The history of surfing… in a nutshell

Almost every country surrounded or bordered by sea claims that surfing is their invention or that they’ve played an integral part in honing the sport as we know it today and trouble is, there’s no real concrete proof one way of the other. However historians have found evidence in cave drawings and artifacts that surfing is certainly several hundred years old if not thousands. Peru and Papua New Guinea both share evidence that their people set out some 3,500 years ago to investigate the vast Ocean that lay in front of them. They built and used a small board-shaped boat made from reeds and travelled across the water whilst standing, effectively ‘surfing the waves’.

So who else have claimed that surfing originated with them?

Polynesia stands tall in line to gain the prestige of having the first wave riders and boards, this isn’t surprising as the Polynesian islands are located to the East of Papua New Guinea. History tells us that their chief ‘Kahuna’ (meaning priest and not to be mistaken for our modern use of the word!) was the best wave rider in the entire Polynesian nation. In fact surfing was such an important and sacred part of his culture that only the high class were permitted on the best surfing beaches. You could work your way into the Chief’s favour however and use his beaches by displaying your prowess on a board and wave. Did this spark the beginning of the ‘Locals Only’ mindset perhaps? All of this was recorded by Captain J. Cook during his voyage to modern day Hawaii in 1767.

When we stiff-upper-lip, tea drinking Brits arrived along with German missionaries in 1821, surfing was almost driven out of the Polynesian culture with it being cited as an ‘improper practice’. A few stoic and sturdy surfers continued the tradition and bit by bit, over the years surfing was reintroduced into the societal consciousness and back into the lives of the people.

The ancient Hawaiians, the people who we align with modern surfing today not only enjoyed surfing recreationally but also felt that it was a practice blessed by God. Their priest would pray for good waves and also spiritually bless any board being made. Surfing and spirituality it seems has always gone hand in hand.

On August 18, 1888 the first female surfer was depicted riding waves on the front cover of the National Police Gazette, however this was an oddity and  wasn’t a statement of women’s prowess on a board, women had to wait for almost another 100 years for that.

In 1907 the Hawaiian George Freeth was invited to demonstrate this ‘new’ surfing thing to the people of California, the love of surfing was quickly embraced and George spent much of his time demonstrating surfing and life-saving skills up and down the American coast. His life and contribution to surfing and lifeguarding is a significant part of the documentary film Waveriders.

Australian surfing is now huge and well known for its’ surfing exploits. It is said that it was brought to Australia in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, although some Australians contest this. He demonstrated this ancient Hawaiian board riding technique at Freshwater (or Harbord) in Sydney, New South Wales. Duke Kahanamoku’s Board is now on display in the northeast end of the Freshwater Surf life saving club, Sydney, Australia.

How has surfing changed?

Today, instead of being sculpted from a piece of wood like those from Hawaii in the 19and 20th Centuries, modern boards are now hollow with interior ribs for support and board designers improved the board in the 1930s and 40s by simply attaching a fin.

Surfing’s development and culture was centered primarily in three locations: Hawaii, Australia, and California during the early part of the 20th Century. Until the 1960s, it had only a small following even in those areas. The release of the film Gidget boosted the sport’s popularity immensely, moving surfing from an underground culture into a national fad and packing many surf breaks with sudden and previously unheard of crowds. B-movies and surf music such as the Beach Boys and Surfaris made the most of the surfing and Southern California beach culture and Beach Party films started to emerge.

Surfing as a hobby and cultural necessity changed from decade to decade, quietly evolving by itself. From the 1960s fad years and the creation and evolution of the short board in the late 60s and early 70s to the performance neon-drenched 1980s and the professional surfing of the 1990s, surfing exploded into the mainstream multi-billion dollar industry which we know today. The United States surf industry posted retail sales of $7.22bn (£5bn) in 2008, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA).

With the help of famous pro-surfers such as 10 x World Champion Kelly Slater, surfing has never been so widely practiced, everyone knows what surfing is and it has changed from being a small-time activity into a sport and lifestyle choice of epic proportions.

IMAGES: 1. Courtesy of 2. Courtesy of 3. 4.courtesy of Rahul_Dutta on Flickr 5.courtesy of 6.courtesy of



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