Love the waves but wonder where it all began? What was happening when there wasn’t anything to surf and what drove mankind to start riding? Here is our concise history starting where it all began…
The act of riding waves has it’s origins in Polynesia — over 3,000 years ago. Fisherman discovered wave-riding to be an effective method of hauling their catch to shore. Somewhere along the lines this developed from a work activity into a past-time.
“On Walking one day about the Matavai Point, where our tents were erected, I saw a man paddling in a swell so quickly and looking about him with such eagerness of each side.
“He then sat motionless and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach. Then he stared out, empties his canoe, and went in search of another swell.
“I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”
The Polynesian settlers (ancestors of the Native Hawaiians) were probably skilled in simplistic surfing, but since they arrived during the third century one could deduce by the 18th century they were masters at the art.
This is where the well-known Hawaiian form of the sport comes into play. Thus the class system was formed. Yes, as we have localism now — and within that a class system, or a hierarchy if you will.
There is a place in the line-up for all; depending on skill level and rights to the break. A universal etiquette that any surfer with half a brain cell (Spicoli we’re looking at you!) knows this.
The Hawaiians were the first to create a lifestyle around surfing
The Hawaiians were the first to create a lifestyle around surfing. The high class, or ali’i, had the highest reputation for their skills — developing their own prayers, board shapers, wood, and beaches where a select few could surf with those who matched their level.
Only three types of trees were used by the ancients, the board maker would dig up the tree and place fish around the roots — in the holes — as an offering to the Gods. Shaping was born.
By the 19th Century surfing had nearly died out. Now only practiced by a few Natives on the island of Oahu.
Thanks to Captain Cook who “discovered” Hawaii (he ‘Columbus-ed’ it; discovered it for the western world), Hawaii was now full of foreigners who came to explore the isles (or just steal their land and impose their own culture).
The native population had decreased, only making up 25.7% of the total Hawaiian population.
The sport had regressed to its roots of short boards and simplistic techniques.
The lack of participation fuelled rumours that only Hawaiians could balance on a board.
But thanks to these dedicated natives the dream was kept alive.
Enter the “Father of Modern Surfing” Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku was an olympic swimmer who began a surf club on Waikiki beach. He swam in exhibitions and swimming meets in Europe and the U.S.
Irrespective of the myth, Natives and Caucasians local to Honolulu joined Dukes surf club and the beginning of what would become a global interest was born.
Due to Dukes popularity he attracted the attention of those on the West Coast U.S. and southern Californians became interested in surfing.
However, George Freeth has his part to play in this new love in California. Freeth, Hawaiian native of Irish-Hawaiian decent, moved to California and earned acclaim as the states first lifeguard; he was also the first promotional surfer — promoting a local railway company.
By the 1930s frustration had kicked in. People were growing too big for their boots. Simplistic technique was growing tiresome and the desire to strive for more out grew the current technology. It was from this moment that shaping and construction primarily focused on innovation.
Tom Blake was one of the early pioneers of innovations, his ‘Hollow Hawaiian board’ weighed half that of a traditional board causing much controversy amongst competitors — but overall it is recognised as a success.
During these crucial years shapers were arguably their most pioneering across the board. Not only were they experimenting with shapes, size, and weights, there was also new materials at hand.
Blake introduced the single fin — allowing one to cut through the wave and guide with more accuracy. Word War II aided in the discovery of chemicals and materials.
Thanks to research during the war effort, surfers could now use waterproof glues, allowing them to piece things together without the use of clunky bolts running from rail to rail. The War also brought the introduction of fibreglass, resin, and styrofoam (yes, foamies are a result of the war.)
Moving on from the antics of WWII, the dubious Mr Ford had his part to play. The introduction of the automobile allowed for the ‘surf safari’ (or Surfari), to Kooks, this is the act of driving along the coast in search of waves. Those Californians sure took advantage of their resources.
‘The Golden Age’
The Golden Age of surfing began in the 1950s.
War was over, and for our friends across the pond leisure time was a big thing. Beach movies, T.V. programmes, and surf fashion helped to achieve the commercialisation of the sport and reinvent the lifestyle.
Rather an activity that is very zen in nature, it was overloaded with preppyness, and ‘the Beach Boys.’ Big Blonde guys, with big long boards (over compensating perhaps?) The time of wipe-out played on repeat and everyone doing the swim.
It was a shame when the infatuation died, in other respects it was a God-send. Much like the hipster bandwagon today, and the elitists wishing it would end, the preppyness eventually did.
The 1970s was the outcast period for surfing. Before surfers were clean cut, respectable, young men, on the athletic side. Now if you surfed you were a loser, a drop-out, drug addict — y’know, something on the bottom of somebody’s booties.
However, this left only the true surfers — at the risk of sounding like an elitist douche.
With its humble beginnings in Hawaii, and its boost to the mainstream culture in California, the now outcast period for the U.S. was a very different story for our sisters south of the equator.
Surfing for the Aussies began around 1910 when Tommy Walker brought his two dollar board he acquired on Waikiki beach back to Manly Beach, Sydney — becoming an ‘expert rider’ by 1912.
However, it was good ol’ Duke Kahanamoku who, much like with California, got those Aussies excited of the new craze after a number of exhibitions during the summer of 1914 – 1915 in Sydney. His board is now on display at the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club, Sydney.
By the 1970s Australia had become the new central hub for surfing.
Despite the books showing that it was these three prime locations where surfing developed, it is worth noting that the first footage of surfing in the UK was shot in 1929 by Louis Rosenberg and friends when they were fascinated by some Aussie surfers.
From this period surfing quietly developed, 1975 saw Margo Oberg become the first female pro surfer.
As surfing slowly grew and seeped back into mainstream culture, the conception was revised again by the 1980s and we became familiar with the idea of the dopey surfer, such as Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jeff Spicoli in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemount High.’
The 1990s is where professional surfing really took off. Although competitions were here long before, this saw the beginning of the industrialisation. Pros like Kelly Slater, who lets face it, is the Michael Jordan or David Beckham of surfing, pushed the bar and inspired so many. Still competing, he’s now up against many of those he inspires, and he’s still killing it.
In recent years, it’s an ever-growing body. Currently a million dollar industry that has invaded many aspects of life and ignited a fire in so many to learn more. Documentaries, news outlets, and reflections such as this, help fuel and revise what the lifestyle is, and embed itself in many places across the globe — even where there are no coastlines.
Lead image: Surfing at Ormond Beach in Oxnard, California, in 1975