Hope you brought your boards for this deep dive into the world of surfing. In the Atlas Obscura archives, we found the Hawaiian princess who saved the sport from extinction, the man who made California’s beaches a more inclusive place, and an intrepid community that turned surfing the Great Lakes in winter into an actual thing.

These Intrepid Surfers Chill Out Riding the Great Lakes’ Wintry Waves

by Eden Arielle Gordon

Icy wind rolls off the shores of Lake Ontario, blowing past rows of pines and naked birches and reeling through the deserted streets of Rochester, New York. Most of the city’s inhabitants are hunkered down in the warmth of their homes, preparing for an imminent storm. Aurelien Bouche-Pillon, however, is preparing to go winter surfing—a frigid sport that is unexpectedly popular among a close-knit community in the Great Lakes region.

Princess Ka‘iulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian Crown, shown here in 1897.
Princess Ka‘iulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian Crown, shown here in 1897. UNKNOWN AUTHOR/PUBLIC DOMAIN/HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

The Tragic Life and Global Legacy of the Last Hawaiian Princess

by Jim Kempton

There is a strong case to be made that Princess Ka‘iulani, the last princess of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, saved surfing from extinction. Hawaiian women, particularly those of royal blood, were noted for their prowess and power on the waves until the late 1800s when Western missionaries tried to eradicate the pastime. But Ka‘iulani continued to ride a long wooden board, a particularly heavy and demanding one at that.

The Legendary Black Surfer Who Challenged Stereotypes

by Anna Kusmer

On June 5, 1951, 24-year-old Nick Gabaldón surfed his last wave in Malibu, California, crashing his board and disappearing into the water. In his short life, Gabaldón made an impact on surfing culture which is still felt today. Credited as being one of the first-documented surfers of African-American and Mexican-American descent, he is remembered as a rebel who challenged the idea of who belongs on California beaches.

Troy Hartman surfs the skies as his cameraman flies by his side.
Troy Hartman surfs the skies as his cameraman flies by his side. Troy Hartman

The Life and Death of Skysurfing

by Tao Tao Holmes

The sport of skysurfing lived a short life. Watching a video of a skydiver surfing through the air today, you’d likely guess that it’s a digitally animated stunt. But there was a time when you could earn a gold medal in the spectacular dangerous sport that one champion likened to wrestling an alligator.

The Dark History of Hawai‘i’s Iconic Hand Gesture

by Sarah Durn

Go to any surfing beach today and you’d be hard-pressed not to find someone throwing a “shaka” hand—thumb and pinkie extended, three middle fingers curled against the palm. The iconic gesture, sometimes referred to as a “hang ten” or “hang loose,” has also traveled far from its Hawai‘i origins. Today, American presidents, London nightclub goers, and even the emoji keyboard all sport the shaka hand. But the gesture has a dark history: it likely originated from island plantations’ brutal working conditions.