Last Updated on June 18, 2023 by Matt
Today, surfing has become a thriving sport with a huge number of enthusiasts around the world. Some surf professionally, some competitively, while for others it’s a way to let loose and have fun.
Despite surfing’s free-spirited vibe, it has a richer and deeper history than many of us realize.
The history of surfing is deep and colorful and includes many crazy characters from over the years. It’s almost impossible to imagine how the first person to ever brave the waves felt, and what surfing would become in the 21st Century.
Nobody really knows who the first person to ever ride a wave was. Many believe that the idea of surfing originated in the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific Ocean. Whilst we have cave paintings to document this – there are images of people riding waves on what seem to be surfboards, other parts of the World also lay claim to be the originators of surfing.
One such country where people first took to the waves is Peru, South America. The boards, known locally as Caballito de Totora are thick and heavy made from straw, and look more like a canoe or kayak than a surfboard. The thinking is that these ‘boards’ were used by local fishermen, and they would then ride the waves back to shore after a day of fishing.
Whilst surfing was starting to take off in Peru and other Polynesian Islands, it actually flourished in Hawaii. It’s really where surfing evolved as a sport, advanced to what it is now, and was properly documented. This is also part of the reason why we all associate Hawaii as the birthplace of ‘modern’ surfing.
THE KAPU SYSTEM
Though surfing is considered a recreational activity, it goes far and beyond that when it started. Back in the day, surfing actually has a social and spiritual significance for the people in Hawaii. Every aspect of surfing (and life in Hawaii) had a meaning and followed a set of rules, also known as Kapu.
In ancient Hawaii, The Kapu System, was pretty intense with various rules. For instance, if you entered the chief’s house in wet clothing, you could be beaten, stoned or burnt to death! Crazy right? This system was later abolished in the early 19th Century, but the rules and hierarchy in surfing still remain strong in Hawaii.
For Hawaiians, they have so much respect for surfing that they would make offerings when they selected a tree to carve as a board and ask for waves through prayers through a kahuna, a person that they considered a Shaman. Back then, surfing was not as simple as grabbing a board and hitting the waves. Rituals has to be made in all walks of life.
Hawaiians also had a class system allowing the elites in society exclusive rights at certain surf breaks. In the early days of surfing ordinary folk couldn’t surf wherever they liked – there was a strict hierarchy.
Unlike the competitive surf culture today where surfers compete for contest wins and titles, the Hawaiians competed to earn respect and their status in this social hierarchy. Though surfing was regarded as a sport for kings, people from all walks of life and all ages surfed during that time.
THE FIRST SURFBOARDS
It is mind-blowing how they came up with the first surfboards. Most ancient Hawaiians would use an alaia board.
Thin, round-nosed, midsized, and has an edgy or square-shaped tail. Similarly others would use a paipo board, smaller in size than the alaia, designed for riding on your belly, face down, like you would ride a modern day boogie board or bodyboard.
For the chieftains, they would ride the Olo board, which is double the size of a longboard that we have today. This would emphasise their social class – not just by the spots where they’d surf, but also by the type of boards they would ride – The larger the board, the higher the social status.
These surfboards had no fins, considered essential for stabilization and controlling direction today. It demonstrates how natural Hawaiians are in the water. It’s almost like they were born to surf.
These early surfboards were made out of natural resources like Wili Wili, Ula, and Koa woods. Super heavy to carry, hard to paddle, and really difficult to control when on the waves, they also have very little buoyancy which makes it even harder to balance when you are up and riding.
Though surfing was already alive and evolving in Ancient times, it was only in 1777 that surfing was officially described and documented. European explorers came to Hawaii aboard Captain James Cook’s ship, Resolution.
They were in awe when they witnessed native Hawaiians riding waves. William Anderson, a surgeon who is part of the voyage, wrote in his journal recorded in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean:
“He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath.
He then sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach.”
Despite the attempt to discourage surfing by various parties, the spirit of the sport remained alive and could never really be dampened.
In 1855, three Hawaiian princes Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, David Kawānanakoa, and Edward Keliʻiahonui brought surfing to the mainland US, shaping their own boards out of local Redwood. This is when the seed of surfing was planted in the United States.
PIONEERS OF MODERN SURFING
Surfing is what it is now because of the first people who believed in the power and beauty of the sport, which resonated with anyone who witnessed it. Their knowledge and vision were instrumental in surf culture – It takes collective minds to bring ideas into life.
GEORGE FREETH (1883 – 1919)
George Freeth, an iconic man called “The Man Who Can Walk on Water” and the “Hawaiian Wonder,” was another man to bring surfing to the USA – California to be exact. Freeth was born on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu and had a vision to promote surfing at uncrowded spots.
Freeth was the first professional surfer and basically initiated surfing in the US Mainland. He believed that surfing was not only for those who live near a surf break – he wanted the sport to be known even in far flung places.
DUKE KAHANAMOKU (1890 – 1968)
Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympian swimmer, also paved the way for surfing to be known overseas. Kahanamoku was one of the few people who still surfed in Hawaii at that time when surfing had declined.
He traveled to California, Australia, and New Zealand to showcase his amazing talent in surfing and swimming. Kahanamoku was a global icon in surfing and he excelled in every water sport that he tried. He really belonged in the water.
ALEXANDER HUME FORD (1868 – 1945)
Another passionate surfer who built the first surfing organization is Alexander Hume Ford, known to many as “Hume.” Though there was a decline in surfing in Hawaii during his time, it did not stop him from chasing waves. His love for the sport made him eager to pioneer the promotion of surfing everywhere he went. With this, Hume’s brainchild, the Outrigger Canoe Club, was founded.
It was a formal organization that aimed to keep surfing alive and thriving. Hume also used his talent in photography and writing to tell the world about the majestic sport. His surf shots were the first photos of surfing that were featured in magazines. He is also very much part of Freeth and Kahanamoku’s surfing career.
Upon Meeting Hume Ford, Jack London, a famous writer and social activist, learned how to surf during his holiday trip to Hawaii. He was so stoked with his experience that he wrote about it and it opened more doors for tourists to appreciate Hawaii and the surfing culture. London then became an ambassador of surfing.
TOM BLAKE (1902 – 1994)
Another guy who ought to be a household name in surfing is Tom Blake, a man who turned surfing into a 20th century lifestyle. He was the first person to ever surf Malibu. He was greatly influenced by friend and mentor Duke Kahanamoku. Blake is the game changer when it comes to surfboards.
He thought of ways to improve the big chunky surfboards that were so heavy and difficult to maneuver in the ocean. He studied the Olo boards and tried to improve them by using a marine plywood veneer to make a lighter and smaller board.
At first, it wasn’t fully accepted in the surf community and people found it odd because they are not used to a long, narrow board. However, Blake was confident with his invention and disregarded the negative comments. He patented his hollow surfboard and people soon appreciated it due to its improved maneuverability.
He is even credited with the first person to use a fin on a surfboard. And if that isn’t enough to consider him as a surfing legend, he’s even the first person who ever thought of using a waterproof case for a camera for better surfing photography. His innovative mind inspired many people in the surf community to keep on reinventing to better the sport.
HUGH BRADNER (1915 – 2008)
Of course, we cannot disregard the genius mind that thought of making a neoprene wetsuit. Hugh Bradner was conducting research that required him to have a good number of underwater dives.
Being exposed to the cold water frustrated him so much he came up with a suit that can insulate to help retain the body’s heat. Over the years many iterations of the wetsuit have come about, but if it weren’t for Bradner’s initiative, surfing would still be limited to tropical countries.
GEORGE DOWNING (1930 – 2018)
As for big wave surfing, we have to include the rise of George Downing, an environmentalist and surf pioneer. In his teenage years, in the 1940’s, he started exploring big waves at Makaha, Hawaii.
He didn’t just brave bigger waves, he also designed surfboards that were fit for riding these big waves. Amongst other innovations, Downing came up with the first changeable fin system.
He always did things with careful planning – he even studied maritime weather forecasts and swell charts to try to be precise when surfing big waves.
Now that we have a glimpse of the deep roots of surfing, there are still a lot of things to unfold and appreciate.
It literally takes many eras to hone the craft of surfing. There were many different genius minds that contributed to its growth and popularity. The important thing is that it continues to be respected and admired.
Up until now, surfing still continues to thrive throughout the globe. It even plays a big role in local tourism of coastal areas. Now it is not only a mere hobby or activity, but it has provided livelihood to locals. Unlike before when surfing was a privilege, surfing now has indeed blossomed through and through, that every person in a lineup is equal, no more checking of social status.
Every person in the history of surfing has significantly contributed to the beautiful and exciting sport that surfing is now. As long as waves exist, the surf community will continue to look for ways to improve surfing so that there will be room for people from all walks of life.
The rich and dynamic history of surfing, tracing its origins from ancient Polynesian culture to its current global status is truly fascinating.
It emphasizes how the craft of surfing has been honed over many eras, with numerous innovative minds contributing to its growth and popularity. Surfing’s impact is not confined to the realm of sport alone, as it plays a significant role in local tourism in coastal areas and provides livelihood to locals.
The article underscores the democratization of surfing, which was once considered a privilege, and its evolution into a universally accessible sport, where every person in the lineup is equal, regardless of social status.