Gathering on the beach to honor their fallen fellows – often at sunrise or sunset – surfers take to the water, paddling out beyond the break. Straddling their boards  to form a floating circle, they hold hands in union with one another and their fallen fellow. Someone speaks words of remembrance,  then the surfers send up hoots, whistles or chants. Clasped hands are raised, then lowered to splash the surrounding waters and/or boards. Leis, wreaths or loose flowers are thrown into the center  of the circle, followed by a few moments of silence. Finally, pointing their boards to the sky the surfers turn slowly toward shore, flowers swirling in the wakes left behind them.

The paddle out is the way surfers around the world honor their dead. While it is a floating memorial service with flowers and reminiscings, there are no dirges. Many surfers believe the paddle out stems from  Polynesian tradition, but Hawaiian historians are skeptical saying that ancient burials in the islands took place on land. They also say it is more likely that paddle outs began with modern surf culture, first held in the early 20th Century by “the beach boys.” the men who taught surfing at the first tourist resorts in Waikiki.

Steve Pezman, local publisher of the Surfer’s Journal, has said that paddle outs began to show up on the mainland in the late teens and ’20s, then spread along with the sport, especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s after the movie  Gidget came out. Then by the late ’70s and early ’80s if a surfer’s circle was seen on the water it indicated someone had died.

The paddle out has special meaning for our family.  While my husband wasn’t a surfer, in the Air Force he was a champion swimmer. He loved the beach and appreciated the sport of surfing. He abhorred funerals, and upon his death – honoring his wishes – my three sons (all surfers) paddled out onto the waters by his favorite San Clemente beach, formed a floating circle, said a prayer and honored his life.

Since that time I walk on that same beach often, and for me it is a place for remembering.

gl richardson says:

Thanks for your story. I lost my oldest son a couple months ago and although he was the only one of my four children that did not surf, he was the one that lived local and was closed to me. My surfing compadres have organized a paddle out tomorrow and I look forward to sharing his ashes with mother ocean and remembering him daily when I get wet. glr


brenda fee says:

hello thank you for the info on a paddle out. both my daughter and son-in-law are surfers in jax beach,fl my daughter lost their 1st baby when she was 7 1/2 months pregnant because the cord wrapped around her ankle 3 times and cut off circulation. we are planning a paddle out on the 28th of june as my granddaughter kirra reilly Nottingham’s birthdate was june 25th. I live in south florida and the ocean is my healer. I found a piece of blue and green seaglass on mothers day and made necklaces for them to wear on paddle out. she is our lil mermaid best wishes, Brenda


Rather than rambling, you write beautifully and captured my heart. My daughters lost their cousin the other day and his grandfather is Samoan Hawaiian, so they’re having a paddle out to scatter his ashes. I was curious to know the history of the ritual and appreciate your blog.


Thank you for your kind words Robin. I am glad you found this piece helpful. When my husband died my three sons did a paddle out in his honor. May God bless your family as they suffer this loss!


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