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History of Surfing

The Ancients

History books show that Incan fisherman rode waves on thatched-reed cabillitos as far back as 3000 B.C. in what is now Peru, and it’s likely that coastal habitants have been gliding across waves for even longer than that. However, stand-up surfing as we know it today almost certainly began with the Polynesians, in the Pacific archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands. Sometime around 1000 A.D., surfing not only took hold among the Hawaiian people as a popular leisure activity and sport, but it engrained itself into the very fabric of Hawaiian culture.

The Hawaiian word “he’e nalu”, or “wave-sliding,” defines both the motion of surfing a wave, as well as the dynamic nature of the ocean itself. Religious ceremonies and sacred rituals were dedicated to the providing seas, while the greatest surfers achieved near-mythical status within the community.

Commoners and royalty alike took to the waves with fervor. Men, women, and children surfed, riding a variety of boards that fell loosely into three types:

  • The paipo: A small craft ridden on the belly and used mainly by children.
  • The alaia: A thin, tapered board that ranged from 7 to 12 feet.
  • The olo: A massive board that was as long as 18 feet and designated for use by royalty only.

The oldest known written account of surfing was produced by eighteenth-century British sea captain and explorer James Cook, who watched a Tahitian canoe surfer ride a wave in 1777. In 1779, Cook’s successor, Lieutenant James King, recorded the first written description of Hawaiian surfing in the ship’s log.

“But a diversion the most common is upon the water,” wrote King. “Where there is a very great sea, and the surf breaking on the shore … the men push forward with their arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing velocity, and the great art is to guide the plank so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the swell.”

In 1820, American Calvinist missionaries began to establish settlements on the islands, imposing a new religion and a subsequent new way of life for the local people. Along with a stringent Christian code of ethics came stricter views of social custom and leisure. Islanders were encouraged to wear more clothes, learn to read and write English, and work rather than engage in nonproductive and dangerous recreation. Within a few decades, surfing in Hawaii dwindled into little more than a relic of the past, washed away by restrictions implemented in the name of “civilized" life.

The Modern Surfing Revival

Near the start of the 20th century, two new forces began to seep into Hawaii, forever transforming the Hawaiian Islands and their inhabitants’ way of life. The arrival of the agriculture industry was one such entity, the other was tourism.

A wide stretch of beach on Oahu’s south side, called Waikiki, began to attract a growing number of beach-goers, and the first major resort in the area, the Moana Hotel, was built to accommodate the new visitors. In 1900, a 16-year-old Irish-Hawaiian named George Freeth taught himself to surf standing up on a board given to him by a Hawaiian prince. Along with Freeth, South Carolina-born Alexander Hume Ford and Hawaiian native Duke Kahanamoku helped invigorate a new interest in the sport. By 1906, the Moana Hotel had begun to promote itself as a premier destination for ocean-related recreation, which included surfing and canoeing.

In 1907, Ford started the Outrigger Canoe Club, designed to help “preserve surfing on boards and in Hawaiian canoes.” Along with Ford, Freeth, and the Waikiki beach boys, Kahanamoku became a fixture on the Waikiki surf scene. The famed surfer, swimmer, and waterman quickly rose to legendary status, and became the world’s preeminent surf-ambassador in the process.

After setting a new world record in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1912 Olympics, the Duke traveled to the American East Coast, where he gave a series of surf exhibitions in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1914, Kahanamoku introduced surfing to Australia and New Zealand, and in 1915 he helped popularize the sport in Southern California. The seeds of modern surfing had been effectively planted.

California Dreamin’

As the Duke and George Freeth continued to fascinate beach-goers with their surfing demonstrations, the American West Coast surf scene began to take shape. Freeth sailed to Southern California in 1907 and 1908, giving demonstrations at California’s Venice, Redondo, and Huntington Beaches.

Using heavy, finless redwood plank boards, the surfers of the early part of the 20th century rode in tall, narrow stances with their heads and chins up. Because the boards didn’t have fins, trimming along the wave face was quite difficult, but the best surfers managed to generate substantial speed and sustain long rides to the beach.

In Waikiki, surfing quickly became a defining past-time, with celebrities like Amelia Earhart and Babe Ruth trying their luck riding the gentle surf. Hollywood caught on to the romantic image of surfing under the warm Hawaiian sun, further exposing the world to the laid-back lifestyle associated with the sport.

By the early part of the century, small surf communities had formed in California, from San Francisco to San Diego. Regional clubs were established, as was the Pacific Coast Surf Riding Championships in 1928. The inaugural contest was held in Corona del Mar, California. The following year the event took place in San Onofre. For the first time, the best surfers along the coast were brought together to show off their skills, as well as their equipment, catalyzing an age of progression that would continue into the modern era. During what many consider to be the “golden era” of surfing, the first mainland surfers were left alone to explore the unspoiled California coastline. Crowds were almost nonexistent and small communities of local surfers functioned like a tight-knit fraternity.

To most, surfing was still a relative novelty, and the surfers of the era existed within a world largely unknown to society at large. But that would all change; the “golden age” couldn’t last forever.

The Explosion

By the end of World War II, the epicenter of the surfing world had shifted from Waikiki, Hawaii to Malibu, California, where the beautifully long, sloping waves at “The Point” had become the standard by which all other waves were measured. The consistently high-quality waves that funneled into Malibu were also perfect testing-tracks for early board makers, with shapers like Bob Simmons, Dale Velzy, and Joe Quigg lending their innovations to early surfboard design. Relatively light-weight balsawood boards soon replaced redwood, and Tom Blake’s fin-design began to catch on in a progression that saw them become universally regular.

The new boards – lighter, faster, and more stable – allowed surfers to ride waves like never before. “Hot-dogging” was a term used to describe the flashy new tricks and maneuvers, such as nose riding, the cutback, the head dip, the spinner, and the fin-first takeoff. Famous surfers of the era included Californians Dewey Webber, Phil Edwards, Johnny Fain, Corky Carroll, and later, surfing’s first enigmatic hero, Miki Dora.

But California wasn't the only place where vast progression was taking place. In Hawaii, Californians Buzzy Trent, Walter Hoffman, and Greg Noll, alongside Hawaiians George Downing and Wally Froiseth, were riding enormous 25-foot waves at Makaha and Waimea Bay on Oahu's North Shore. As photographic evidence of Hawaii's big-wave heroics reached the beaches of California and Australia, a new guard of surfers headed to the North Shore, establishing a legacy that would continue for generations.

As surfing outgrew its infancy, the sport began to present itself as a major concessionary point for writers, Hollywood executives, and marketing directors. The sun-tanned, freewheeling image associated with the surfing community proved irresistible to the business world, and in 1957, Frederick Kohner opened the floodgates for what would prove to be a long and tumultuous relationship between surfing and the mass media.

Kohner’s novel “Gidget” recounted his daughter’s introduction and immersion into the surf scene in Malibu. To Kohner’s surprise, the book was wildly popular, and a few months after its release Life magazine published a photo set featuring Kathy “Gidget” Kohner hanging out on the beach in Malibu. Hollywood didn’t hesitate in cashing in on the public’s fascination with Kohner, releasing the movie “Gidget” in 1959 to sell-out crowds.

The movie industry continued to exploit its new-found goldmine, releasing films like “Beach Party” and “Beach Blanket Bingo” without pause. Bruce Brown’s “The Endless Summer” marked the beginning of the travel-inspired surf flick. Dick Dale and the Beach Boys led the way in the newly coined “surf rock” genre, while surf magazines like John Severson’s Surfer began to appear on bookstore shelves. The fashion industry took notice, too, with surf-clothing brands popping up in every Southern California enclave and being displayed in magazines like Sports Illustrated and Esquire.

As the new wave of surf-mania swept through California and then the entire western world, beach crowds swelled to unprecedented sizes. No longer would surfing be relegated to a few dedicated watermen. The sport was now part of the mainstream public’s consciousness. Though few realized it at the time, the days of surfing Malibu and other breaks in solitude were nothing but distant memories.

The Shortboard Revolution

Throughout the 1960s, surfing was constantly evolving as a sport, and by the middle of the decade, small-wave performance surfing had reached a peak. “Nose-riding” – riding close to the front of the surfboard – was touted as the ultimate “hot-dog” maneuver. But a handful of surfers had other ideas. These experimentalists, including Australians Nat Young and Bob McTavish, as well as California expatriate George Greenough, were not convinced that nose-riding was the end-all for performance surfing. Their commitment to discovering new ways to ride waves led them to emphasize a relatively unexplored facet of the sport: Turning.

While it seems rather simple and logical in retrospect, deep-rail carves and turns were no easy feat on the surfboards that were being ridden in the mid ’60s. It was this realization that helped spur a new movement towards smaller boards.

Though he rode on his knees, Greenough became one of the single most influential surfers on earth when he took his relatively short kneeboards to places never before seen on a wave. The sharp, radical turns and high-speed carves that Greenough performed, seemingly with little trouble at all, were completely unprecedented. Greenough was so ahead of his time that most surfers initially wrote him off, and his style of surfing went basically unmatched for the better part of a decade.

In 1966, Nat Young won the World Championships by executing sharp cutbacks and turns, and the judges, as well as the surf world as a whole, took notice. McTavish, transfixed by both Young and Greenough, set out to create a board that would enable surfers to perform these radical new maneuvers. The result was the McTavish Plastic Machine, a nine-foot vee-bottom that featured a tow-panel rear plane surface. Soon after, McTavish and his contemporaries cut the board’s length down to 7 feet, 6 inches. These new wave-riding vehicles, unlike traditional longboards, were small enough to fit into the steep part of the wave, giving surfers the ability to perform sharper, more critical turns. By 1969, surfboards as short as six feet were available, as numerous garage experimenters and shapers engaged in a trial-and-error process that would characterize the entire shortboard revolution.

Along with the boards themselves, other technical advances during this period severely impacted the sport. The surf leash, or leggie, was introduced in the early 1970s, and surfers were instantly able to spend less time swimming to the beach after their boards and more time riding waves. The widespread use of leashes also gave less-skilled surfers access to surf spots previously reserved for experts, because of hazards like cliffs and rocks. In California, Jack O’Neill developed the first mass-produced and surf-specific wetsuit, and surfers in cold locales were suddenly able to stay in the water longer, and surf through the winter months.

Coinciding with the psychedelic subculture sweeping the world in the late ’60 and early ’70s, the next wave of surf stars was a colorful and talented group of athletes. Hawaiian surfers Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha and Barry Kanaiaupuni rode the famed waves of Oahu’s North Shore with a profound new approach, and Australians Michael Peterson and Rabbit Bartholomew further perfected the new-radical style. One of the most notable surfers of the era was Hawaiian Gerry Lopez, whose silky smooth style riding the tube at the perilous Bonzai Pipeline would go down as one of the greatest achievements in surfing lore.

Radical Progression

Beginning in 1978, Australian phenom Mark Richards began an extraordinary campaign, winning four consecutive world titles riding a twin-fin “fish” design that had been invented a decade prior by Californian Steve Lis. The short, wide twin-fin allowed Richards to surf faster and perform tighter turns in the pocket. But just as the board seemed poised to become the standard choice for surfers worldwide, a new breakthrough sent surfboard builders scrambling back to the shaping bay.

Australian Simon Anderson is credited with inventing the three-finned surfboard, an idea that came about when Anderson attempted to merge the speed of the twin-fin with the stability of a single-fin. The result was the tri-fin thruster, an elongated version of the fish that featured a slimmer outline and a wide tail. The new boards easily outperformed both single- and twin-fins in every type of wave, and the thruster quickly became the average surfer’s preferred wave-riding craft.

With new technology came new talent. The next crop of professional surfers would forever alter the collective consciousness regarding the possibilities of wave riding. At the top of the elite new guard was Australian Tom Carroll and Californian Tom Curren. Carroll is acknowledged as the founding father of modern “power surfing,” combining progressive maneuvers with astounding speed, force, and aggression. Curren’s seemingly effortless style and superhuman knack for tube riding became the essence of modern surfing.

As Curren, Carroll, and Australian Mark Occhilupo continued to redefine high-performance surfing, a younger group of surfers sought to incorporate skateboard-influenced aerials into the mix. Australian world champion Martin Potter, and then Californians Christian Fletcher and Matt Archbold, emphasized surfing “above the lip,” catching air and experimenting with an endless array of skateboard-style maneuvers. A young surfer from Cocoa Beach, Florida named Kelly Slater masterfully combined the fluidity of power-surfing with the exciting new bag of tricks introduced by the aerialists. Slater and his contemporaries were dubbed the “Momentum Generation”, and indeed, an era marked by explosive innovation had been ignited.

The New Youth

It’s impossible to predict with perfect accuracy where surfing is headed in the 21st century, but there are a few major indicators that seem to point towards progression in a number of facets.

A rise in environmental concern and “green” sustainability has certainly had its influence on surf culture, as all surfers inexorably share a close bond with the ocean, and thus the planet. Experimentation with more environmentally friendly surfboard construction is becoming increasingly common, and surfers care about the cleanliness of their local beaches more than ever.

The closing of Clark Foam, the largest manufacturer of foam surfboard blanks, in 2005 sparked a period of surfboard-design experimentation not seen since the shortboard revolution. The result, more than any one design breakthrough, was a wider acceptance of surfboard shapes that differed from what was regarded as the standard shortboard template. Retro boards like single fins and fishes, as well as hybrids, bonzers, and quads became commonplace. New construction techniques, such as parallel stringers and flex-driven epoxies found their niche as well. The newfound emphasis on surfboard experimentation culminated when the undisputed champ of modern surfing, Kelly Slater, won the prestigious Pipeline Masters in solid eight-foot surf riding a stubby 5’11” named “Deep Six.”

Along with inventive new board designs, a talented generation of young surfers has emerged to further push the sport in new directions. The brilliantly progressive surfing of Californian Dane Reynolds, South African Jordy Smith, and Australian Julian Wilson continues to defy the imagination of even the most innovative surfers. Going faster, higher, and more radical than was ever thought possible, the leaders of the new youth have spurred yet another age of breakthrough, development, and progression.

Learn all about the history and evolution of this water sport with this comprehensive guide!
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