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History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport


From the shores of the Pacific Islands to the coast of Ireland, surfing is a universal and accessible sport for all ages and levels of ability. With origins rooted in tradition and a colorful history, it’s no wonder people from all over the world paddle out to experience the natural high of surfing. These are the people, places, and customs that shaped the history of surfing.

The Roots of Surfing

The origins of surfing are commonly attributed to the Polynesian and Tahitian Islanders, who practiced he’e nalu, a pan-Polynesian phrase meaning “wave riding.” Historians suggest that Polynesian tribes selected their chiefs based on their ability to surf. The best male surfer would be honored with the title of chief. When the Polynesian people migrated to Hawaii due to overpopulation, they took surfing with them. The Tahitian, Polynesian, Cook Islands, Marquesas, New Zealand and Hawaiian people are all credited with being the first recorded surfers, but it’s in Hawaii where it truly became a universal obsession.

Surfing history was forever changed when Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii on his third excursion to the Pacific in 1778. He and his European shipmen were met by a Hawaiian surf community that was deeply rooted in culture and legend. Cook made a few wrong moves (like trying to kidnap a high chief) and was killed, but Lieutenant James King took over the expedition and wrote about their encounters in Cook’s journals. His entry is the earliest recording of surfing by a European.

History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport - Surfing

Maids on the Wave by Wallace Mackay 1874

The explorers were interested in this strange form of amusement. At the time, Hawaii was classified between royals and commoners, even in the water. Commoners rode standup boards as long as twelve feet long, while chiefs rode twenty-four-foot olos — long, thick, finless surfboards made from wiliwili wood. Respect for the royals did not dissolve in the water. The kapu, or code of bans and prohibited actions, ruled Hawaii for ages before Cook’s crew arrived. Once, a commoner dropped in on a chiefess, a huge violation of the kapu, so the commoner gave up his lehua wreath to make amends.

Western Settlement & The Dark Age of Surfing

European settlement changed the way Hawaiians approached surfing. When the Hawaiians and Haole, or non-native Hawaiians, were forced to share the land, surf culture veered away from Hawaiian tradition. The Calvinists encouraged more modest clothing, a stricter workforce, and less time in the water. This period of the early 1800s was a dark age for surfing in Hawaii.

Just when it seemed as though surfing would never return to its cultural roots, King Kalakana came into power, bringing forth a revival of Hawaiian culture in the late 1800s. His encouragement of traditional Hawaiian cultural activities led to a restoration of hula, chants, and of course, surfing. Alongside King Kalakana in the effort to resurrect Hawaiian surf culture was Duke Kahanamoku, a world-famous Olympic swimmer who introduced surfing to each destination he visited.

Surfing Goes Viral

Meanwhile, a writer in Waikiki saw the delight in surfing and wanted to learn himself. Jack London, under the wing of Alexander Hume Ford and George Freeth, learned to surf on the beaches of Hawaii. Ford was a promoter, the son of a plantation owner who wanted to attract more visitors to Hawaii and knew surfing would be an effective tool in doing so. Ford looked to Freeth, a half-Hawaiian swimmer and Waikiki lifeguard, for help.

History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport - Jack London & George Freeth

Jack London and George Freeth – Early influencers to modern surfing. Credit: SurferToday

Freeth taught Ford, who taught London, who wrote about his surf lesson in an essay for the October 1907 edition of the Woman’s Home Companion. The essay was later picked up as a collection of works from London’s time on his fetch, the Snark. These essays were compiled under the heading “A Royal Sport: Riding the South Sea Surf,” then later amended and published as “Joys of the Surf Rider” in England’s Pall Mall Magazine. London’s book The Cruise of the Snark told more details of the surf excursions, giving surfing the exposure he and Ford were looking for. Freeth bargained with London to get a letter of introduction written so that he could get to California. Not long after, Freeth was surfing the waters of the West Coast.

California Dreamin’

California was firmly supplanted into surfing history when two businessmen decided to establish a beach culture on the Los Angeles coast in 1907. Henry Huntington, who worked with the Pacific Electric railway, created a streetcar line from the city to the beach. At the end of the line, the Redondo Beach Hotel was born. Abbot Kinney, a tobacco company owner, created a miniature version of Venice just two miles from Santa Monica. While the canals have since been paved in with roads, Venice Beach still stands strong as a popular beach town today. Lucky for Huntington and Kinney, their little beach paradise grew in popularity when a young George Freeth glided across the water outside the Redondo Beach Hotel. Huntington quickly hired Freeth to paddle out twice a day, catch a wave, and ride back to shore. Not a bad gig.

History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport - Huntington Beach Surf

Huntington Beach surfer. Credit – Amoeba Music Blog

While Freeth is credited as the “first surfer in the United States,” Duke Kahanamoku was making waves around the world, eventually showcasing his partner skills in Australia with fifteen-year-old Isabel Letham. Letham stood still as Kahanamoku twisted and shifted and maneuvered about the water, always making sure the girl did not fall off the board. Not long after, surf competitions began to blossom in Australia. While these contests were tests of a surfer’s strength and abilities, surf competitions in Southern California were a combination of grace, style, and speed. Rules for these competitions were laid down after years of amendments, establishing a point system in Corona del Mar, where surfers from all over the globe gathered to compete. Thanks to these fine lads, Los Angeles surf became a global phenomenon!

Shaping the Surf Community

In the late 1920s, the shape of the surfboard was catching up to the quickly advancing surfer. Perhaps one of the most highly recognizable names in the surf industry, Tom Blake introduced the 15-foot surfboard that offered faster speeds without sacrificing manageability. Into the 1930s, surfboards were made from redwoods, balsa, and plywood from South America, staying relatively the same shape and length until the 1950s, where styles shifted with the new trend of surfing.

History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport - Evolution of Surf Boards

Boards in the 1950s were generally 9-11 feet, moving into narrowed and gun shapes at the turn of the decade. In 1959, surfing was popularized and majorly commercialized by the release of Gidget, a movie about a petite female surfer who catches surf fever one Southern California summer. When the nation watched a tiny blonde catching waves with grace and style, everyone wanted a taste of the surf life. The 1960s brought The Beach Boys and Endless Summer, both of which inspired many to get out there and surf.

In the 1960s and 1970s, surfboard sizes went from ten feet to six feet, with the help of the introduction of Dick Brewer’s ‘pocket rocket.’ Shortboards became more widely popular, and the introduction of removable fins made it easier for surfers to maneuver in various conditions. Pat O’Neill, son of wetsuit big name Jack O’Neill, created the surfboard leash in 1971, much to the delight of many bruised heads and surfers sick of scrambling after their boards. Ten years later, Simon Anderson’s three-fin thruster changed the game for surfers again, providing a perfect harmony of the twin fin’s speed and stability and the single fin’s smoothness.

In the 1990s, the longboard became popular again and has not left the ocean since. Today, surfers ride anything from a 5’5 fish to an 11-foot longboard and everything in between.

Share the Stoke

Just as the styles and shapes of surfboards have changed over time, so has the surf community itself. From its traditional roots in island culture to high-performance technology for today’s gnarliest surfers, the surfing world has seen a dramatic shift. Surfing has gone from tradition to pastime to sport to industry and will continue to evolve as new technologies are introduced and upcoming surfers change the game. No matter what, one thing will always remain true: surfing is universal. It’s for everyone.

I will pass on my stoke to a non-surfer: sharing knowledge and giving back. – Shaun Tomson

In the late 1970s, world champion surfer Shaun Tomson shared his life-long surf values in the Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Rules for Riding Through Life. These are the rules Tomson thinks every surfer should live by:

  1. I will never turn my back on the ocean: Passion
  2. I will paddle around the impact zone: No shortcuts
  3. I will take the drop with commitment: Courage, focus, and determination
  4. I will never fight a riptide: The danger of pride and egotism
  5. I will always paddle back out: Perseverance in the face of challenges
  6. I will watch out for other surfers after a big set: Responsibility
  7. I will know that there will always be another wave: Optimism
  8. I will ride and not paddle into shore: Self-esteem
  9. I will pass on my stoke to a non-surfer: Sharing knowledge and giving back
  10. I will catch a wave every day, even in my mind: Imagination
  11. I will realize that all surfers are joined by one ocean: Empathy
  12. I will honor the sport of kings: Honor and integrity

StokeShare was founded on Rule 9 of the Surfer’s Code: I will pass on my stoke to a non-surfer, sharing knowledge and giving back. As members of the Los Angeles surf community, we exist to help people experience the ocean, waves, and the sport of surfing. Our One Watershed program creates opportunities for disadvantaged youth to connect with the rich surfing culture right in their backyard.

History of Surfing: The People And Places That Shaped The Sport - One Watershed

Now that you’ve learned about the history of surfing, it’s time for you to become part of it! Whether you’re trying out surfing for the first time or paddling out like a pro, we’d love for you to join our community! Share your adventures with us on Instagram! Use the hashtag #stokeshareweekend for a chance to be featured on the @StokeShare account.

Share this article with a friend you’d love to surf with!

Resources for this article:

Winchester, Simon. (2015). Pacific. HarperCollins Publisher.

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Hayley Rueger is a StokeShare marketing intern and a Communications student at Loyola Marymount University. A SoCal native, she is passionate about songwriting, social media, and exploring the great outdoors.

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