History of surfing

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The riding of waves has likely existed since humans began swimming in the ocean. In this sense, bodysurfing is the oldest type of wave-catching. Standing up on what is now called a surfboard is a relatively recent innovation developed by the Polynesians. The influences for modern surfing can be directly traced to the surfers of pre-contact Hawaii. It was recently found that the ancient people from Peru used to ride the waves of Trujillo in their Caballitos de Totora.

Polynesian origins

The art of surfing, called he'enalu in the Hawaiian language, was first described in 1769[1] by Joseph Banks on the HMS Endeavour during the third voyage of Captain James Cook. Surfing was a central part of ancient Polynesian culture and predates European contact. The chief (Ali'i) was the most skilled wave rider in the community with the best board made from the best tree. The ruling class had the best beaches and the best boards, and the commoners were not allowed on the same beaches, but they could gain prestige by their ability to ride the surf on their ratchet boards.

The sport was also recorded in print by other European residents and visitors who wrote about and photographed Samoans surfing on planks and single canoe hulls; Samoans referred to surf riding as fa'ase'e or se'egalu. Edward Treager also confirmed Samoan terminology for surfing and surfboards in Samoa. Oral tradition confirms that surfing was also practiced in Tonga, where the late king Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was the foremost Tongan surfer of his time.

Pre-Columbian Peru

Peru's Ministry of Culture has officially declared the use of the totora reed plant to be part of the national cultural patrimony of Peru. Totora is a large reed plant that has been used along the northern coast of Peru for a wide variety of purposes, including boating, fishing, commercial uses, and folk art. According to Andina news agency, the use of totora reeds dates back to the Mochica and Chimu cultures in Peru.

One of the most well-known uses for the totora reed is the construction of small boats called "caballitos de totora," or "little reed horses." Evidence suggests that the totora reed boats used in northern Peru may represent a kind of proto-surfboard, as it has they can be used to "ride" waves in a manner that is similar to the modern sport of surfing.

According to Andina, inhabitants of the northern coast have been using these small boats for recreational and fishing activities for centuries. Totora reed materials have been uncovered at the El Brujo archaeological complex, and artwork at the famed Chan Chan site includes depictions of similar small reed boats.

Practices involving totora reeds take place largely in the regions of Ancash, La Libertad, and Lambayeque, reports Andina. The declaration designating totora as part of Peru’s cultural patrimony recognizes the reed’s place as an important cultural component that has both deep historical roots and a continuing legacy in a modern nation.

Ancient Hawaii

The Ancient Hawaiian people did not consider surfing a mere recreational activity, hobby, extreme sport, or career as it is viewed today. Rather, the Hawaiian people integrated surfing into their culture and made surfing more of an art than anything else. They referred to this art as heʻe nalu which translates into English as "wave sliding." The art began before entering the mysterious ocean as the Hawaiians prayed to the gods for protection and strength to undertake the powerful mystifying ocean. If the ocean was tamed, frustrated surfers would call upon the kahuna (priest), who would aid them in a surfing prayer asking the gods to deliver great surf. Prior to entering the ocean, the priest would also aid the surfers (mainly of the upper class) in undertaking the spiritual ceremony of constructing a surfboard.

Hawaiians would carefully select one of three types of trees. The trees included the koa (Acacia koa), ʻulu (Artocarpus altilis), and wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis) trees. Once selected, the surfer would dig the tree out and place fish in the hole as an offering to the gods. Selected craftsman of the community were then hired to shape, stain, and prepare the board for the surfer. There were three primary shapes: the ʻolo, kikoʻo, and the alaia. The ʻolo is thick in the middle and gradually gets thinner towards the edges. The kikoʻo ranges in length from 12-18 feet (3.7-5.5 m) and requires great skill to maneuver. The alaia board is around 9 feet (2.7 m) long and requires great skill to ride and master. Aside from the preparatory stages prior to entering the water, the most skilled surfers were often of the upper class and pastors including chiefs and warriors that surfed amongst the best waves on the island. These upper class Hawaiians gained respect through their enduring ability to master the waves and this art the Hawaiians referred to as surfing.[2] Some ancient sites still popular today include Kahaluʻu Bay and Holualoa Bay.[3]

North America

In July 1885, three teenage Hawaiian princes took a break from their boarding school, St. Mathew's Hall in San Mateo, and came to cool off in Santa Cruz, California. There, David Kawananakoa, Edward Keliiahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River on custom-shaped redwood boards, according to surf historians Kim Stoner and Geoff Dunn.][4] In 1907 George Freeth was brought to California from Hawaii, to demonstrate surfboard riding as a publicity stunt to promote the opening of the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad owned by Henry Huntington, who gave his name to Huntington Beach. Freeth surfed at the Huntington Beach pier and traveled up and down the coast demonstrating surfing and life guard skills.

Surfing on the East Coast of the United States began in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1912 when James Matthias Jordan, Jr. captivated the locals astride a 110-pound (50 kg), 9-foot (2.7 m) Hawaiian redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) board. "Big Jim's" board, given to him by his uncle, is believed to have originally been 12-15 feet (3.7-4.6 m) tall, but was whittled from a round nose into an arrow-like shape. Virginia Beach has since become one of the centers of East Coast Surfing, and is host to the East Coast Surfing Championships.

Australian surfing

Surfing was brought to Australia in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku.[5] He demonstrated this ancient Hawaiian board riding technique at Freshwater (or Harbord) in Sydney, New South Wales. Duke Kahanamoku's Board is now on display in the northeast end of the Freshwater Surf lifesaving club, Sydney, Australia.[6]

Modern surfing

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Hawaiians living close to Waikiki began to revive surfing, and soon re-established surfing as a sport. The revival is linked to real estate development and efforts to boost tourism.[7] Duke Kahanamoku, "Ambassador of Aloha," Olympic medalist, and avid waterman, helped expose surfing to the world. Kahanamoku's role was later memorialized by a 2002 first class letter rate postage stamp of the United States Postal Service.[8] Author Jack London wrote about the sport after having attempted surfing on his visit to the islands. Surfing progressed tremendously in the 20th century, through innovations in board design and ever increasing public exposure.

Surfing's development and culture was centered primarily in three locations: Hawaii, Australia, and California, although the first footage of surfing in the UK was in 1929 by Louis Rosenberg and a number of friends after being fascinated by watching some Australian surfers. However it was only in the 1960s when it truly became worldwide and the release of the film Gidget boosted the sport's popularity immensely, moving surfing from an underground culture into a national fad and packing many surf breaks with sudden and previously unheard of crowds. B-movies and[surf music such as the Beach Boys and Surfaris based on surfing and Southern California beach culture (Beach Party films) as it exploded, formed most of the world's first ideas of surfing and surfers. This conception was revised again in the 1980s, with newer mainstream portrayals of surfers represented by characters like Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The anonymous sleeve notes on the 1962 album Surfin' Safari, the first album to be released on the Capitol label by The Beach Boys, include a rather tongue-in-cheek description of the sport of surfing thus:

"For those not familiar with the latest craze to invade the sun-drenched Pacific coast of Southern California, here is a definition of "surfing" - a water sport in which the participant stands on a floating slab of wood, resembling an ironing board in both size and shape, and attempts to remain perpendicular while being hurtled toward the shore at a rather frightening rate of speed on the crest of a huge wave (especially recommended for teen-agers and all others without the slightest regard for either life or limb)."

Regardless of its usually erroneous portrayal in the media, true surfing culture continued to evolve quietly by itself, changing decade by decade. From the 1960s fad years to the creation and evolution of the short board in the late 60s and early 70s to the performance hotdogging of the neon-drenched 1980s and the epic professional surfing of the 1990s (typified by Kelly Slater, the "Michael Jordan of Surfing").

Surfing Documentaries have been one of the main ways in which surfing culture grows and replenishes itself, not just as a sport but as an art form, the style and quality of surf films have often tracked well the evolution of the sport.


  1. http://files.legendarysurfers.com/blog/2006/07/endeavour-journal.html
  2. Veronica Britton (2004). "The Sport of Kings". University of Florida Interactive Media Lab. Retrieved 2009-11-07.
  3. "Hoʻihoʻi Kulana Wahi pana - Restoring Sacred Places". brochure published by Kamehameha Investment Corporation. 2008. Retrieved 2009-11-07.
  4. http://www.gtweekly.com/santa-cruz-news/good-times-cover-stories/936-riders-of-the-sea-spray.html
  5. Wendy Lewis, Simon Balderstone and John Bowan (2006). Events That Shaped Australia. New Holland. p. 115. ISBN 978-1-74110-492-9.
  6. Pauline Curby (November 2007). Freshie: Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club - A 100 year history: 1908 - 2008.
  7. "Inside the Curl: Surfing's Surprising History". August 2, 2013.
  8. "Father Of International Surfing To Be Honored On New Postage Stamp". United States Postal Service. July 30, 2002.


  • Quinn, Richard. "Region's First Surfboard Evokes a Wave of Nostalgia" The Virginian Pilot. August 21, 2008.
  • Interland, Peter. "Virginia Beach: Thoroughly Civil Surf" LongBoard Magazine. May/June 1998. Vol. 6, Number 2
  • Warshaw, Matt. The History of Surfing, San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-8118-5600-3

External links

Surfing museums