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The History of Surfing

The History of Surfing

The History of Surfing 

Most articles about the history of surfing report that riding waves or “wave sliding” began with Polynesians in the 4th century. No doubt these seafaring people were accustomed to reading waves and their relationship to weather conditions as they traversed the islands of the South Pacific. 

Historical accounts note that crew members on the British ship HMS Dolphin observed locals riding waves in Tahiti in 1767. Other researchers point to a sighting of early surfers in Hawaii by a crew member on James Cook’s HMS Endeavor during its historic voyage in 1769. Young Africans were also seen riding waves off the coast of West Africa in 1838 while lying prone on wooden planks. 

Peru also has a history of early surf riders using small boats made out of reeds to transport nets and collect fish. A Peruvian historian speculates that the Inca people interacted with Polynesians in the early 1500s. The famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947 by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl proved the feasibility of this connection when he used a historically-accurate raft to cruise from South American to Polynesia.

Historical Polynesian Surfing from Artist Point of View
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For islanders in the South Pacific, riding waves had social and spiritual meaning. This included the process of making their wooden boards from indigenous trees. The three distinct boards were named alaia, paipo, and olo. The alaia board was similar to the modern short board. The paipo board was also short with a rounded nose, which made it easier for native to ride on your stomach. And finally, the olo board was twice as long as today’s longboard. Only chieftains could ride the olo board. These early boards had no fins, so riding waves required the rider to use their hands and feet for turning. 

The Polynesians brought surfing to the Hawaiian Islands from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. It was an important milestone since native Hawaiians integrated the surfing experience into their social, political, and spiritual traditions. 

Early Christian missionaries opposed surfing along with other traditions of the native culture. They regarded surfing as a pathway to moral depravity. Perhaps some of their hostility came from watching locals riding waves in the buff. An even greater threat was the introduction of various diseases from Europeans and Americans. The diseases decimated the local native population in the 1890s from about 400,000 to 40,000. Surfing experienced a significant decline.

Surfing was brought to California in 1885 by a trio of teenage Hawaiian princes. They surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz on handmade and custom-shaped boards made of redwood. Meanwhile, back in Hawaii, White settlers and their political representatives overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and the U.S. annexed the Islands in 1898. 

Thomas Edison filmed surfers for the first time in 1906. In 1907, George Freeth gave surfing demonstrations as the “Hawaiian Wonder” at the Huntington Beach Pier in California. 

George Freeth

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Alexander Hume Ford (1868-1945), an American from South Carolina, helped to promote surfing and Hawaii as a desirable destination. He founded the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club in 1908, the first organization in Hawaii with a mission to preserve surfing. Club membership was restricted to White people from the mainland. Ford suggested local natives create their own club which led to the formation of the Hui Nalu Club by the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, Knute Cottrell, and Ken Winter. Ford became an early surfing champion after practicing with Freeth.

Ford and Freeth tag-teamed to introduce author Jack London to surfing. A byline article by London in 1907 titled Surfing: A Royal Sport introduced surfing on wooden boards to a wider audience.

Duke Kekahanamoku Legendary Surfer

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Duke Kahanamoku played a major role in introducing surfing to New Zealand and Australia in 1914-15. Duke also visited Huntington Beach in the early 1920s after winning medals in swimming at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp. He would medal again at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He even served as an alternate for the U.S. water polo team at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Duke is widely credited with making surfing popular in Southern California thru 1929. Surfing on the East Coast of the U.S. began in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina in 1909 with Burke Haywood Bridgers and a group of fellow enthusiasts. Bridgers was an early board designer. Duke Kahanamoku also helped to expand interest in surfing on the East Coast with a number of demonstrations in 1912 and 1916. 

Other notable people tried surfing in these early years including Mark Twain, the Prince of Wales, and Agatha Christie. Surfing peaked in popularity initially in the 1950s and 1960s. A lot of the growth in Hawaii, California, and other locations came as American consumers began to enjoy leisure activities following World War II. Movies like Gidget in 1959 and the magazine The Surfer (launched in 1959) helped to define a subculture that influenced music (The Beach Boys), fashion (bikinis and boardshorts), more films (The Endless Summer in 1965), and everyday jargon (bitchen waves bro). The pivotal year of 1959 is also when Hawaii became one of the 50 states in the U.S. 

Advanced Surfing Technique riding through a barrel or tube

Image credit: Dana Point TImes

Here’s five major drivers of the popularity of surfing in modern times. One is the advent of local, regional, and world-wide competitions. Two is the enrichment of the purses paid to the top competitors. Three is the formation of local surfing clubs. Four is the ever-growing products industry providing higher quality boards and helpful accessories. And five is the convenience of international travel allowing surfers access to beaches around the world. 

We’ll cover the story about how surfing technology has evolved in a future blog. One key development worth noting is Bob Simmons introducing ultra-light and rigid materials in the 1950s. The new materials enabled boards to become much shorter and more responsive. Simmons used a polyurethane foam core with a wooden stinger for internal support. 

The popularity of surfing continues to grow with fans and fellow athletes admiring the skill and accomplishments of former and current champions around the world. Champions like Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Stephanie Gilmore, Gabriel Medina, Lisa Andersen, Laird Hamilton, Mick Fanning, Tom Carroll, Sharon Weber, Filipe Toledo, Martin Potter, Carissa Moore, and so many others. 

Speaking of champions, a special acknowledgement to Bethany Hamilton who survived the loss of an arm to a shark bite in 2003 when she was 14-years-old. Bethany embodies the passion for surfing.  

More recently, surfing became an Olympic sport in 2016. The first gold medals were presented at the Olympic Games in Tokyo (2021) to Carissa Moore of Hawaii and Brazil’s Italo Ferreira.

Surfing at Wave Garden

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A recent trend impacting on surfing is the growing popularity of wave pools. This technology is making surfing more accessible than ever before. Kind of makes you wonder how long it will be before some variation of surfing shows up on the Moon or maybe Mars.

Learn more about surfing’s history by reading Matt Warshaw’s excellent book History of Surfing.
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