Mark TwainPreparing to visit Hawaii for the first time a decade ago, I read Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii, a collection of the Sacramento Union writer’s dispatches in 1866 from what were then known as the Sandwich Islands.

Twain’s letters are an enthralling portrait of Hawaii in those days. He documents sugar operations, native customs, earnest missionaries, natural landscapes, maritime tragedies, venerable lore, and local politics. He is awestruck by an eruption of the volcano Kilauea.

The letters are marvelous reading for anyone with a love for Hawaii, which must be anyone who has ever been there. Twain was 30 years old when he visited, and he dreamed for the rest of his life of returning. He only got close enough to see Diamond Head once from a steamer’s deck.


Lately, I have been reading Roughing It, Twain’s chronicle of his travels west from St. Louis in a stagecoach, to the silver mining boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada, to San Francisco, and ultimately to Hawaii. This bigger volume includes a much shorter version of his Hawaiian escapades at the end.

Turning a page, my eyes met a passage that I do not remember reading before. Flipping through Letters from Hawaii, I do not find it now.

Surfing Hawaii: Surfers on surfboards in Honolua Bay, Maui
It is astonishing: Mark Twain tried surfing!

Here it is:

In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.

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