The History of Surfing

The History of Surfing




The History of Surfing


This original post can be found on the Gondwana Ecotours Blog.



Surfing was not invented by the Beach Boys, nor a group of teenage, mutated reptiles, surprisingly. The origins of surfing cannot actually be pinpointed to a single place and time, but the first written records of the hobby come to us via the diary of Lieutenant James King aboard the Discovery in 1779. He writes:


“The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plank about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, they wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity…”



Though the language is dated, it gives a clear picture of the modern counterpart we live with today. This passage was written in Hawaii long before it was occupied by the “Haole” or “white-skinned people”, who would ultimately disrupt many of the traditions of the polynesian empire.


It is very likely that variations of surfing and body-surfing existed for thousands of years in Polynesia, from Hawaii to New Zealand to Tahiti. Hawaii, however, is where the practice put down the strongest roots and would serve as the point of export to the rest of the world. Though no written language existed for Hawaiians to document their culture, pieces of history have been preserved through song and spoken word. Through these sources, it is clear that surfing was not just a hobby of many Hawaiians, but also carried a good deal of spiritual heft with it. Surfing chants were recorded, priests were involved in the rituals of making surfboards, and there were numerous Gods involved in the ornate act of riding a wave.


It wasn’t until after Calvinist missionaries arrived and began to convert Hawaiians (and outlaw Hawaiian practices such as hula) to the Christian faith that surfing began to diminish in prevalence. With this conversion that essentially stripped away the spiritual aspects of surfing, coupled with the ravaging of the Hawaiian population by disease, surfing was near drowning at the beginning of the 20th century.


Coincidentally, Americans were instrumental in the destruction of surfing and its revival as well. In 1907, author Jack London came to Hawaii at the high of his celebrity. He stumbled upon surfing when eccentric journalist and wanderer Alexander Hume Ford showed him the Waikiki Swimming Club, whose members met to swim and surf. Taken with the sport, London was introduced to young George Freethe, one of the islands’ most celebrated surfers.


London went on to publish A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki which was the wave that surfing had been waiting to catch. After being widely consumed, Freethe was invited to California to demonstrate surfing at the promotion to the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway, which was a crucial moment for the upswing of surfing’s popularity. This display of skill set off an interest in the sport in the US and the next several decades saw slow, steady growth in popularity. In 1959, the film Gidget portrayed surfing as the main back-drop in a hollywood film which hugely pushed popularity. From there, the Beach Boys and the “Beach Party” film genre brought the idea of surfing into mainstream consciousness while decade by decade, changes were made to the composition of the board itself.


Gone were the 12-24 foot boards (which sometimes weighed over 100 pounds) of native Hawaiians: Over the span of the 20th century, boards became shorter and more lightweight to resemble the boards we use today. By the 1970’s, when surfing became a competitive sport, the modern surfboard had been born. Surfing spread quickly to southern California and Australia in the early 20th century, but many parts of the world now enjoy this pastime. Renowned surf-breaks have been established in some some surprising locations, including Senegal, France, Morocco, and Oklahoma. Just kidding, not Oklahoma.


Globalization has brought many changes to the way we surf, with newer, lighter boards allowing for faster surfers, more frequent breaks, and longer sessions. Competitive surfing is something that may have existed informally in Polynesia, but the organization of competition is something altogether new. Interestingly, though in cultures like the United States there is no explicitly spiritual aspect or denomination associated with surfing, it tends to be heavily associated with Rastafarian and Caribbean cultures, inasmuch as surfers, and those who would spend large swaths of time on beaches and islands in general, have earned a reputation for their unparalleled skill at relaxing and generally being unfettered by worries and trappings of modern life. This is, of course, purely an observation of the author, and is not rooted in objective fact. By and large, surfing has become an activity that is enjoyed by all kinds of people from all over the world. From “Doc” Ball, an American surfer who continued to ride the waves into his 90’s to children in Donegal, Ireland, it continues to be pastime that a huge variety of people enjoy.




Whether it is in Hawaii or Portugal (where recently the largest-recorded surfed wave was surfed by Garrett McNamara), surfing continues to grow in popularity by a diverse range of surfers. Whether a workout, a meditation, a vacation, or just a good time is the goal, you’ll likely be able to find it on a board.


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