✏️ Updated on 25th April 2021
Surfing has a long old history, but very few actually know the history. For those looking to learn a little bit more about this great story, I’ve created this easy to digest ‘The History of Surfing’ blog post.
Here are some of the pivotal moments that we’ll be visiting in surfings history…
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)
The Origins of Surfing (100-1400’s)
Obviously, the best place to begin the epic surfing history story is at the very beginning – with the ancient Moche civilisation.
The earliest references we have of humans doing anything close to surfing in the history of 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’. The ancient Moche people used these straw seahorses to get around with the help of a wooden paddle. Obviously, this is closer to modern day standup paddle boarding (SUP), but as the first references to humans standing on vessels on water – we’ll take it.
Not long after the Moche civilisation there are verified references of ‘fa’ase’e’ or ‘se’egalu’ as far back as 700’s to pre-contact Samoa. These translate into ‘surf riding’ with a key difference from to the Moche civilisation being the use of single hull canoes rather than reedboats with paddles.
‘Surf riding’ during this time was not only about fishing but also a part of warrior training and a popular past time. Between 700-1400’s it’s understood ‘surf riding’ remained unchanged in its purpose and importance to the early Polynesian societies.
The Rise and Fall of Surfing (1400-1900’s)
From Fishing to Societal Pillar
From the 1400’s onwards the purpose of ‘surf riding’ had somewhat changed. From initially being a means of feeding the people, it had now evolved into being an exciting past time for the community.
This change is captured perfectly in Kepelino’s 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”.
In this transition period where ‘surf riding’ was more of a hobby than a chore, surfing began to evolve 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 so that commoners were not allowed to surf on the same beaches as the ruling class.
The sport of surfing had its own place in these early Polynesian societies. 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.
Surfing’s Spiritual Bond
One of the factors that made surfing so important in the early 1400’s was the bond it created between the community and the ocean. The 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 ritual chants and dances. These rituals were attempts to please the ocean to provide the people with surfable waves. Each surfer would also pray to the gods for protection and strength in their attempt to tame the powerful ocean breakers.
‘Kahunas’ were also heavily involved in the sacred act of constructing surfboards for the upperclass, further strengthening this spiritual bond surfing ensued. 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.
The First Surfboards
Now, let’s talk a bit more about these ancient Polynesian surfboards…
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 plus in length
Ancient Construction Process
For the exclusive ‘Olo’, the construction process was very spiritual and only completed by expert craftsmen. It involved cutting down a ‘Wiliwili’ tree and offering a red ‘kumu’ fish in repayment to the gods for the wood taken. The shaping, staining and preparing of the board was then completed by professionals.
Commoners riding the ‘Alaia’ or ‘Kiko’o’ surfboards would have to go through a very similar process to craft it themselves.
These ancient practices and the spiritual bond between the ocean and its surfers remained strong until surfing reached a sophisticated peak in the late 1700’s.
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, all of this new found popularity and European contact was not good for these ancient Polynesian islands.
Surfing started to fall into a 150-year decline as the societal traditions that were once so important were deemed irrelevant.
The ‘haoles’ (non-natives) brought new languages, new religions and inevitably new diseases to these Polynesian communities.
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…
The Californian Rebirth (Early 1900’s)
George Freeth Jr’ Early Years
Born in Hawaii on November 8th 1883 was the first man credited as being the ‘Father of Modern Surfing’. His name was George Freeth Jr. and he was the son of part-Hawaiian mother and Irish father.
Enjoying an active upbringing Freeth spent his youth surfing the waves of Hawaii. One afternoon he was spotted surfing by well-known American journalist John ‘Jack’ London. London described the 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”.
Being one of the few natives who still practiced stand up surfing after the sports decline, it’s easy to see why he stood out. After the book was published, Freeths’ fame soared and he was soon head hunted by Henry Huntington.
The Hawaiian Wonder
Huntington was visiting Hawaii as an American businessman. He owned property along the Californian coastline and wanted these properties to be a success. In a moment of inspiration, Huntington saw an opportunity in Freeth and quickly brought him 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, inevitably sparking the imagination of onlookers. Before he knew it, surfing started to sweep its way along the Californian coastline.
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 so naturally had the ‘Aloha Spirit’ and 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 Australia. His new found fame allowed him to tour Australia’s coastline spreading surfings popularity as he went.
Without the prowess and Hawaiian spirit of George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, it’s difficult to say what would have happened to surfing. One thing is for sure though, the surfing world is and will always be eternally grateful for everything they achieved.
Surfings’ Technological Evolution (1930’s/40’s/50’s)
With the 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, if you’re interested in how the surfboard evolved I have written another post about it called ‘The Evolution of the Surfboard’.
For now though, some of the biggest names include; Tom Blake, Bob Simmons and Hobie Alter.
These technological advances made surfing more accessible, more fun and at a lower cost to the general public. Surfboards were also becoming lighter and more agile meaning surfers could start to push new boundaries. With most of these innovations coming out of California, it was quickly becoming known as a place for surfing excellence.
The Spotlight Sixties (1960’s)
The 1960’s had a huge impact on the history of surfing in regards to media influence. This period brought the power of film, music and print to the surfing world.
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).
Surfing had certainly established a firm grip on film pop 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.
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 1960s 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, and I could see that Surfer could create a truer image of the sport”. The magazine quickly gained a following and prided itself on given a surfers view of surfing to the rest of the world.
World Tours and Commercialisation (1970’s)
In the 1970’s surfing began to steer away from the more psychedelic vibes of the 1960’s. This period also brought about a second home for the sport, Australia.
Not only did the 1970’s bring a new geographical focal point for surfing, it also brought a new attitude of commercialisation and professionalism to the sport.
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.
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 the Start of Big Name Brands
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.
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 story as he was the first to pioneer 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.
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 regarding 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’.
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.
However, 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 for surfing.
Alongside his 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 and the history of surfing would look a lot different without his influence.
Olympics First Step
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.
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 eventually rebranded as the World Surfing League (WSL) in 2015. 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.
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 2020 Olympics – check out my ‘Surfing At The Tokyo 2020 Olympics’ post.
By this time, ISA President Fernando Aguerre had masterminded his dream of getting surfing at the olympics. As soon as the International Surfing Association (ISA) was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1995 things changed. 25 years of hard work followed and the successful bid for inclusion was made on the 28th September 2015.
As expected surfing at the Olympics has generated a lot of interest from surfers around the globe. It has also split the surfing community into a few segments; those who think it’ll work, those who don’t and those who’re not too fussed.
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 recently opened in Bristol and is the first inland wave pool in the Northern Hemisphere to use Wave Garden’s Cove tech.
The ability to create the perfect wave could improve surfing techniques not to mention increase participation if you live hundreds of miles away from the coast.
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, getting away from the artificial stuff.
As we’ve seen throughout the history of surfing, surfing technology will always find a way to progress.
The demand to become environmentally aware should shift brands focus on creating more sustainable products. Vissla and Patagonia are great examples of this by developing products that help reduce surfings impact on the environment.
I predict that this is going to be consistent trend within surfboard production as well. Polyurethane blanks are still incredibly unfriendly to the environment and so is another avenue surfboard brands can explore.
So there we have it guys, the history of surfing in all its glory. Well done if you made it to the end, like seriously.
With surfing providing such a great escape for most of us weekenders, it’s nice to understand its origins. I hope you found it as interesting as I did!
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Next read: ‘The Evolution of the Surfboard’