story by Catharine Lo
photos by Dana Edmunds
Water polo began as a novel combination of two popular pastimes: swimming and rugby. It was invented in the late nineteenth century by a Scottish swim instructor named William Wilson, who called the game “aquatic football.” The game employed a soft ball made of Indian rubber known as a pulu; the British pronunciation of the word that gave the sport its modern name.
In his 1935 book, Hawaiian Surfboard, surfboard innovator and ocean athlete Tom Blake writes about surfboard polo, a game he credits Louis Kahanamoku, Duke Kahanamoku’s brother, with inventing. The sport was originally played in the 1930s and 1940s by the Waikiki beach boys and eventually crossed the pond to California and then all the way to Jones Beach on Long Island, New York. Many people know that Duke won numerous Olympic medals in swimming; not so many know that he was also awarded a bronze medal as an alternate on the US Olympic water polo team in 1932. Surf polo was the Waikiki beach boys’ adaptation of water polo—a fun way to exhibit their paddling and surfing skills in a beachfront arena.
Five years ago, the city’s Ocean Safety Division chief, Ralph Goto, and some of his colleagues brought the sport back to the water as part of the Duke Kahanamoku Foundation’s annual OceanFest, a weeklong commemoration of the legendary waterman’s birthday. This year, eight teams will compete in a day-long surf polo tournament, resurrecting a game whose whimsical yet competitive spirit celebrates the “ocean” in OceanFest.
The rules remain close to those of the mother sport: Each team has five field players and one goalkeeper, all of whom play on surfboards. Players advance the ball across the 50-meter field of play by throwing or paddling with it (one-hand only), and the winning team is the one with the greatest number of successful pitches into the goal during two 10-minute halves. Fouls result in free throws for the opposing team; they come from restricting a throwing player’s movement, forcing the ball underwater when touched by an opponent, touching the ball with both hands (unless you’re the goalie), shooting from inside the 5-meter line, sending the ball out of bounds and unsportsmanlike conduct like kicking or hitting.
In fact, one of the first people Goto calls before organizing the tournament each year is Dave Fasi, the only referee, Goto says, who can “control this mob.” Fasi has twenty-six years of experience refereeing water polo for high schools, the NCAA, USA Water Polo and internationally.
“I refereed the first one, and it was the wild, wild West out there in the water. We were still coming up with the rules,” remembers Fasi, who swam and played water polo at Harvard University. He says the surfboards make it a much faster game (“you can paddle much quicker than you can swim”), and they inject a different level of above-the-water physicality. “If you hit or kick somebody underwater, the impact is muted by the water. On the surfboard, the impact is that much greater,” Fasi explains. Fortunately, the boards themselves are made of soft foam. The sport is aggressive, but nowhere as belligerent as hockey. No violence is tolerated, Fasi says. “One punch, and you’re out of the game.”