sentinel banner
sentinel title
royal hawaiian painting

May 19, 2002

First Santa Cruz surfers
Who were the Hawaiian princes?
Special to the Sentinel

The young Hawaiian princes were in the water, enjoying it hugely and giving interesting exhibitions of surfboard swimming as practiced in their native islands.

— from the "Santa Cruz Surf," July 20, 1885.

The Hawaiian princes were Valley, three guys who came over the hill from San Mateo in July to surf Santa Cruz. Only the year was 1885. The three princes went "surfboard swimming" at the San Lorenzo River mouth.

The details of that long-ago session have been washed away like a summer sand bar, leaving us to guess at who they were and what "surfboard swimming" was like.

But they were from a military school in San Mateo, so it is ironic and a little funny that the first guys to be noticed surfing in Santa Cruz (and California) were from Over the Hill, when you consider the relationship that developed between Valley and Santa Cruz over the next 116 years.

The Hawaiians have a proverb, He ma’uka uka hoe hewa ("an uplander, unskilled in wielding the paddle"), which is the Hawaiian way of making fun of Valleys.

Who knows if Santa Cruz people were snooty about inland visitors when the Hawaiian princes came over in 1885.

The Hawaiian princes were only hapa-Valleys, but the thought of three guys "surfboard swimming" at the river mouth all the way back in 1885 makes one wonder:

Who were they? What were they doing? How did they get over the hill? What was Santa Cruz like? Could you get a double soy latte then? What kind of boards were these guys riding? Were they paipo or standing? Olo or alaia?

All good questions, but the frothing mid-towner in all of us wonders about the most important question: In 1885 when the San Lorenzo flowed freely (probably thick with steelhead and salmon), did an unchecked river produce an epic summer sand bar (as it did during the El Niño summer of 1982)?

It’s easy to imagine three extremely homesick Hawaiian boys shrugging off their woolen military suits and horsing over the hill to check the surf and gaze over the horizon, longingly, toward the aina.

A surfer is a surfer, and regardless of era, any surfer confronted with the sight of foffing, six-foot, southern hemisphere river mouth A-frames would do the same: Go berserk and chop down redwood trees to get out there and get some.

The Kalaniana’ole brothers is who they were — Jonah, David and Edward — certified Hawaiian royalty, native sons of Kauai’s high chief D. Kahalepouli and Princess Kekaulike.

Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole was 14 in 1885, the oldest of the three and the one destined for greatness.

After leaving Saint Matthews Hall in San Mateo, Jonah attended the Royal Agricultural College in England.

Childless Queen Liliuokalani adopted Jonah and proclaimed him Prince, and that got him into trouble during the haole overthrow of his auntie in January of 1895.

At the age of 24, Prince Kuhio helped in the Royalist uprising against Hawaii’s new Republic. He was captured and convicted of "misprison of treason" and sentenced to one year in jail.

Jonah bounced back from that to become the congressional delegate from the Territory of Hawaii, a seat he was re-elected to 10 times.

Jonah Kuhio did a lot for Hawaii, and today there are highways and buildings and beaches named to remember him.

When Hawaii celebrates Prince Kuhio Day on March 26, they are honoring the eldest of the three Hawaiian princes who were "surfboard swimming" here in July of 1885.

We’ll never know if there were others by the brothers that day. But you can still boggle your mind with what Santa Cruz was like, all those years ago.

By the time the brothers hit the water, Santa Cruz had been Santa Cruz for 116 years, the name going back to an expedition of soldiers and Jesuit fathers who christened a small creek "Santa Cruz" in October of 1769.

Going farther back than that, in 1642, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed up the west side of the New World and noticed "wood-crowned mountains" in the area of the 37th parallel, which runs directly through Santa Cruz.

Sir Francis Drake noticed those same wood-crowned mountains 36 years later as he sailed past in 1578. On Dec. 16, 1602, the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into and named Monterey Bay.

One hundred and sixty years after that, on Oct. 17, 1769, an expedition of several dozen Spanish soldiers and Christian Indians, led by Governor Portola and accompanied by Fathers Crespi and Gomez, discovered a river at the north end of the bay.

Father Crespi wrote: "We passed a large stream of running water which had its source among high hills, and passing through a table-land, furnishes ample facility for irrigation. This creek they called Santa Cruz."

They didn’t mention the sandbars at the mouth of the river.

In 1791 Fathers Salazar and Lopez pitched a tent on a hill overlooking that Santa Cruz River, and set the foundation for Mission Santa Cruz. Two years later, the Fathers laid the first stone for their church. The Santa Cruz Mission was dedicated on March 10, 1794, and thrived on lands stretching from Point Ano Nuevo in the north to Aptos in the south.

The Gold Rush of the middle 1800s had the same effect on Santa Cruz as the Silicon Rush of today.

All those people (and all that gold) came out of the hills looking for a place to rest, relax and recreate.

Santa Cruz has always had location, location, location on its side — a unique corner at the northern tip of the Fertile Crescent, with its feet in the tingly waters of the north but its face in the southern sun.

In the mid-1800s a lot of money and people came pouring into Santa Cruz and established it as one of California’s most popular seaside resorts.

Santa Cruz is where palm trees and pines can live together in peace.

For northern California sun-seekers, Santa Cruz in 1885 was then, as it is now, one of the choicest spots on the coast. It was the place to be in the summer, and that is why the Hawaiian princes came over and scored summer barrels at the river mouth, and enjoyed it hugely.

Contact Ben Marcus at