All About the History of Surfing

Like just about any other history, the history of surfing is a journey of swells and flat spells. Unfortunately, like many things of the ancient world white man nearly destroyed surfing & ended up turning a culture into a subculture.

The first group to use the awesome power of wave for nothing but shear fun was the Polynesians of Tahiti. Coming from the large expanse of ocean & island nations in the western Pacific Ocean in what modern man now calls Oceania. In true waterman (& woman) sprit these people set their sails in search of new lands between A.D. 800 to 1100. With the use of only the sun, moon, stars, currents, flights of sea faring birds, & learnt ocean knowledge they landed nearly 5000 miles away in the Hawaiian Islands. Bringing with them the art of surfing.

The ancient surfboard was probably 6 feet give or take, which is impressive since it took surfing around 1000 years to get down to that size again. The concept of surfing as we know it was invented & developed in Hawaii, but surfing’s roots truly lay with the people of ancient Oceania.

Ancient Surf Drawing

Surfing in Pre-Euro Hawaii was a vital part of everyday life & culture. Surfing lived in an ancient cast system similar to Hinduism, where the best waves &better surfboards were reserved for the ruling elite class. The members of this class know the alii road surfboards that were called olos. These elite big-wave vehicles could be as long as 16 feet & weighed up to 150 pounds. The common folk used boards that were around 8 feet long called akaias. Children caught waves on small planks that resemble today’s bodyboards called paipo.

Ancient Hawaiian Surfer

A common person had no right to use an olo or to surf at the breaks of the alii & if one was found in violation of either of these he or she could be put to death. Localism in the extreme! All classes enjoyed both watching & participating in surf competitions. When the surf was up all worked stopped & everyone, royalty & common man paddled out! How cool huh? It was a true surfer’s paradise.

The ancient Surfboard was made of a lightweight wood from the koa tree. Everyone royalty & common dude treated their board with respect as is true of a waterman today. After a surf session the board was dried off, given a good rub down with oil from the kukui nut, & stored out of the sun.

Olos Surfbaords

A westerner first documented surfing in 1778, when captain James Cook dropped his anchor of the HMS Resolution off the coast of Hawaii. English sailors recorded their emotions towards surfing in journals they carried during voyage. A stoked Lieutenant of Captain James Cook, James King writes “Whenever, from stormy weather, or any extraordinary swell at sea, the impetuosity of the surf is increased to utmost height, they choose that time for this amusement which is preformed in the following manner: twenty or thirty natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out from shore…”

He concluded his writing by say “The boldness and address, with which they perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was altogether astonishing and is scarce to be credited." This guy had some native envy for sure!

From this discovery by the western world, Hawaiian surf utopia was on a downward spiral of slowly going the way of the buffalo. Gold, guns, glory, and God all played important roles in the deterioration of not just surfing, but Hawaiian culture. It took around 100 years to cut the native Hawaiian population down from 400,000 to 40,000 due to disease and Euro bacteria. The two final nails in ancient Hawaiian culture were the arrival of the Calvinist missionaries and the organization of a commercial economy. If reading is not your thing (I personally don’t dig it in large doses) then check out this excerpt from the beginning of the movie Riding Giants:

This is an award winning film about the history of Big Wave Riding. You will enjoy it over and over again. I get stoked every time I watch it.

Surfing lay dormant like Mount Mauna Kea until the turn of the 20th century. Waikiki had more effect on preserving surfing than anything else. Locals still practiced their ancient ways here, island tourism was heavily invested in, and Christian missionaries took a chill pill in their enforcement of a dress code. The Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club was founded in 1908 on the premises of “surfing on boards and in Hawaiian outrigger canoes.” It’s member mostly consisted of haoles (non-Hawaiians) and by 1915 the club had 1,200 members. Three years later the all Hawaiian Hui Nalu Surf Club was formed.

No two other people did more to promote surfing than Olympic champion swimmer Duke Kahanamoku with the Waikiki Beach Boys, and innovator Tom Blake. If you are interested in reading about these great watermen click their names to read a more in depth history.

Tom Blake

Tom Blake was the first person to promote surfing as a way of life. He was a pioneer, a trailblazer, a legend, & personally one of favorite surfers of all time. He was a true waterman. Again for those non-reading folk here is a great documentary about The Duke and the Waikiki Beach Boys and also an interview with The Duke given by legendary surf film maker Bruce Brown:

I will be adding to this history of surfing often as I discover new and interesting information as well as more videos for those of us with A.D.D! Surfing is more than a sport, it's a lifestyle. To checkout all things water sport related please check out the rest of my site Enjoy the Ride!