Beyond The Board: History of Surfing

For as long as humans have been swimming in the ocean, we’ve been riding waves into the beach in one form or another. That means the history of surfing likely predates the history of writing by thousands of years!

Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to credit the innovative individual who first decided to stand-up on a plank of driftwood to ride a wave for the simple pleasure of it all. Consensus on the history of surfing credits the Polynesians for the invention of the ‘Olo Surf Board,’ which they couldn’t leave behind when they settled the Hawaiian Islands around 400 C.E. From Hawaii, the sport laid dormant until a handful of world-class swimmers showcased it to the world. Thanks to the efforts of a handful of impactful individuals, the sport of kings has grown from an ancient tradition to a multi-billion dollar industry enjoyed by millions of diehard surfers. From driftwood to the more modern specialized surfboards like hybrid surfboards, the history of surfing has come a long way.

The Sport Of Kings

The sport of surfing’s roots run deep throughout the Polynesian Islands. Its historical cultural significance can’t be understated, as the most skilled wave rider in early Polynesian culture was traditionally the chief. A Polynesian commoner could use their ability to catch and ride waves as a way of gaining social prestige in their community. In Tonga, Oral tradition confirms that King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV was the most talented Tongan surfer of the day.

In places like Tahiti, Tonga, and Samoa, surfing was a large part of a warrior’s training. We have written records from Europeans describing how the ‘warriors in training’ charged big waves to show their athleticism, skill, and bravery. Samoans even have words to describe the specific activity of surf riding as “fa’ase’e” or “se’egalu.” 

While some historians point to Pre-Incan Peruvians as early surfers, the origins of surfing are difficult to prove. Still, it’s not hard to imagine a similar discovery of surfing from riding fishing boats into the beach after a long day of work at sea. This is especially when you consider that one of the world’s longest waves, Chicama, has been breaking at in northern Peru for thousands of years. If early Peruvians didn’t invent surfing, archaeological evidence suggests that they probably invented stand up paddle boarding.

the history of surfing

Hawaii and Captain Cook’s Discovery

The first Europeans to witness the “sport of kings” were the crew aboard Captain James Cook’s Discovery in 1779. After failing to find a passage from the North Pacific into the Atlantic, Cook took his convoy sailed to the Big Island of Hawaii where they witnessed locals wave riding at Kealakekua Bay. Cook’s misguided attempt to kidnap the high chief resulted in his death, after which, First Lieutenant James King took the duties of finishing the narrative portion of the captain’s log. King devoted two full pages to describing the preferred pastime of the ruling class.

“But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct.

If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse.

By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.”

King’s writing introduced surfing to the Western World, even if it was only an ancient Hawaiian curiosity according to the European world. During this period, the best beaches and best boards were only available to the ruling class in Hawaii; commoners couldn’t surf at the same places with the same equipment. But after contact with the West exploded in the late 1800s as authors like Mark Twain and Jack London gave surfing a try, the royal limitations all but vanished — along with much of Hawaii’s ancient culture.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku remains one of the most influential people in the history of surfing. The native Hawian waterman was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming. Kahanamoku toured the world to give swimming exhibitions and used the opportunity to share his love of surfing along the way. In 1912, Kahanamoku visited Southern California to plant the seeds of surfing culture. His trip to Sydney’s Freshwater Beach on Christmas Eve in 1914 is the spark that turned Australia into a surf-loving nation. Kahanamoku lit the torch for surfing across the world, but it was a chance meeting with Californian Tom Blake at a movie theatre in Detroit and a casual invitation to Hawaii that stoked the fire.

tom blake

The California Revolution

Experienced lifeguard and waterman Tom Blake was one of the first United States mainlanders to truly adopt the Hawaiian culture of wave riding. If Duke Kahanamoku is responsible for introducing the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing to the world, Blake is responsible for transforming it into a national pastime for coastal Americans. Blake gave surfing a try in 1921 while working at the Santa Monica Swim Club but didn’t find much success immediately. There was no such thing as surfboard for beginners in those days. But by 1924, his interest had grown to the point where he decided to take Kahanamoku’s invitation to Hawaii seriously. Blake quickly became friends with the Kahanamoku family and spent the next 30 years living and surfing in Hawaii and California.

His dedication to the sport and its culture led Blake to rethink surfboard design. In 1929, Blake built a hollow board with a wood skeleton for support, greatly reducing the weight of a surfboard which increased its maneuverability. Three years later, Blake received a patent for his design. His lightweight board opened surfing to thousands of people who couldn’t carry the 200lb solid wood longboards ridden by ancient Hawaiian surfers. While the addition of a fin or keel would have come eventually, it was Blake who first had the idea of putting one on a surfboard.

isle longboards

Blake’s dedication to Hawaiian surf culture and surfboard construction push the sport into what it is today. Blake was also the author of the first book on the subject of surfing, Hawaiian Surfboard, that covered the history of the sport, it’s deep roots in Hawaiian culture, and the techniques of surfing and surfboard building.

Bob Simmons

Simmons is most responsible for the modern evolution in surfboard construction. While Blake shifted the sport away from heavy wooden boards without fins, Simmons went one giant step further by introducing ultra-light and rigid materials to a small, performance-oriented twin-fin design. Without Simmons, we’d all still be riding massive longboards.

Even with just two years of high school, Simmons earned a scholarship at Caltech. He was a true genius who got straight A’s without doing homework or studying. After spending time as a Douglass Aircraft mathematician, he grew a healthy obsession with creating the world’s fastest surfboards in the 1950s. He experimented with balsa, plywood, and Styrofoam, finding that a unique combination of materials gave him the best of all possibilities. However, his application of hydrodynamic theory — learned from Daniel Bernoulli’s Law of Lift — forever changed the game.

Simmons’ study of naval ship construction and aviation materials led him to develop a polyurethane foam core with a wooden stringer for internal support. He wrapped his shaped surfboard blank in fiberglass, a construction process remains the basis for how surfboards are built to this day. The combination of shape and materials was completely unlike surfboard design that had come before it. Almost overnight, surfing went from a cruising activity to a high-performance endeavor, all thanks to the genius of Bob Simmons.

The Endless Summer

The 1960s are some of the best and worst years for mainstream surfing. Widely popular bands like The Beach Boys appropriated California surf culture. And Hollywood cashed-in on a string of beach party movies starring Frankie Avalon that made surfers look silly at best. But all was not lost thanks to one documentary filmmaker. 

The Endless Summer hit the big screen in 1965 after a limited release two years earlier. Director Bruce Brown set the stage for the international surf trip that’s now an annual pilgrimage for millions of surfers each year. Brown, a skilled surfer in his own right, followed surfers Michael Hynson and Robert August on a trip around the world in search of the perfect wave. Film critic Roger Ebert summed it up well when he said, “the beautiful photography he [Brown] brought home almost makes you wonder if Hollywood hasn’t been trying too hard.” Unlike Hollywood’ surf flicks, The Endless Summer painted surfers as culturally-interested individuals with a deep appreciation for the natural world. Yes, they did some partying along the way, but their strict focus on spending time in the water both captured the hearts of ‘60s California surfers and inspired countless generations to take up the activity for the right reasons. Brown’s documentary grossed $20M at the box office; it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. 

olympic surfing

The Future Of Surfing

If the World Surf League’s decision to swap Lower Trestles as a tour stop for the Freshwater Pro at Kelly Slater’s Wave Ranch is any indication, the future of surfing is moving inland. For many surfers, the joy of surfing is harnessing the power of mother nature in the ocean; an artificial wave simply won’t suffice. But I think if you offered those folks the opportunity to surf a perfect wave in an uncrowded body of water, they’d jump at it.

For the industry as a whole, moving inland is an incredibly lucrative opportunity. Whether that’s great for the average surfer is still a matter of opinion. Will people in places like Ohio will learn to surf and want to test their skills in the ocean? Or will more surfers ditch their local spots for the perfect waves at a Wave Ranch near you? Only time will tell, but like any natural evolution, we’re all just along for the ride. 

One thing’s for sure, with the sport of surfing headed to the Olympic stage, it would be great to see our sport showcased to the world in a venue that can guarantee decent waves with the push of a button.

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Posted in Surf News
Jeff Hale - Jeff is the Content Manager at ISLE Surf and SUP. He's been an avid surfer and paddler for over 20 years, and he's always looking for an excuse to spend more time in the water. Jeff grew up in Southern California where he earned his Bachelor's in English at UC Irvine and his MBA at Chapman University. You can find him in the water after work and on weekends in San Diego.