Tom “Pohaku” Stone is on a mission. For the past nine years, he’s single-handedly worked to revive the ancient Hawaiian sport of papa holua (English translation: “to slide down the hill”), thought to be a Polynesian predecessor of modern extreme sports like bobsledding and street luge.
Up until about 200 years ago, intrepid native Hawaiians rode the 12-foot long, 50-pound sleds with narrow wooden runners down steep rock-lined slopes. Riders gripped the sled in one hand and, after running a few steps, dove chest-first onto the papa holua, sliding hundreds of yards to the bottom of a mountain. Some even rode the sleds in an upright stance.
“It’s like sledding on your stomach,” says Stone, a well-respected surfer (featured on the cover of SURFER twice in his day) and a professor of Hawaiian culture at the University of Hawaii. “You’re doing 40 miles per hour, just four inches off the ground.”
Despite the risks, papa holua was both a cultural ritual and favorite pastime of the Hawaiians for more than a millennium, says Stone. However, the white Christian missionaries put a stop to the practice when they came to the Islands in the early 1800s because they saw it as a dangerous and barbaric tradition.
Stone’s working to bring it back. Through community workshops, he’s already taught more than 250 students to build and ride papa holua and has personally built more than 100 sleds. Some have been distributed to different communities throughout the Islands in hopes of encouraging and preparing local riders for the first modern competition to be held later this fall.
As part of a competition, Stone hopes to recreate a 1,000 year-old traditional Hawaiian race that pits a sled rider against a surfer. As a large wave approaches, a flag is dropped and the race begins. The surfer rides the wave to shore; the sled rider slides down the mountain to the beach. Whichever rider makes it to the designated spot on the beach first is declared the winner. “It’s on the edge of the Hawaiian extreme,” Stone adds proudly. -Mark Anders