It’s midday in early March 2020 at Rainbows, a surf spot at the foot of the Koʻolau mountain range on Oʻahu. About a dozen University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students are demonstrating varied proficiency at riding some relatively small waves—from barely standing to almost dancing on a longboard. All are smiling and exuding a sunny vibe. Possibly because they are also earning college credit in the lab fieldwork portion of Anthropology 175 Polynesian Surf Culture.

“I think that we’re all just a really lovely cohesive group. Everyone is friends and everyone is really stoked to be in class,” said Talita Stiles, a natural resources and environmental management major. “We have many people in our class who have never surfed before and they’ve gone out with a teacher that encourages them to not be afraid, and they’ve all stood up—every single person in our class.”

Meet Ian ʻAkahi Masterson

masterson teaching class
Ian ʻAkahi Masterson

That encouraging teacher is Ian ʻAkahi Masterson, a Windward Community College and UH Mānoa alumnus, skilled surfer and surfing historian, who has caddied for Uncle Clyde Aikau during the contest formerly known as the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational Surfing Competition. He started developing and teaching curriculum for classes with titles like, “Pacific Surf Science and Technology” at Windward CC in 1999. Masterson holds a master’s degree in Pacific Island studies and taught a 300-level course in ethnography at UH Mānoa in 2017. He also teaches non-credit courses in ocean safety and recreation as the workforce coordinator for the Hawaiʻi Ocean Education Academy at Windward CC.

Masterson’s Polynesian Surf Culture class is about much more than the fundamentals of being able to safely approach the ocean, paddle out and successfully surf back in. He wants his students to gain a culture-based sense of Hawaiʻi and to recognize the importance of the environment. He imparts his considerable knowledge both in the class and on the beach.

“It’s the experiential learning that is really the important vehicle,” Masterson said. “Going to the places, the mythology comes alive. The real wind blows—the wild ʻĀhiu wind of Kahana. The sea that wears away at Kaʻaʻawa where we go surfing at Rainbows.”

Going to the places, the mythology comes alive. —Ian ʻAkahi Masterson

Not all Polynesian Surf Culture students are novices. Dorian Ashmore, a UH Mānoa sophomore from San Diego, California, majoring in elementary education, has been surfing since he was 10. He catches wave after wave, moving up and down the longboard, flashing some fancy footwork. Of course, the Friday surf labs are his favorite part of class.

“I feel like you are really missing out if you go to the University of Hawaiʻi and you are not taking a Polynesian Surf Culture class,” Ashmore said. “It really has opened my mind to things I just did not know about surfing.”

Let’s go surfing!

Masterson calls surfing “Hawaiʻi’s gift to the world,” noting various legislative initiatives to create a state commission for what has become a $10-billion global industry. Prior to the pandemic, surfing had been scheduled to debut as an olympic sport in Tokyo this summer.

“So here we are in the cradle of surfing for our globalized world, and we should lead the way in educational endeavors,” Masterson said. “Really, truly we have all of the pieces and the pathway to do a concentration in Hawaiian surf studies, to perhaps even go on and do certificates in competencies or even an entire undergraduate program in all the aspects related to surf studies.”

“The future is very beautiful and positive. E heʻe ana kākou. Let’s go surfing together.”

masterson and surfing students
(From left) Ian ʻAkahi Masterson, Dorian Ashmore, Talita Stiles, Kelly Hussey, Shona Ortiz, Ben Zahniser