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A concise history of surfing


Since almost the beginning of time, man’s fascination with the sea, with its vastness and uniqueness, full of mystery and magnificent, is undeniable. Conquering the waves slowly became an irresistible challenge for the more adventurous spirits, with the moral and spiritual rewards granting a sense of power and excitement, at the same time. Below, we will attempt to sketch out a brief history of surfing, given its cultural impact on modern society and values.

Surfing was first observed by Joseph Banks, a British seaman dispatched onto the HMS Endeavour during James Cook’s first voyage, while the ship was stationed in Tahiti. It is now widely accepted that surfing is a practice of Polynesian origin; a central component of this particular culture, it predated European contact.

Traditionally, the chief was the person the most skilled in riding the waves in the community, having the best board, made of the best wood. In fact, it was natural that the ruling class have the best boards and the best beaches available, while the commoners had to settle with other beaches; however, they could gain prestige in the eyes of the wealthy by their abilities to surf.

With the passing of time, during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, other European visitors recorded (in writing or photography) this sport, practiced by Samoans who used to surf on planks and single canoe hulls. Samoans used to refer to surf riding as “fa’ase’e” or “se’egalu.” Researcher Edward Treager confirmed this Samoan terminology for surfing and surfboards in Samoa.

Oral tradition also confirms that surfing was practiced in Tonga as well, where the late King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV was known as the foremost Tongan surfer of his time.

As to the history of Hawaiian surfing, it is important to observe that ancient Hawaiians did not view surfing merely as a sport, a hobby or recreational activity, but rather proceeded to integrate it in the Hawaiian culture, almost to the point of making surfing more of an art than anything else.

The term they used was “he’e nalu”, which translated into English as “wave sliding.” Echoing our opening sentence, Hawaiians first proceeded to pray for protection and strength to the gods before entering the vast and mysterious ocean. Should the waters be calm, help was provided by the assistance of a “kahuna” (priest), who would pray to the gods to deliver great surf.

Concerning the modern period and, particularly, the United States, surfing started to emerge towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. In July 1885, three Hawaiian princes named David Kawananakoa, Edward Keli’iahonui and Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole took a break from the classes that were taught at their boarding school and arrived in Santa Cruz, California.

There, they proceeded to surf the mouth of the San Lorenzo river on redwood boards that were custom-shaped. Surfboard riding was once again in the spotlight when, in 1907, George Freeth was brought to California from Hawaii to demonstrate it as a publicity stunt for the opening of the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad, owned by Henry Huntington, whose name was later given to the Huntington Beach.

On the East Coast, surfing has its origins in the town of Wrightsville Beach (North Carolina), in 1909, when it was introduced there by Burke Haywood Bridgers and a colony of surfers. In 2015, the state of North Carolina honored Bridgers’ and the surfer colony’s legacies by placing a North Carolina Highway Marker for “Pioneer East Coast Surfing” on Wrightsville Beach and designating Wrightsville Beach as the birthplace of surfing in North Carolina.

The importance of this particular state in the history of surfing is given by the fact that it was its second entry path into the United States, migrating from Hawaii to California and North Carolina about the same time, then towards Florida.

The history of surfing in Australia can also be traced to the beginning of the twentieth century when, in 1910, Tommy Walker returned to Manly Beach, Sydney, with a 10-foot surfboard “bought at Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, for two dollars.” He soon went on to become an expert rider, giving several exhibitions in Sydney two years later.

In the summer of 1914-1915, several Sydney beaches hosted a series of exhibitions organized by the Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, fact which generated national exposure for surfboard riding. Given his Olympic sprint champion status, he was invited to tour the Eastern states for an extensive series of swimming carnivals; at his first appearance in the Domain Pool, Sydney, Kahanamoku smashed his previous world record for 100 yards by a full second.

Following the first exhibition at Freshwater on 24 December 1914, in the New Year he again demonstrated his skill at Freshwater and Manly, followed by appearances at Dee Why and Cronulla. His board is now on display in the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club, Sydney, in Australia.

After 1900, surfing experienced somewhat of a revival by the Hawaiians in the vicinity of Waikiki, who established it as a sport. This reasons behind this revival can be found in the real estate development and in the effort to attract tourists. By means of innovation of the boards’ design and by the ever-increasing public exposure, surfboard riding experienced a huge progress throughout the twentieth century.

Although centered primarily in Hawaii, Australia, and California, the first video footage of surfing in the UK was recorded in 1929. The 1959 release of the biopic Gidget, a movie based on the life of surfer Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, helped the sport’s popularity to go through the roof, catapulting surf from the underground to the mainstream culture. This was the starting point of the history of windsurfing, where the boards received a sail thanks to twelve-year-old Peter Chilvers, in 1958.

The formation, evolution, and propagation of a so-called “surf culture” has its roots in this veritable explosion in exposure; more movies about surf were made, especially in the 1980s and 1990s and a great number of surf bands emerged.



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