Where Surfing History All Started
Surfing History in a nutshell. The first account of wave riding was written in 1769 by Botanist Joseph Banks when he saw locals riding the majestic waves of Matavai Bay, Tahiti during his visit to the Pacific island.
However, the most popular account of surfing as a sport that reached the outside world was through the log of Captain James Cook’s HMS Discovery. On his third and last exploratory expedition in 1778 to find a passage linking the North Pacific and the Atlantic.
While stopping at the Hawaiian Big Island, Captain Cook and his crew witnessed a sport like no other ever seen by any European; riding the waves on a piece of wood.
While Cook’s last voyage to the North Pacific ended in tragedy. The crew went back to England with amusing tales of daredevil locals braving walls of violent waves, and coming off unscathed despite many near catastrophic close calls.
From the era of the great migrations of the Polynesians into the Northern Pacific islands of Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji, and more. Surfing has been a sport, religious rite, status symbol and favorite pastime of the people who called the islands home.
Origin of Surfing
Surfing has been an integral part of the lives of the Polynesians who lived in Hawaii. Throughout all their voyages in search of an ideal settlement in the midst of the Pacific.
As far back as 900 BCE, ancient Polynesians have been known to ride the waves on “olo” surfboards as part of their religious rights. A traditional sport and an expression of strength and mastery.
Whether standing or lying down, the Europeans who visited Hawaii in the later part of the 18th century found the sport to be complex linked with the social and religious life of their hosts.
Multiple anthropological sources on the history of surfing suggest that the Polynesians were the first to do a sport out of playing in the surf. While the Tahitians and Hawaiians are both known to have ridden the waves on specially made planks.
The Hawaiians contributed the most to the development, preservation, and popularity of the sport throughout the tumultuous era that followed the voyage of the Europeans and their annexation by the United States.
In ancient Hawaii, surfing was deeply rooted in the local folklore of the Hawaiians, their music, chants, and, landscape were full of legendary stories of chiefs and commoners performing acts of heroism in the ocean.
The Hawaiian society of old had a caste system which divided the population into chiefs and commoners. The society was administered with a code of taboos known in Hawaii as kapu.
The kapu regulated every aspect of the Hawaiian life, including wave riding.
To build the plank for surf riding, the locals used wood from a certain tree.
During the process of making the wave riding board, chants, and religious rites were performed to seek the blessings of the gods.
The chiefs and commoners did not surf or swim in the same waters. It was a prohibited for a commoner to surf in the same reef or beach as the chiefs or, even ride on the same waves as the ruling class.
Also, commoners and chiefs used different wave riding surfboards. The chiefs were riding the surfs with 24-feet long olo surfboards while the commoners used 12-footer papios surfboards.
Despite the rich culture and great love of surfing, the arrival of Europeans on the Hawaiian islands almost killed the sport and the local population.
From the time of the departure of Cook’s last expedition to the region, an influx of adventurers, sailors, business opportunists, foreign religion, and diseases brought untold hardships to the Hawaiians and their way of life. Especially surfing as a sport, tradition, and religious expression receded over the century and a half, like all other aspects of Hawaiian life.
By the early 1800s, European and American missionaries were preaching against many aspects of Hawaii culture, including engaging in surfing and many aspects of the kapu system.
This led to a radical reduction and dilution of the surfing culture, especially its religious aspects. Surfing as a sport was almost in its death throes by the end of the 19th century.
In 1893, a group of business opportunists illegally overthrew the Hawaii chiefdom with the assistance of the US military, missionaries, and plantation owners.
By 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii, making it the 51st state of continental USA, and dealing a crushing blow to surfing.
A Resurgence: The 1900s
In the history of surfing, perhaps the most influential people who helped put this ancient sport on the global sporting map are Jack London, Alexander Hume Ford, Duke Kahanamoku, and George Freeth.
While the near death of surfing was due to the catastrophic actions of foreigners, the resurgence of the sport is credited largely to the work of the same people, known as kaole in Hawaii.
In 1907, the acclaimed writer Jack London and his wife visited Hawaii. While staying at a Waikiki beach, London was taught how to surf by itinerant journalist Alexander Hume Ford. It was here that London first met George Freeth.
To London, Freeth had a unique, almost superhuman understanding of the waves. His rendition of his Hawaii experience, published in A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki was one of the juiciest and most mesmerizing glorification of surfing and the wave rider.
The popularity of London helped pique the imagination of many people about this new sport of kings. It wasn’t long after that George Freeth was invited to California to demonstrate the act of surfing to the general public, making him one of the most popular surfers of the modern era.
Alexander Hume Ford was instrumental in the development of the surfing sport in Waikiki and abroad. He campaigned for the creation of a surf club at the Queen Emma Estate of Waikiki, culminating in the establishment of the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club on May 1, 1908. The first surfing club in Hawaii with a singular purpose of making wave riding a sport known to the world.
Before then, Hawaiians had started the Hui Nalu club as a local effort to raise the interest of the population in the favorite pastime of their forebears.
Duke Kahanamoku was a pioneer member of the Hui Nalu Club. He was one of the best surfer and swimmer of all time. Duke was the quintessential Polynesian, with a solid build, and almost superhuman agility on the surfboard and in the water.
Kahanamoku was one of the best surfers in Hawaii at the time and would go on to spread the sport all over the world during demonstrations and competitions.
He was an extremely successful swimmer. In the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. And went on repeat the same spectacular performance four years later at the Antwerp Olympics.
Due to his fame, Duke became a favorite of Hollywood directors who had plenty of roles to cast him in. He never was tired of giving both public and private surfing demonstrations whenever and wherever he had the opportunity.
Thus helping to propagate this age-old Hawaiian sport to the world, specificaly in Australia which has become the biggest surfing nation in the world.
Australians have heard news of wave riding, but most Australians, be it settler or aborigine had never seen a man riding the waves with a piece of plank while standing upright with an almost carefree attitude.
But in February of 1915, Duke was going to show Australians what it was like to enjoy the sport of kings.
At the invitation of the New South Wales Swimming Association to give a swimming exhibition in Sydney, Duke used the opportunity also to showcase his mastery on the waves, to the admiration and utter bewilderment of many Australians. Who at the time couldn’t believe it was possible to literally walk on water, albeit with a piece of plank.
The experience was truly out of this world. Marking the beginning of the explosion of this extreme sport in the ocean-loving Down Under. That was how surfing started in Australia on a large scale.
The role of Duke and Freeth in surfing reduced during the late 1920s. But while George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku played a prominent part in propagating wave surfing, surfing history is not complete without mentioning the contributions of Tom Blake.
Natives of Wisconsin, Tom Blake and Sam Reid are credited as the first people to surf Malibu in 1928. Paving the way for the popularity of the spectacular waves which have cemented those beaches on the surfing map of the world.
Tom Blake is one of the most influential people in surf history, mainly when surfing started becoming a competitive sport.
In 1928, Tom Blake organized the first Pacific Coast Surf riding Championship at Corona del Mar, California.
Meanwhile, the sport of surfing had been winning new converts gradually ever since George Freeth, and Duke Kahanamoku first gave their public demonstrations in the earlier part of the century.
The first championships saw the influx of surfers from all over California. This continued until 1941 when the hostilities of the Second World War prevented the organizers from holding the event.
In 1930, Tom Blake succeeded in building the first waterproof surf camera housing which enabled him to capture all the surfing action from the water.
Evolution of the Surfboard
All through the start of surfing’s resurgence as a popular sport, most of the wave riding was done on heavy, extremely long surfboards with low maneuverability. But by the 1950s upwards, surfing became even more popular with advances in technology which infused more excitement into the game.
Thanks to the efforts of surfers like Tom Blake. Who in 1935 introduced the first stabilizing surfboard fin on a surfboard. He also invented a twin system to a hollow timber surfboard in 1943, and many other innovations. Surfing exploded all over the world.
In California and Hawaii and other surfing destinations of the world, heavy wooden surfboards were still the norm. In classical Hawaiian fashion, the heavier, longer timber surfboards created a smooth, steady but never-the-less spectacular wave-riding experience.
But as more people took an interest in surfing; creative and innovative minds went to work to make the perfect surfboard. From the old redwood surfboards, companies and individuals started experimenting with different materials to build surfboards.
Some people still prefer their surfboard to be made from wood, but there are several other surfboards made from lighter materials which offer increased maneuverability and speed. Also, the introduction of surfboard fins for stability, surf wax, coatings, and other technologies have increased the efficiency of the surfing board significantly.
Surfboards started shrinking in size from the 60s and 70s, culminating in the modern shortboard which makes it possible for surfers to perform mind-blowing aggressive maneuvers while riding the waves at neck-breaking speeds. Today, a lot of different surfboard types are made with new materials, and designs. Making the surfboards faster and easy to maneuver.
The design, materials, and the dizzying options of surfboards available today is a far cry from the earlier days of surfing in the modern era, and so are the unbelievable moves they make possible.
Ironically, the technological advancements that took place during the World War II were pivotal to the development of materials used in today’s modern super maneuverable surfboards.
The Invention of the Wetsuit
One important but mostly relegated invention, which transformed surfing from an exotic sport of a privileged few to a mass sport enjoyed by people all over the world all year round is the wetsuit.
Before the invention of the wetsuit, it was practically impossible for most surfers to ride the waves in California and other places during the cold months. Except for the very few daredevils who would rather risk a painful cold death than forgot their love of surfing.
But this was all going to change in 1951 when MIT physicist Hugh Bradner produced the first neoprene wetsuit.
However, it was Jack O’Neill who is credited with making the neoprene wetsuit popular. When he opened a surf shop in San Francisco the following year after Hugh Bradner made his wetsuit.
With the wetsuit, surfers no longer have to wait until the water temperature rose to safer levels.
Not only did the wetsuit allow surfers to surf year round, but it also enabled lovers of the sport to practice more and stay longer in the water without risking their health.
Jack O’Neill holds an important place in surfing history. As a result of the immense contributions he made to the development of wetsuits.
His company O’Neill became a global brand in surfing and other aquatic sports. Making it possible for ocean addicts to ignite their passion for the water sports to the fullest.
The Role of the Media
From the expository work of Jack London after his Hawaii trips, the success of surfing as one of the most popular sports today is attributable to the exposure it got from the media.
Starting from the work of John H Doc Ball who pioneered surfing photograph. To his friend Leroy Grannis’ vivid surfing photographs. Which led him to become the first photographer for the Surfing Magazine and many others. Surfing magazines and surfing tours helped to increase awareness in the sport.
Hollywood also played a central role in boosting the appeal of surfing as a popular sport. As more people moved to experience the unique surfing experience offered by iconic Hawaiian waves. Filmmakers, photographers, journalists, writers, and celebrities started gravitating towards surfing as well, setting the stage for the massive immersion of surfing into the lives of people all over the world.
Movies like Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo, The Endless Summer as well as the rise of the surf rock genre championed by Dick Dale and the Beach Boys helped to hammer surfing into the consciousness of the society.
Now, teachers, college students, actors, engineers, and everybody else want to have a share of the excitement and fun offered by surfing.
Commercialization of Surfing
As more people embraced surfing, it became clear to the savvy that there are endless opportunities in the surfing industry. Surfing gave rise to a unique culture with its distinct fashion, music, technologies, media frenzy, celebrities, and multi-million dollar competitions.
From an obscure sport of native Hawaii. Surfing is now blasted all year round with the development of social media and on-demand TV. There are thousands of companies making surfing kits in a multibillion-dollar industry. The number of surf clubs continues to increase as the sport receives new converts every day.
Surfing competitions go on all year round, with the biggest events hosting men and women competitions in multiple locations from Hawaii to South Africa, and from Sydney to California. With thousands of spectators and millions of prize money to be won.
Who would have thought that a Polynesian sport would become a much-loved pastime of millions of people all over the world?
From its humble origins in Hawaii. The sport of surfing has grown to become a global sport that will be featured in the 2020 Olympics, with Australia now becoming the headquarters of the surfing world.
The great surfing history is a true manifestation of the age-old saying that time heals everything.This is all about our amazing sport; surfing history all happened.