History Of Surfing

By: Evan Finneke

Published: October 4, 2006

Most likely birthed prior to fourth century Polynesia and sharpened to perfection in its celebrated home of Hawaii, the sport of surfing has a history full of controversy, mystery and certainly excitement.

Surfing took root in early Hawaiian culture and became not only a recreational element of their lifestyle, but also helped spiritually connect them to the water and nature surrounding every aspect of life on the Islands. The earliest European writings referring to surfing came out of the journals of English explorer Captain James Cook and Lt. James King in 1779.  After discovering the Hawaiian Islands, the explorers witnessed the natives riding on top of the water. They wrote down and described what they thought seemed impossible: the riding of a wave in a standing position merely using a long, wooden plank. Cook and his men also experienced the chants and cultural guidelines the natives lived by, instructing them on how one should live and when the best time for one to surf might be as well.

The sport was commonly practiced by higher classes of society and Hawaiian royalty whom often used surfing as an illustration of ability and power. Chiefs, like the famous Kaumuaki'i were famous for their displays on the waves and celebrated the sport as their own.  However, as Christian missionaries arrived in the south Pacific, the culture and customs practiced among even the natives began to shift. Emphasis was placed upon religious strictness, discipline, and work ethic. Little time was left for surfing or now dated customs.

After a long period of decline to the near point of extinction, surfing saw a spark towards the later nineteenth century when a famous Hawaiian swimmer made a splash in the Olympic Games. Native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, or Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku (for short), began a streak of Olympic victories between 1912 and 1924, accumulating a number of gold and silver medals in various events. After rising to world popularity, the Duke used his new found fame to promote and showcase Hawaii's native sport alongside a global tour.
His most famous exhibition came on December 23, 1914, at Sydney's Freshwater Beach, where in front of a massive crowd the Duke showed the possibilities one could achieve with the use of some good waves and a board.

The Duke's contribution helped surfing spill over into the United States via southern California demonstrations and gain popularity the world over. Further, the support for the sport solidified on June 14, 1925 when the Duke used his surfboard to rescue eight drowning victims from a submerged Newport Beach fishing vessel. Since that day, not only has the sport of surfing found a place in California shore communities, but lifeguards can still be seen running into the water with a board as their number one rescue tool.

Following the surge of popularity, many individuals close to the sport began to fight for the preservation of the coastlines that housed some of the world's best surf; including the sacred beaches of Waikiki. With the help of literary figures like Jack London, knowledge of surfing became widespread and popularity grew.  With the introduction of waterproof cameras used by Tom Blake and Doc Ball, the public was able to see images of surfers riding waves from up close and mainstream interest in surfing swelled alongside the music and culture of the 50s and 60s.

As popularity evolved, so did board design. Materials shifted from the traditionally used thick dense wood to a lighter balsa wood to the polyurethane material used today. Eventually, the sport would see its first established Championship competition in 1964 in Sydney and the creation of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) in 1976.

Both steps would push surfing into the forefront of public and commercial success, sending surfing in the direction it moves today. Support, participation, and general interest are widening, as are sales and media attention. Now viewed by the public almost as plainly as baseball or football, surfing has become an important part of coastal communities and nature endearing cultures around the globe.

Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Duke Surfs Freshwater. Kahanamoku Sons Inc. 2005. 3 October, 2006.

Marcus, Ben. From Polynesia, with Love; The History of Surfing from Captain Cook to Present. Surfing for Life. Seniority Inc. 3 October, 2006,