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Duke Kahanamoku, the “father of modern surfing”, who is often referred to as "The Big Kahuna" once said, “Out of the water, I am nothing.” The passion for this water sport is part of what creates the rich and deep history of surfing. Surfing is a cultural phenomena that is far more than a casual day at the beach enjoying the sun, the sand and the water.
The sport of surfing has become a multi-billion dollar industry, who’s influence extends to movies, photography, fashion, music, tourism, fitness, literature, art, surfer slang and popular culture. How did this all come to be? Determining the origins of wave riding or the current day sport of surfing is debatable, as there is no recorded or even agreed upon origination.
There is some general agreement and acceptance that surfing has its roots and dates back to the migration of the Polynesians from Sumatra in Indonesia advancing across the Pacific Ocean to Bora Bora, Tahiti and eventually to the Hawaiian Islands. Ultimately, all waves converged on Hawaii as surfing grew and flourished.
Tracing the origins of surfing to approximately 1000 A.D. as the sport migrated from Western Polynesia to the Hawaiian Islands, it’s apparent surfing was much more than a sport, it was a way of life. So, let's explore the culture, the way of life and the history of surfing.
1000 A.D. - Riding waves on wooden boards emerged in Polynesia. The origination of wave riding has its genesis with the Polynesians migrating from Indonesia through the series of islands in the Pacific Ocean.
Mid 1700s’ - In 1977, James Cook, a famous explorer, navigator and captain in the British Royal Navy created the first documented account with his observations of canoe surfing in Tahiti. He wrote in his journal, “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea” upon observing individuals wave riding. His lieutenant, James King, added the narrative in recounting the experience, “It sends them in the most astonishing velocity and the great art is to guide the plank so as always to keep it in the proper direction on the top of the swell.”
Early 1800s’ - Western missionaries arrive in the early 1800s sermonizing against hula and surfing and also introduce diseases. These events resulted in a period of decline in the prevalence of surfing. At this point in time, the Hawaiian tradition of kapu (a code of conduct or rules and regulations based on social taboos) was greatly undermined.
Late 1800s’ - King Kalakaua, one of the last Hawaiian reigning monarchs revived Hawaiian cultural pride and the traditions of hula and surfing, setting the stage for the revitalization of the sport.
In 1866, Mark Twain was in the process of writing his book titled, Roughing It, during his travels to the Hawaiian Islands, which at that time were known as the Sandwich Islands. Twain chronicled his own life experiences and explained in one passage, “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell!” His writings ignited an interest in travelers coming to Hawaii to experience surfing.
Early 1900s’ - American author Jack London was traveling to Hawaii when a fellow writer Alexander Hume Ford introduces him to surfing. During his time in Oahu he became captivated with what he called “A Royal Sport.” Hume Ford introduces London to George Freeth, a local surfer who’s skills and abilities so intrigued London that he wrote about these observations. London’s writings brought to the attention of the American public the exciting sport of wave riding and so much so that Freeth was invited to travel to California to demonstrate his wave riding.
In 1908, Hume Ford appeals to the Queen Emma Estate to designate an area that will sustain the ancient Hawaiin craft and pastimes of outrigger canoeing and surfing. His request was granted, resulting in the formation of the Outrigger Canoe Club, that's motto is, “Let this be a place where man may commune with sun and sand and sea, where good fellowship and Aloha prevail, and where the sports of old Hawaii shall always have a home.”
Native Hawaiians created an informal club, the Hui Nalu, which literally means “club of wave riders” or “surf club” with the intent of resurrecting the interest in surfing. In 1911, Hui Nalu becomes formally recognized and an amiable competition is initiated between Hui Nalu and the Outrigger Canoe Club.
The revitalization of surfing began on Waikiki Beach with the major influence of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku leading the way in popularizing and revitalizing the ancient Hawaiian sport. As “The Duke”, a famous swimmer and surfer, travels to southern California on his way to the 1912 summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden he puts on surfing demonstrations. “The Big Kahuna” goes on to win the 100 meter free-style gold medal and becomes a darling of Hollywood introducing surfing and igniting interest in the sport.
In 1915, Paoa Kahanamoku receives an invitation from the New South Wales Swimming Association to conduct surfing demonstrations, which ignited a passion in the Australian people.
The first photograph of someone on a surfboard dates back to approximately 1890 and is part of a collection at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The photographer that took the picture is unknown. The first recognized surf photographer, who documented the surf culture was Tom Blake, His work inspired the first dedicated surf photographer John H. ‘Doc’ Ball. A dentist by trade, ‘Doc’ Ball documents surfing using waterproof photography equipment.
Mid 1900s’ - In the 1960s’ with the popularity of surfing growing to an all time high came the evolution of the shortboard, which influenced today's style of competitive surfing.
Woody Brown interviewed and eventually joined surfing legends like Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, Rabbit Kekai in experiencing the exhilarating and even terrifying surfing adventures, braving 25 foot waves. These individuals lead the way in surfboard innovations, making them more maneuverable, stronger, lighter and faster.
In 1946, in the forward of his black and white photo book titled California Surfriders, ‘Doc’ Ball writes, "The purpose of this volume is to present pictorially some of the thrills, spills, personalities and places pertinent to surfriding."
In 1953, in a photograph taken by Thomas ‘Scoop’ Tsuzuki, Woody Brown, George Downing and Buzzy Trent are captured riding a 15 foot wave at Makaha. The iconic photograph was shared around the country inspiring a flood of surfers to descend on and move to Hawaii.
Two teachers from California, inspired by the Tsuzuki photograph head out for Hawaii. They became known as the “surfing teachers” and were avid surfers who chronicled their experiences and the sport of surfing in several books. As the growth of the popularity of surfing increases dramatically, a documentary film titled The Endless Summer is released featuring Mike Hynson and Robert August as they travel around the world on a surfing trip. The movie inspired many surfers to seek out the destination for the perfect wave.
In 1957, author Fredrick Kohner published Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas. The novel was inspired by his teenage daughter and created a craze and popularized surfing and the surf culture. The novel became a movie bearing her name and gained international attention for the sport. The production of Gidget inspired other films revolving around the surf culture, such as Beach Blanket Bingo. The music industry also took note and a distinctive style of music, surf songs, emerged as the sport of surfing became increasingly popular on the west coast. The emergence of the style of music introduced the surf guitar of Dick Dale, songs by the Beach Boys, Safaris, Jan and Dean, the Ventures and Rivieras.
In 1964, Leroy ‘Granny’ Grannis a close friend of ‘Doc’ Ball’s, builds upon his friend’s passion for surf photography and helps to launch the magazines Surfing Illustrated and International Surfing, which later became known as Surfing Magazine.
The passion grew, thousands were drawn to the sport, and the design and construction of surfboards innovated, resulting in the mass production of boards.
As surfing gained widespread popularity it created its own cultural phenomena. Wave riding creates a strong bond and feeling of unity, a reverence and a happiness when individuals are surfing. Being on the water creates a solitude that is at the same time stimulating and engaging to the brain while being relaxing and rejuvenating. Additionally, surfing is a form of exercise, which involves risk taking that releases hormones creating a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction.
Surfing became almost religious and is deeply ingrained into a culture that values the land and benefits of nature. The spiritual nature of surfing seems to stem from the distinctness of the pace and structure of the sport. There is definitely an adrenaline rush when a surfer is riding a wave, however there are long periods of waiting and rolling with the waves, gazing across the sun stricken water. The solitude, peace and stillness contrasted with the rush of riding a big wave creates this spiritual experience.
When you look at surfing through this lense, is it any wonder that it has created its own culture, language, art, style, attitude and way of looking at life that draws millions to the water. Surfing has become a professional sport, a way of life, a subculture, a popular pastime, a multi-million dollar industry, a global marketing campaign, an escape, a means of expressing oneself, a reason to take a day off of work, a performance art, a spiritual experience, a way of thinking, a career and maybe the strongest statement, a fashion all its own that made wearing a hawaiian “aloha shirt” popular.
Evolution of Surfing and the Surfboard
Surfing evolved from its earliest stages as a form of travel, to a cultural experience, to the extremely popular sport it is today but also the boards and equipment have changed over time. A few of the historical advancements and changes that evolved around surfing included:
Round nose boards
The 3 fin Shortboards
The history of surfing closely correlates with the history of the innovations in surfboard design. The earliest wave riders most likely rode the waves on no more than a flat piece of wood, crafted in a way that allowed it to be paddled well enough to catch the unbroken swells of a wave. These boards were approximately 20 feet long and weighed in access of 200 pounds.
In the 1920s’ individuals like Tom Blake shorten the boards using lighter wood and by drilling holes in the boards. Advances coming out of World War II with plastics allowed innovators like Blake, Kelly, and Heath, along with Bob Simmons to use polystyrene cores and wood veneers to make lighter, faster and more buoyant surfboards. By the 1950s, Simmons’ designs became industry standard.
In what some would consider the “Golden Age of Surfing” in the 1960s surfboards became even shorter, in the 5 to 6 foot range. By the 1980s with the opportunity to make money, some innovations created had varying success such as tow surfing and wave pools. Purist push back and a desire to stay true to the rich history have had their influence of these innovations.
Despite the influence of money, the commercialization and the hype, surfing is still a very simplistic and natural experience. One thing’s for sure, the evolution of the surfboard continues to go hand in hand with evolution of surfing. It is not just a sport. Surfing is it’s own culture and way of life.
Surfing propelled the popularity of other water sports as thrill seekers tried to find other ways to catch a wave. In 1971, Tom Morey created the first “Boogie Board”, otherwise known as a bodyboard. Morey called his invention a Boogie Board based on his love for music. Paddle boarding is believed to have its origins in Maui and has become an extremely popular and varied activity (yoga, fitness, cruising and paddle surfing) water sport. The list of water sports growing out of the excitement and enjoyment first experienced while surfing includes both boogie boarding and paddle boarding, in addition to outrigger canoe surfing, skimboarding, kneeboarding, and wakeboarding.
Duke Kahanamoku: The famous surfer, noted previously, was born in 1890. “The Duke” was a gifted swimmer who competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, winning the 100 meter freestyle. He credited his crawl technique to his time spent paddling his board out to go surfing.
The success he gained swimming supported his introducing, teaching and traveling around the world to promote surfing. He is honored today by a bronze statue on Kuhio Beach that welcomes surfers and visitors alike to Waikiki.
Mark Twain: Most noted for his many quotes and his books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Twain was also travel book author. In 1866, Twain spent four months in Hawaii reporting on his experiences. Part of his reporting was on his observations of natives surfing and his own experience trying “surf bathing”
In a way that only Twain could inject humor while peeking interest he wrote, “I struck the bottom, with a couple of barrels of water in me.” His chronicles on the sport of surfing ignited interest and intrigue in wave riding on a board, influencing vacationers to travel to Hawaii and experience surfing.
Jack London: London traveled to Hawaii in 1907 for a stay on Oahu where he observed and became enchanted with the locals stand up surfing. He became so intrigued that while observing local children he attempted to surf himself. He explained his first failed effort with the following description; “We would all leap on our boards in front of a good breaker. Away our feet would churn like the stern-wheels of river steamboats, and away the little rascals would scoot while I remained in disgrace behind.”
Eventually, he mastered the skills of surfing and wrote about his experiences as “ecstatic bliss having caught the wave.” London’s descriptions of surfing brought to the attention of the American public, the excitement, enjoyment and intrigue of surfing. His celebrity and influence reignited interest in the sport and much of his writing, today, is considered an important historical account of surfing in Hawaii.
Woody Brown: A photograph published by the Associated Press, showing Brown and his fellow surfers George Downing and Buzzy Trent surfing off Oahu's coast on Makaha beach was seen throughout the world. The photograph influenced a large number of surfers to head to Hawaii. This influence caused a growth in the innovation of the design and construction of surfboards. Woody Brown was a leader in promoting the growth of surfing on the mainland of the United States and is credited with the early design of a surfboard fin, allowing for greater maneuverability and control of the surfboard.
Marge Calhoun: Calhoun is recognized is one of the earliest female surfers in what was considered a predominantly male sport. Marge Calhoun became the first women’s champion surfer, winning the Makaha International surfing competition on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Nat Young: Nat Young is an Australian surfer and an author, who had an enormous impact on the surfing world. In 1966, Young introduced his innovative and advancement to surfing with the shortboard. This new style of surfboard measured approximately 6 feet long, which created an explosion in the surfing industry. Surfboards began to be mass produced making them less expensive and easier to acquire.
Tom Blake: Tom Blake is a legendary and influential surfer. He may be best known for being the first photographer to capture surfers from the water using a waterproof casing for his cameras. His impact extends to innovating the design of surfboards, making them with lightweight materials and equipped with a fin; he was the first to design and construct a housing that waterproofed cameras; and he is an author of the history and culture of surfing.
John Kelly: John Kelly was a musician, inventor and life long surfer activist. He established the organization Save Our Surf in 1961, which was created to prevent offshore development around the Hawaiian Islands that would potentially destroy reefs, surfing areas and ocean resources. Kelly also invented the hydroplane surfboard.
Leroy 'Granny' Grannis: Leroy Grannis was dubbed by the New York Times as “The Godfather of Surfphotography” as he lead the way in shaping the global surfing culture with the images he captured of surfing.
Bob Simmons: Bob Simmons is considered by many to be “the father of the modern day surfboard.” Tom Blake built the first hollow board, which greatly reduced the weight of a surfboard. Additionally, Blake was also one of the first to consider putting a fin on a surfboard. Simmons, however took the leap of introducing the ultra light, ridgid materials, creating the smaller board that was performance based and had a twin fin design.
The future of surfing only continues to grow in popularity. Probably never thought possible by the early innovators like ‘The Duke’, Calhoun, Young, Blake, and Simmons was the idea of moving surfing inland. Technology today allows for creating an artificial wave. Although these artificial waves cannot replace the exhilaration of riding the real thing, they can offer surfers the opportunity to perfect their craft.
The increased access to waves combined with the potentially lucrative options of inland surfing demonstrates the sport of surfing continues to be on the rise. For further evidence of the continued growing popularity we need look no further than the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan where surfing will make its Olympic debut.
Surfing is not just a sport, it is it’s own culture, steeped in its own history and heritage. Surfers can be spotted on beaches around the world and this popularity has not occurred without significant influencers. The innovations, trends, and lifestyles have evolved from its beginnings in Polynesia and over the course of thousands of years due to the excitement, solitude and spiritual experiences one gets when riding a wave.
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.