to the local watersports club, with the Hui Nalu name on them. The oldest Hui Nalu logo that I’m familiar with is a circle with a surfer on a wave, which isn’t present on these paddles. But the obvious age of these makes me think they could date from when the club was founded in the early 1900s.”
Where To Go From Here
At this point, the hunt is on to find answers as to why these paddles exist, and that is the reason for this website. I want to research them and see where it leads.
For now, I have the paddles in safe storage and look forward to any input this website might unearth. If they are Hawaiian cultural objects related to the early days of the Hui Nalu club, they will then find the proper home.
When doing research, sometimes the smallest, most insignificant bits of information yield great advances. Maybe the answer is to be found in early family photo albums or diaries recording daily life, letters, or Hawaii-specific events like pageants or parades. Possibly the Kahanamoku, Cottrell and Winter families might have heard of these paddles in their past. A bit off the wall, but it is possible, seeing that The Duke acted in some early movies, that they were movie props. I’m open to any explanation! Thank you to all who have commented thus far. I sincerely appreciate any thoughts or information any of you may have. Please feel free to leave a comment.