The Elder Function of Surfing at Huanchaco

I have never surfed. Or ever really tried. I’ve swam in the ocean. I’ve body surfed. And in my youth I used boogie boards on loan from time to time. And I’ve loved the ocean and I have loved surfing movies and video clips and I’ve loved watching from the shore too. How easy it is to admire the blued ease, all the churning strength, all the slick grace, all the athleticism of that short taming of the surging sea is what the Hawaiians call He’e Nalu, or wave sliding. That wave sliding has been an integral aspect of Hawaiian life since at least the 4th century. And when you think of surfing you probably think of Hawaii and of course California, the blond mop topped child of Hawaiian surf culture. And then there is the famed laid backness of the surfers themselves or their unsated burning for the waves. The chasing is part of the loving.

If you looked in particular spots in the news you might have found out that this winter, in a hungering for activities in a still locked down time, I read that winter surfing was at an all-time high which is what made me start to wonder about surfing these last few days.

While much can be said about the Hawaiian history with surfing and the important place it held for those who lived there and made a living sacrament of board making and surfing itself and the centrality of the art to their relationship to their home and to their spirit life…which weren’t two different things, there is another part of the world that had their own surfing tradition that is worth knowing about.

Peru isn’t the first place you think of when you think of surfing though if you are particularly into tracking such things you’d know that South America, and Peru in particular, has lots of great surf spots. But there are some surf historians, and there are such people, who make a case that surfing itself started in Peru. There is ample evidence that seafaring people made contact with various islands in the South Pacific. Things like doing gene sequencing of sweet potatoes, linguistic analysis, and human gene sequencing demonstrate that ancient Peruvians landed on Rapa Nui, otherwise known as Easter Island, and in what we call The Marquesas Islands. From there other Polynesian islands got populated. While the Kon-Tiki experiment is quite famous and had plenty of controversy about it…it was designed to see if such a traveling was possible. But the surf historians use this westerly and northern traveling to explain how surfing got to Hawaii because there is evidence of Peruvian surfing happening almost a thousand years before Hawaii even was populated.

The caballito de totara, the little reed horse, seemed to have started in the town of Huanchaco by members of a pre-Incan people who bundled up reeds from the shore into a board/boat shape with a curved prow in order to get past the wave breaks so fishing in calmer waters could be undertaken. In Huanchaco, even still today, there is no fishing allowed that isn’t done on a caballito de totora and so this means that even the youngest fishers are learning about how to make and maintain these little crafts if that is their chosen profession. The boats that last for about a month or so until they get too waterlogged and then are, remarkably, used as wind blocks for the reed saplings that are planted by the fishermen.

Consider for a moment the beautiful limitations involved in this proto-surfing in this little town and area and the inbuilt consideration for the place itself.

No motor boats, only fishing by caballito de totora – this means that less fish are caught and disturbed.

The craft only last for a month and need to be harvested and made – a fiberglass boat will functionally last forever and the fisherman who uses one might not have the same knowledge of the growing season of reeds and when you could even fish at all. A boat that you can always use that is always ready for you means that more pressure is on the fish all the time. At least in this place. Other places might be different. To fish here means also not fishing as well because the growing season for reeds isn’t all year long. There is sustainability built into the process.

And then this beautiful end of the life of the boats – shielding the young and growing reeds. So often the end of the life of an item means being pitched into the landfill; out of sight, out of mind, onwards onto the new. The idea of recycling and upcycling is grand but so rarely truly employed. But here it is in high relief. The function of the retired and the withered and washed up and retracted is to shelter the young so that there might be yet another generation. This, doubtless, has a cultural parallel in Huanchaco. But certainly for those of us in the consumption oriented, literate, west this notion of the difference between older and elder often escapes us. The former is often conflated with the latter.  But usually, in my experience and observation there is an aspiration for being more and having more and giving more as opposed to the wealth of less-ness. The goodness of old wine is only present because there is less of it…the sweetness has fallen away, the alcohol has tempered, the tannins have sifted to the bottom of the bottle if the bottle even made it. But the goodness of wine of this kind (not all old wine is good) comes from this slighter and road made existence. Reeds in Huanchaco are obviously not growing there for the purpose of making boats in the same way that grapes don’t exist solely to be in a bottle of 1963 Chateau Latour- Pauillac (if you have a bottle of this – CALL ME!) but the consideration to get them to that state is a real kind of well labored love for the world. What would the old and washed up reeds say to the young ones if they could talk? I don’t know. But I’d guess the young reeds would be glad to have them there and to listen for a season or two. There is a tremendous amount to say about this elder function, far more than a newsletter can (or should hold) and for a much fuller exploration I truly commend the book “Come of Age: The Case For Elderhood in a Time of Trouble” by Stephen Jenkinson.

But Primal Derma, in a small way, might be in the same tradition as these – the caballito or the wine – but not nearly as rarified. Tallow was, of course, never meant to become skincare and yet it has become just that. A reduction and yet, I’d pray, an honoring and elevating of the source material and the place.

So next time you see some surfing you might be able to better tell the history of this art and from whence it came and thereby let more of this old way be kept alive even in its smallness.

If this brings up any questions or responses, please send them along. They’ll be happily read and responded to.

Until soon enough,




  1. Loretta Barrett Oden on July 9, 2021 at 5:05 am

    Love this, Matt. Hope this finds you well and thriving. I am practicing my Elderhood with glee….actually, no longer practicing it but living it.

Leave a Comment