The Paddle-Out Ceremony – A Floating Memorial Service

by M-Berens
crowds gather on a pier to watch a paddle-out ceremony take place nearby in the water.

Close friends and family hold a paddle-out ceremony for a surfer who has died while others watch from the pier.

It all began with the Beachboys of Waikiki who entertained and taught tourists how to enjoy the waters off the coasts of Hawaii back in the early 1920s. Their surfing abilities soon became world renowned. Over the last 100 years surfing has evolved into a culture with roots in music, fashion, movies and literature as more and more people continue to take an interest in surfing as a sport and as an art.

No one knows exactly when surfers began celebrating the life of one of their own with a special paddle-out ceremony. Many people believe that memorial paddle-out ceremonies are an ancient Hawaiian tradition but historians are firm in their belief that the paddle-out ceremonies only began in the early 1900s as Hawaiians traditionally buried their people on land.

What is known is that the paddle-out is surfers’ way of honoring fellow surfers who have died. Paddle-out ceremonies can be both religious and secular and take place on land and in the surf where family and friends gather to honor the deceased. After a traditional funeral service, family and friends gather on the beach, some choose to have their cremated remains scattered on the water. Family and close friends paddle out into the ocean in outriggers, and on surf boards to where the water is calm and holding hands they join together in a circle. Prayers are said, stories retold and favorite memories recounted. Ashes are scattered into the middle of the circle followed by a colorful array of flowers and leis. There are many stories of lone dolphins putting in an appearance and of single waves springing up unanticipated during a paddle-out ceremony. Many choose to believe that these are signs initiated by the person they are celebrating telling them good-bye.

This custom has been adopted by many other places such as California and Texas in the United States and Australia, South Africa, Portugal, Brazil, anywhere where the sport of surfing is revered. Often when a surfer dies, simultaneous memorial paddle-outs for a person will take place in surfer communities around the world. For many surfing is a spiritual experience and and losing someone from the close-knit surfer community leaves a void. Paddle-outs are not reserved strictly for surfers. Divers, photographers, swimmers and even veterans, anyone who loved the sea, can request a paddle-out ceremony.

Some Noteworthy Paddle-Outs.

Duke Kahanamoku was one of the most famous Beachboys of Waikiki. He was the winner of four gold medals for swimming in the Olympic Games of 1916 and 1920. He acted in a number of Hollywood movies and served 13 consecutive terms as county sheriff in Honolulu. He died at the age of 77 and the Reverend Akaka, who presided over the ceremony remarked, “Duke Paoa Kahanamoku was a man of aloha. God gave him to us as a gift from the sea, and now we give him back from whence he came.”

Eddie Aikau was Waimea Bay, Oahu’s first lifeguard and he saved hundreds of lives floundering in the treacherous surf and he was also a surfer who achieved international fame. He died in 1978 while on a journey that would trace the route Polynesians once travelled to get to the islands of Hawaii. The canoe he and his crew were travelling in sprung a leak and Aikau used his surfboard to travel to the island of Molokai to get help. The crew was rescued but Aikua’s body was never found. Every year a paddle out ceremony and tournament is held in his honor.

Though not a surfer himself, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who was a Hawaiian musician and icon was also given a paddle-out ceremony upon his death in 1997. His funeral was one of the largest in Hawaiian history with thousands taking part in his paddle-out ceremony.

Thousands of people turned out in Huntington Beach to honor the James Dean of surfing, Andy Irons, after his death in 2010. He was a three time world champion surfer and when word of Andy’s death became known, surfers in Bali, Australia, Brazil, Spain, France, Italy, Virginia, Florida and Mr. Irons’s hometown, Hanalei, Kauai were all remembering Andy in paddle-outs of their own.

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