The history of surfing is shrouded in the mists of time, as the origins of surfing are unknown.

Peruvian OriginsEdit

Considered the first surf craft, the Caballito de Totora is an ancient type of boat built in the north of Peru with a special plant called Totora.

Polynesian originsEdit

The art of surfing, called he'enalu in the Hawaiian language, was first observed by Captain Cook and the crew of the Dolphin in Hawaii in 1767. Surfing was a central part of ancient Polynesian culture and predates European contact. The chief (Kahuna) 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 extremely heavy boards.

The sport was also recorded in print by Augustin Kramer and 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. According to oral tradition, surfing was also practiced in Tonga, where the late king, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV was the foremost Tongan surfer of his time.

When the missionaries from Scotland and Germany arrived in 1821, they forbade or discouraged many Polynesian traditions and cultural practices, including, on Hawaii, leisure sports such as surfing and holua sledding. By the 20th century, surfing, along with other traditional practices, had all but disappeared. Only a small number of Hawaiians continued to practice the sport and the art of making surfboards.

Ancient HawaiiEdit

In Ancient Hawaii, 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 he okina e 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, okina ulu and wiliwili 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 okina olo, kiko okina o, and the Alaia. The okina olo is thick in the middle and gradually gets thinner towards the edges. The kiko okina o ranges in length from 12-18 foot and requires great skill to maneuver. The alaia board is around 9 foot 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 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.[1]

Some ancient sites still popular today include Kahaluu Bay and Holualoa Bay.[2]

North AmericaEdit

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 lb, 9 foot Hawaiian redwood board. "Big Jim's" board, given to him by his uncle, is believed to have originally been 12-15 foot 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 surfingEdit

Surfing was brought to Australia in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku. 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 Life Saving Club, Sydney, Australia.[3]

Modern surfing Edit

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Hawaiians living close to Waikiki began to revive surfing, and soon re-established surfing as a sport. 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.[4] 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. Until the 1960s, it had only a small following even in those areas. 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 teenagers 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 surf 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. Veronica Britton, The Sport of Kings [1]
  2. Restoring Sacred Places [2]
  3. Freshwater Surf Lifesaving Club - A 100 year history: 1908 - 2008 [3]
  4. Father Of International Surfing To Be Honored On New Postage Stamp [4]

External linksEdit

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