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The History of Surfing

🕓   15 min read

✏️   Updated on 1st September 2021

Intro

Welcome surfing historians! In today’s surfing blog we’re going to learning about ‘The History of Surfing’.

Believe it or not, surfing has a super long history that very few surfers actually know about. It’s a really interesting story and if you’re looking to learn a little bit more – you’re in the right place.

In this blog post, we take a look through the pivotal moments that moulded surfing into what it is today.

Here is a breakdown of the era’s we’ll be delving into;

1. Origins of Surfing (100-1400’s)
2. The Rise & Fall (1400-1900’s)
3. Californian Rebirth (Early 1900’s)
4. Surfing Down Under (1920’s)
5. The Technological Evolution (1930’s/40’s/50’s)
6. Spotlight Sixties (1960’s)
7. World Tours & Commercialisation (1970’s)
8. Neon, Thrusters & Tour Evolution (1980’s)
9. The GOAT (1990/2000’s)
10. WSL & The Olympic Journey (2010’s)
11. The Future of Surfing (Present day)

So, pour yourself a cuppa and let’s get our history on!

 

1. The Origins of Surfing (100-1400’s)

Now, the best way to tell this epic story is from the very beginning. With that in mind, let’s start with the ancient Moche civiliastion and the origins of surfing.

 

Moche Civilisation

The earliest references we have of anything close to surfing comes from the Pre-Incan civilisation of Moche. Dating back to the Pre-Columbian historical era, these guys thrived in what is now modern day Peru, South America.

The Moche civilisation were known for building single person vessels made from reed. These vessels were called ‘caballitos de totora’ which literally translates to ‘straw seahorse’. These straw seahorses were mostly used to get around on the water, with the help of a wooden paddle.

This could probably be considered as an early ancestor of stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) rather than surfing, but we’ll take it.

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Moche Reedboat

 

Pre-Contact Samoa

A few hundred years later we have verified references of ‘surf riding’. This was more commonly known as ‘fa’ase’e’ or ‘se’egalu’ and can be dated as far back as the 700’s during pre-contact Samoa. The key difference from to the Moche civilisation though was the use of single hull canoes, rather than reedboats with paddles.

‘Surf riding’ during this time was mianly used for fishing and warrior training, but also grew into a popular past time. Between 700-1400’s the purpose and importance of ‘surf riding’ remained unchanged for those early Polynesian societies.

 

2. The Rise and Fall of Surfing (1400-1900’s)

From Fishing to Societal Pillar

Moving from the 1400’s onwards, the purpose of ‘surf riding’ began to change. The pastime aspect of surfing began to overtake the original purpose of fishing and warrior training.

This change is captured perfectly in an extract from Kepelino’s book ‘Traditions of Hawaii, 1932’…Expert surfers going upland to farm, if part way up they look back and see rollers combing the beach… All thought of work is at an end, only sport is left”.

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Early Polynesian

In this transition period ‘surf riding’ was no longer a chore, it had evolved into the ‘Sport of Kings’.

Tribal chiefs were traditionally the most skilled ‘wave riders’ with the best surfboards in the community. Societal hierarchies began to form and the peoples ‘surf riding’ ablity dictated where they could and could not surf.

As well as being a great way to maintain fitness, surfing was also a way to solve conflicts between two parties. The sport further progressed to include wagering, competitions and even water festivities.

The sport of surfing soon established its own place in these early Polynesian societies.

 

Surfing’s Spiritual Bond

One factor that made surfing so important to these people was the bond it created between the community and the ocean. This bond was deeply spiritual and one that began before the surfers even entered the ocean.

For the best waves to be provided, priests known as ‘Kahunas’ engaged in chants and dances. Rituals took place in an attempt to please the ocean and provide the people with surfable waves. Each surfer would also pray to the gods for protection and strength whilst taming the powerful ocean breakers.

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Early Surf Riders

‘Kahuna’ priests were also involved in the sacred act of constructing surfboards for the upperclass. From the cutting down of a ‘Wiliwili’ tree, to the offering a red ‘kumu’ fish in repayment to the Gods. These ancient practices remained strong until surfing reached a sophisticated peak in the late 1700’s.

 

The First Surfboards

Now, let’s talk a bit more about these ancient Polynesian surfboards…

It was fairly common for an individual’s surfboard to be their most prized possession. It was also somewhat of a status symbol of that individual within the community.

There were three key surfboard shapes; the Alaia’, the Kiko’o’ and the more distinctive Olo’.

  • Alaia  – Most common surfboard to learn on, made from Koa (Acacia Koa) and was 6-8ft in length
  • Kiko’o – Next level up from the Alaia, also made from Koa (Acacia Koa) and was 8-12ft in length
  • Olo –  Exclusive surfboard reserved for royalty, made from Wiliwili (Erythrina Sandwicensis) and was 12ft+ in length

Early surfboards

These three surfboard shapes were as basic as it comes. There were no fins, no rocker, no leash and no defined rails – so they were basically huge, heavy planks of wood. They took incredible skill to master and only the very best ‘surf riders’ could succesfully navigate a wave on a 12ft+ board.

 

The Arrival of European Pioneers

The first recorded sightings of surfing were made by European explorers (including Captain James Cook) around the 1760’s. By this time surfing had reached its peak within Polynesian society.

But everything was all about to change…

Shortly after Captain James Cooks’ arrival, his journal ‘A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean’ made it back to England in 1780. Once published, Hawaii became every adventurers next voyage.

Unfortunately, the new found popularity and European contact was not good for the ancient Polynesian islands.

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A Hawaiian family in the late 1800s

Surfing started to fall into a 150-year decline. The important spiritual traditions were deemed irrelevant by the new arrivals that forced a Westernised regime on these Polynesian societies.

The ‘haoles’ (non-natives) brought new languages, new religions and new diseases to the islands. The number of natives drastically reduced from hundreds of thousands to just forty thousand. This oppression continued for over 100 years until the very early 1900’s when surfing was reborn to the world…

 

3. The Californian Rebirth (Early 1900’s)

George Freeth Jr’ Early Years

Born in Hawaii on November 8th 1883 was the first ‘Father of Modern Surfing’. His name was George Freeth Jr. and he was the son of part-Hawaiian mother and Irish father.

Freeth spent his youth surfing the waves of Hawaii and one afternoon was spotted by American journalist John ‘Jack’ London. London described that first moment he laid eyes on Freeth in his book ‘Surfing: A Royal Sport, 1907’… “I saw him tearing in…standing upright on his board, carelessly poised, a young god bronzed with sunburn”.

After the sports decline, very few natives still practiced surfing so it’s easy to see why Freeth stood out. After Londons’ book was published, Freeths’ fame soared and he was head hunted by businessman Henry Huntington.

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A young George Freeth

 

The Hawaiian Wonder

Henry Huntington was visiting Hawaii as an American businessman. He owned property along the Californian coastline and wanted these properties to be a success. Huntington saw an opportunity in Freeth and convinced him to come back to the U.S. to be shown off as the ‘Hawaiian Wonder’.

It was on the coast of California in 1907 where Freeth changed the history of surfing. George would show off his impressive surfing skills twice a day sparking the imagination of onlookers. Before he knew it, surfing started to sweep its way along the Californian coastline.

Not long after, surfing then made its first appearance in Australia with the help of a man also hailed ‘The Father of Modern Surfing…’

 

4. Surfing Down Under (1920’s)

The Big Kahuna

Shortly after George Freeth Jr. introduced surfing to California, Duke Kahanamoku – ‘The Big Kahuna’ introduced surfing to Australia.

Like Freeth, Duke was born and raised in Hawaii and imbodied the ‘Aloha Spirit’ with a huge passion for surfing. In 1914, Duke travelled to Freshwater Bay, Sydney to participate in his first ever surfing exhibition. It was here Duke showed off his surfing prowess and captivated the imagination of the locals. His newly found fame allowed him to tour Australia’s coastline spreading surfings popularity as he went.

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A young Duke Kahanamoku

Without both George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, it’s difficult to say what would have happened to surfing. However, the surfing world will forever be grateful for their contributions and the roles they played in the rebirth of our favourite pastime.

 

5. Surfings’ Technological Evolution (1930’s/40’s/50’s)

With help from George Freeth Jr. and Duke Kahanamoku, surfing was on its way back.

This influx of popularity resulted in huge advancements in surfboard technology. During the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s the history of surfing experienced a monumental shift in technology.

With so many innovations during this thirty year period it’s hard to pick out the most important ones. However, it’s another super interesting story in it’s own right and if you’d like to read more check out my ‘The Evolution of the Surfboard’ post.

For now though, some of the biggest names include; Tom Blake, Bob Simmons and Hobie Alter.

Tom Blakes’ first single fin design (1935)

The technological advances that happened during this period made surfing more accessible, more fun and at a lower cost to the general public. Surfboards also became lighter and more agile meaning surfers could push the sport to new boundaries.

With most of these innovations coming out of California, it was quickly becoming known as a place for surfing excellence.

 

6. The Spotlight Sixties (1960’s)

The 1960’s was another decade that had a huge impact on the history of surfing.

This period boasted the power of media influence and introduced surfing to the world of film, music and print.

In the U.S. the West Coast in the 60’s seemed to be the worlds surfing singularity. Everyone wanted to spend their summer between the Californian breakers. This feeling was mirrored and celebrated in all aspects of new media including film, music and print.

 

Surfing in Film

Some cult films during this period included ‘Gidget‘ (1959) and ‘Beach Party‘ (1963) but also groundbreaking surfing documentaries like ‘The Endless Summer‘ (1966).

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Beach Party (1963) film poster

Surfing had certainly established a firm grip on popular culture during this period.

 

Surfing in Music

During this time, surfing also took the music industry by storm. The music new genre ‘California Sound’ emerged and surfing music captivated the optimism of teenage life.

The Beach Boys Album

With a somewhat hippy connotation attached to the past time, some of the most iconic songs included;

  • Surfing USA by The Beach Boys
  • California Sun by the Rivieras
  • Wipeout by Surfaris
  • Misilou by Dick Dale & The Del Tones

If these songs aren’t already in your surfing playlist feel free to add them now… no, I’m not joking.

 

Surfing in Print

Surfing was also hugely popular during the 1960’s in the form of print. John Severson was an artist and filmmaker by trade and first developed ‘The Surfer’ in his garage in 1962 as a book of photos.

He explained… “Surfers hated those Hollywood surf films…I could see that Surfer could create a truer image of the sport”. The magazine quickly gained a following and took pride in giving a true surfers view to the rest of the world.

The U.S. was not the only country publishing surfing through print media during this period. In the same year Australia’s ‘Surfing World’ was founded by Bob Evans.

 

7. World Tours and Commercialisation (1970’s)

In the 1970’s, surfing began to steer away from the hippy vibes of the 1960’s.

This was the period that brought professionalism and commercialisation to the sport. It was also the period where Australia cemented itself as the second powerhouse in the surfing world.

 

Surfing’s First World Tour

Previously considered a ‘beach-bum’ occupation, the creation of the International Professional Surfers (IPS) sparked a new era of professionalism in surfing.

Founded by Hawaiians Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings, the IPS was the first governing body of the surfing world tour. From this moment onwards the surfing landscape changed. The IPS helped move away from unaffiliated pro surfing events dotted all over the world to a more structured world championship tour. This was the organisational transformation surfing needed to progress into the new professional era.

Haleiwa, Hawaii

With a newly developed international ranking system, the best surfers from all over the world were encouraged to get involved. It was at this point a handful of Australians took charge and did everything they could to pioneer surfing as a real profession. These Australians included; Pete Townend, Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew, Mark Richards and Shaun Tomson.

With tour stops in Hawaii, Australia, U.S.A, Europe and South America, the new IPS world tour galvanised professional surfers. It was also the beginnings of the professional side of the sport we know today.

 

Commercialisation and Brand Start-Ups

This was not only a big decade for the world tour, but also surfing commercialisation.

Some of surfing’s biggest brands including; Billabong, Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Mr Zogs Sex Wax setup shop in this decade. With participation on the rise, surfing was becoming an industry where companies could make a lot of money.

 

8. Neon, Thrusters and World Tour Evolution (1980’s)

Neon Wetsuit Fever

If you’ve ever seen a neon wetsuit, thank the 1980’s.

This bright coloured obsession was taking over the fashion and it wasn’t long before it reached the surfing industry. With advances in wetsuit technology, new wetsuit designs could be as colourful as ever. Soon, every man and his dog were equipped with a blindingly striking wetsuit to brave the waves.

Thanks 1980’s, thanks.

 

Thruster Fin Setup

Luckily, amongst all the neon was a guy called Simon Anderson. This guy was pivotal in the history of surfing, as he pioneered the ‘3-fin Thruster’ setup in 1980.

Believe it or not, up until the 1980’s only single fins or twin fins were used on surfboards. After creating this new three fin design, Simon Anderson won three tour events in 1981.

The next big thing in surfboard tech had arrived and a new style of surfing emerged from the innovation. Carving, slashing and throwing the tail out had become a new aggressive style of surfing and everyone wanted a piece.

Simon Andersons’ Thruster Win

With new impressive manoeuvres, the sport’s popularity continued its steady growth. Surf camps started popping up along the coastlines of Australia and America offering beginner training.

To this day the ‘3-fin thruster’ setup remains the ultimate fin setup and is used by surfers of all skill levels all over the world.

 

The IPS Changes to ASP

The final thing that changed the history of surfing during the 1980’s was within the IPS world tour itself.

Having provided structure and professional competition worldwide for the previous six years, the IPS evolved into the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP).

The new concept was great for professional surfing. It gave joint custody of the world tour to both the event organisers and the professional surfers on tour. The surfers could weigh in on where world tour events could be held and created a new philosophy of ‘World’s best surfers, worlds best waves’.

During this period new stars including Tom Carroll, Frieda Zamba and Tom Curren arrived on the scene, and it wasn’t long before they took over the tour.

 

9. The Greatest of All-Time (1990/2000’s)

The Momentum Generation

With so much advancement to the history of surfing in such a short time, the 1990’s and 2000’s solidified surfing professionalism with the ASP world tour.

During this period a new breed of surfer took centre stage. They were known as ‘The Momentum Generation’. A band of surfers led by one man, Kelly Slater. Their iconic surfing film ‘Momentum I (1992)’ brought to light some of the biggest upcoming talents the surfing world had ever seen. The surfers alongside Slater were C.J. Hobgood, Mick Fanning, Taj Burrow, Joel Parkinson and Andy Irons.

With big turns, longer barrels and an ever-increasing variety of aerials, the history of surfing had reached its new level of competitive surfing. This was also the beginning of Kelly Slaters’ dominance…

 

Kelly Slater, GOAT

With 30+ surf film appearances, his own video game and features in 24 episodes of Baywatch – Kelly Slater was undoubtably the first household name in surfing.

Kelly Slater

Alongside that media fame sat his unparalleled surfing achievements, 11 world championships spanning from 1992-2011. These achievements not only make him the greatest surfer of all time, but arguably the greatest athlete of all time.

Slaters’ dominance grew the sports popularity to levels never previously thought possible. It’s no question that the history of surfing would look a lot different without the impact he had on the sport.

 

Olympics First Step

Although, Kelly Slater was not the only important surfing event that took place during the 2000’s.

For the first time ever, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised the International Surfing Association (ISA) as surfings official body in 1995. With the ISA officially being recognised by the IOC, surfing was a step closer to making an appearance at the Olympics.

This was a huge moment for newly elected ISA President Fernando Aguerre and his plans to get surfing included in the Sydney Olympics had began…

 

10. WSL and The Olympic Journey (2010’s)

World Tour Rebrand

Before going down the Olympic road, I’ll quickly highlight another change to the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP).

In late 2012, the ASP was bought out and three years later rebranded as the World Surfing League (WSL). The organisation maintained its position as the centralised body for the sport and continued to oversee key product areas including; World Championship tours, Qualifying Series, Big Wave Tour, Big Wave Awards, World Longboard Championships and the World Junior Championships.

WSL Rebrand

The reason behind the WSL rebrand was, in short, to make it easier to sell to sponsors.

In 2015 then CEO Paul Speaker explained, “We believe the new name is easier to understand… and to grow the great sport of professional surfing worldwide”. WSL’s focus remains the same however, striving to provide ‘The world’s best surfers with the world’s best waves’.

 

Surfing and The Olympic Dream

Now, if you wanted a bit more information about surfing at the Olympics – check out my ‘Surfing At The Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ post.

By this time, ISA President Fernando Aguerre had almost achieved his dream of getting surfing to the olympics. As soon as the International Surfing Association (ISA) was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1995 things started to progress.

Fast forward 25 years and the successful bid for inclusion at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was made on the 28th September 2015.

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Surfing at Tokyo Olympics, 2020

As expected, surfing at the Olympics generated a lot of interest from around the globe. It split the surfing community into those who looked forward to seeing it, those who didn’t and those who just didn’t care.

This milestone was certainly a monumental landmark for the history of surfing and the event will be back in the Paris Olympics in 2024!

 

11. The Future of Surfing

Artificial Wave Technology

So what does the future of surfing landscape look like?

Well, a lot of talk at the moment surrounds wave pools and artificial wave technology. Looking at the UK specifically, The Wave in Bristol is the first inland wave pool in the Northern Hemisphere to use Wave Garden’s Cove technology.

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The Wave, Bristol

The ability to create the perfect wave should improve surfing techniques much faster. Venues like The Wave should also increase participation for those who live hundreds of miles away from the coast. Both of these points should then increase the likelihood of producing some very special surfing talent here in the UK.

The flip side to this argument of course is that if you take the waves out of the ocean – are you really experiencing surfing? For a lot of people surfing is about being amongst nature and getting away from the artificial stuff. This is a super interesting debate and I’d love to hear your comments in the section below.

My take, as someone who’s experienced both The Wave and surfing in the ocean is that I still much prefer the ocean. If you wanted to know my reasons why, have a read of my ‘The Wave, Bristol – Session & Lesson Review’ post.

 

Product Evolution

The final area to discuss is surfing technology. As we’ve seen throughout the history of surfing, surfing technology will always find a way to progress.

The need to become more environmentally friendly with everything we can is beginning to shift brands focus on creating more sustainable products. Vissla and Patagonia were the first to pioneer more environmentally friendly wetsuits and other brands are closely following suit.

I’d predict that the move to creating more sustainable surfing products and promoting a more environmentally friendly lifestyle will continue. But for the time being, polyurethane surfboard blanks, single use body boards and petroleum oil based wetsuits are still incredibly unfriendly to the environment – so we need to keep pushing for change.

 

Summary

And there we have it guys and girls, the history of surfing in all its glory.

Well done if you made it to the end of this super interesting story, like seriously. With surfing providing such a great escape for most of us weekenders, I think most would really appreciate its origins. I hope you found it as interesting as I did!

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Next read: ‘The Evolution of the Surfboard’