A Brief History of Surfing
From ancient Polynesians to the super-pros of today
Surfing is the granddaddy of all action sports, so old that no one really knows who first took to the sea on a board. What we do know is that it happened somewhere in Polynesia, and probably over a 1000 years ago.
"How did it go from a Polynesian ritual to radical dudes down the beach?"
Since then the sport has grown, spread across the globe and is now a multi-billion dollar industry, with pro surfing circuits, superstar surfers and a lifestyle that is the envy of the planet. So how did it go from Polynesian ritual to radical dudes down the beach? Read on and find out in our brief history of surfing.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: Before 1779"]
Whilst we in Europe were dealing with Roman conquest, religious squabbles in the Crusades, the odd plague and the occasional war, the Polynesians were a much more sensible, peaceable bunch: They got busy inventing surfing.
No one is quite sure when the first Polynesian stepped on a board (which they'd shape from a solid tree trunk) but the activity was firmly rooted in their traditions before Europeans first met them in 1779. It certainly isn't a recent fad.
"Much like today the wave sliders of ancient Polynesia prayed for surf, wanting to be challenged by bigger and bigger swells."
Surfing was way more than the hobby it is now. Back then it was an art form woven into the cultural fabric of Polynesia and especially Hawaii. It was generally restricted to the upper classes with warriors, chiefs and priests the people most commonly seen in the water. Their ability to tame the biggest waves meant they earned extra respect and rose through society.
Much like today the wave sliders of ancient Polynesia prayed for surf, wanting to be challenged by bigger and bigger swells. There were also dedicated shapers within the community who were skilled at carving the massive 12-20 feet boards from solid Koa trunks. Researchers have yet to discover whether these shapers also sold overpriced board shorts.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1779 - 1820"]
In 1779, the HMS Endeavour arrived on the scene, and with it a group of British explorers led by the legendary Captain James Cook. As well as mapping out New Zealand and Newfoundland for the first time, Cook should go down in history as the man who discovered more world-class surf spots than anyone since (he also discovered Australia remember).
"Captain Cook should go down in history as the man who discovered more world-class surf spots than anyone else."
One of his crewman Joseph Banks was the first to describe surfing, writing that is was an essential part of Polynesian culture. He added that it was the higher classes that surfed best, and that they restricted access to the best breaks (the first ever localism?). However he noted that lower classes could rise through social ranks by proving their prowess in the surf. Much like groms do today.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1821- 1900"]
German and Scottish missionaries turned up in the Hawaiian islands and very nearly ruined it for everyone. Being prudish religious zealots they banned surfing. The act of men and women riding waves naked together didn't go down well with these ambassadors for European Christianity.
"Missionaries turned up in the Hawaiian islands and very nearly ruined it for everyone."
Thankfully surfing survived though and was practiced out of sight of the missionaries. Some of the wealthier Hawaiians attending boarding schools in California even took boards with them and the late 1800's saw the first sightings of wave riding in the Golden State.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1900-1910"]
It wasn't until the early 20th Century however that surfing started to take hold. A half-Irish half-Hawaiian gentleman but the name of George Freeth was shipped into California with board. He was there to show off his incredible wave riding skills to promote the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad.
"He was there to show off his incredible wave riding skills and to promote the Los Angeles-Redondo-Huntington railroad."
George first surfed at the now legendary Huntington Beach pier (now at the heart of Surf City USA) before travelling up and down the coast giving surf and surf-lifesaving demonstrations to amazed beach goers. This little promo stunt brought surfing into the public consciousness for the first time and fired the imagination of many.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1910-1930"]
If George Freeth started the global surfing revolution, then it was Hawaiian Olympian Duke Kahanamoku who took it to the world and kick-started the lifestyle that we all know and love. A world class swimmer (he won medals at the Olympics in 1912, 1920 and 1924), he travelled to events giving demonstrations of his swimming prowess.
"Like Jesus' disciples the people who saw him surf went on to spread the word throughout the globe."
He also carried a surfboard wherever he went and slowly but surely introduced the new sport to the world. It spread from west to east coast of the USA and in 1915, he turned up at Freshwater beach in Northern Sydney. Australia's national sport was born.
So important is the Duke to surfing that many people refer to him as "the grandfather of the modern era". Like Jesus' disciples the people who saw him surf went on to spread the word throughout the globe. He helped establish the cultural hotbeds of the sport, California, Hawaii and Australia, as well as bringing it to the fringes of the surfing world. By the 1920s it was in Great Britain for example. They didn't teach you that in school, did they?
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1930 - 1950"]
The roaring 20s was brought to a sudden, jolting halt in the 30s by the rise of Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, who started a little thing called World War Two which put an end to fun times at the beach. But while the Nazis did a lot of bad for surfing by building sand-blocking sea walls across Europe, the war actually advanced surfing in ways which at the time no-one could have foreseen.
"The Second World War actually advanced surfing in ways which at the time no-one could have foreseen."
First of all foam and fibre glass construction techniques developed at great speed during the war. Although a known material pre war, it was its application in military aviation which made it a commercially viable product. This advancement would form the basis of the shaping industry down the line.
The war years also gave rise to neoprene. It was already being developed before things kicked off but the war effort and increased the resources being poured into R&D and this rubber-like material became the basis for future wetsuits. It was this key advancement that allowed surfing to take a foothold in places like the UK.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1950 - 1960"]
Surfing started to seriously take a hold. It's estimated that the surfing population of California grew from 2-4000 to close to 100,000 over the course of the 1950s. Californian surfers started moving to the North Shore of Oahu in the Hawaiian islands, and in 1957 now-legendary big wave hell-man Greg Noll became the first man to ride Waimea Bay.
"Now-legendary big wave hell-man Greg Noll became the first man to ride Waimea Bay."
The cradle of big wave surfing, the waves there were thought unsurfable until Noll paddled out and changed everything.
But whilst surfing was spreading across the globe and growing organically it was a 1959 film about a girl with big ideas called Gidget which catapulted surfing culture into the stratosphere. The film, set around Malibu in California, was a wild success, bringing surfing massive mainstream exposure and nothing would ever be the same again.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1960 - 1970"]
Surfing went through the roof in the 60s. Hollywood jumped on the Giget bandwagon and filmed more surf movies. The Beach Boys made a career out of singing about it (despite the fact that only one of them could actually surf!) and the rising popularity of the free and easy California lifestyle mean surfing spread with the hippy movement from the west coast to the world.
"The Beach Boys made a career out of singing about it, despite the fact that only one of them could actually surf!"
On a performance level Greg Noll and his buddies were pushing big wave surfing beyond what was thought possible in Hawaii, riding giant swells and conquering the Banzai Pipeline for the first time. The first surf magazines started to appear, shapers started using more advanced materials to make lighter, and most significantly, shorter boards. Then in 1969 Jack O'Neill launched the wetsuit.
The 1960s were revolutionary for surfing (as they were in so many other walks of life) and they paved the way for the modern era of surfing as we know it, which really started in the 1970s.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1970 - 1980"]
In the 70s, surfing came of age, commercialised and went professional. Companies like Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl all started in this decade, the short board revolution was well underway and boards were getting smaller and more radical. There was a proper surf film and media industry developing, and the first pro tour started.
There had been contests before but there hadn't been a properly organised tour. Peter Townend, better know as PT, won that first tour and was crowned the first pro world champion, despite not winning a single event!
"Peter Townend, better know as PT, won that first tour and was crowned the first pro world champion, despite not winning a single event!"
The Australians led the charge in those early days: As well as PT, Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew and Mark Richards dominated along with South African Shaun Thomson. They helped galvanise the world tour and turn it into something properly worldwide with stops in Hawaii, Australia, The USA, Europe and South America.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1980-1990"]
The 1980s started for surfing. Simon Anderson, a solid pro surfer and shaper from Australia popularised the thruster, a three fin surfboard which is still the ultimate setup today. The pro tour continued to grow, and new stars like Tommy Carroll, Mark Occilupo and one of the greatest surfers of all time, Tom Curren, arrived on the scene.
"Despite taking a rather unhealthy interest in neon colours surfing progressed rapidly."
The surf industry grew, and despite taking a rather unhealthy interest in neon colours surfing progressed rapidly. Surfers like Christian Fletcher, an off the wall character from California, started busting airs. No-one on the contest scene really got it though and his brand of surfing was frowned on by the establishment.
Surf movies were getting more and more important in surfing culture especially following the arrival of the VHS tape. It meant that you didn't have to wait for a movie to come to the local cinema, you could stick it on at home and get amped to go surf.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 1990-2000"]
Welcome, the Momentum generation. The 1990s totally re-wrote everything that went before and the revolution was led by one man, Kelly Slater. In 1992, now legendary filmmaker Taylor Steele made the movie Momentum. It was rough, cut to a punk soundtrack and the surfing was on a whole new level. It introduced Slater and a raft of other new school rippers to the world.
Unlike the movies that went before it, which were generally backed by big companies and filmed on 16mm, Momentum was filmed on the sort of camcorder that anyone could own. The difference was the level of surfing.
"The film was rough, cut to a punk soundtrack and the surfing was on a whole new level."
Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian, Rob Machado and Aussies like Taj Burrow tore the decade a new one as they went from gromhood to manhood. The old school and their power turns were being replaced by kids who could ride barrels and do big turns but were also throwing tail and punting an ever increasing variety of airs. These guys started to take over the tour, and Slater won his first of 12 world titles in 1992.
There was increasing discontent with competitive surfing though as the nineties progressed, and although some forward-thinking companies like Quiksilver were taking contests to world class waves, the majority of the world tour still took place in crappy city locations just to get crowds to the beach. This was set to change though and in 1999 Wayne 'Rabbit' Bartholomew was made ASP commissionaire, and the age of the dream tour began.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 2000-2010"]
Surfing was hot, it was everywhere and the industry was booming. New companies were popping up in almost every country, sponsored surfers almost outnumbered regular ones in the lineups. Surf trips were getting more and more lavish - taking a helicopter on your boat trip to Indo was now just standard!
The world tour really was the dream tour with Teahupoo in Tahiti, Cloudbreak in Fiji and the epic mobile Rip Curl Search event inspiring even the most anti of anti-contest surfers. Kelly Slater was still winning, but surfing was also progressing with a whole new crop of groms coming along.
"Surf trips were getting more and more lavish - taking a helicopter on your boat trip to Indo was now just standard!"
Technology in surfboards and wetsuits were making both lighter, more flexible in the case of wetsuits and more able to withstand the rigours of the cold. This helped push surfing beyond the normal boundaries of where was possible to ride, opening up new waves all around the world.
In fact, all was great in the world of surfing until the late naughties and the financial crash. Big business problems couldn't affect surfing could they? Well it turned out they could. The big surf companies had racked up a lot of debt with some dubious business decisions as they sought to satisfy shareholders in the boom years by growing ever bigger.
Many of the biggest brands started to struggle, leading to a partial collapse of the industry. Hundreds of sponsored riders were dropped and the world surfing tour came close to losing some of its events.
[part title="A Brief History of Surfing: 2010 - The Present Day"]
Although the whole world is seemingly suffering from financial ruin, surfing is still booming. Sure the big companies are on their knees but participation rates are apparently through the roof. As far as we're concerned the fact that more people more people than ever are getting out there and surfing means the sport has never been in a better place.
However, we'd be stupid if we pretended that the surf industry's woes had had no effect on the sport, and the ASP pro tour in particular. In recent years there have been rumours of rebel tours starting, or the whole thing just capitulating altogether. The problem was that the big brands who owned and fund the individual events could no longer afford the spiralling costs. Enter Zosea.
"Of course through all of this change, the basic art of wave riding has always remained the same from the ancient Polynesians to the ordinary folk in the water today."
Zosea took over the ASP in 2013, and now own the men's and women's world tour, the Big Wave World Tour. In 2014 they'll also take on the XXL Big Wave Awards. Some people were critical, but the move brings a lot of positives. They've taken the pressure off struggling surf companies, helped professionalise the whole set up, and when their stewardship comes into full affect this year they'll also bring in a blanket sponsor who can help fund the whole tour in Samsung.
In terms of pros, Kelly Slater is still at the top, but now the young crew of groms like Gabriel Medina from Brazil, Julian Wilson from Australia and John John Florence from Hawaii are ready to take over. After some dark years for competitive surfing it is now probably in the strongest place it has ever been.
Of course through all of this change, the basic art of wave riding has always remained the same. From the ancient Polynesians and Hawaiians to the ordinary folk in the water today, surfers everywhere have spent thousands of years enjoying the same incredible feeling. And while it's been an interesting ride, the rest of surfing history is just background noise really.