The History of Wave Surfing Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The History of Wave Surfing

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Woman on surfboard.

Surfing's Hawaiian Roots

Board Surfing has existed for centuries in the Hawaiian Islands and was practised by the native Hawaiian people for both religious and recreational purposes. Although no-one knows exactly where and when stand-up surfing began, it is believed that it started long before the 15th Century, and has originated from the ancient sport of he'enalu1, which has been perfected by the Kings and Queens, and probably the men and women also, of the Hawaiian Isles. Because of their global position, the Hawaiian Islands enjoy a great diversity in waves from the Pacific Ocean, and great mystery has been attached to the ocean and her moods. As the Eskimos have several hundred phrases to describe snow, the Hawaiians have similarly assigned numerous words to describe the ever-changing sea, or kai.

The chieftains (ali'i) claimed the highest reputation for dedicated proficiency with board and waves. The chiefs had their own prayers, chanters, board shapers, forests for the wooden boards, and beaches where they alone could surf with others of similar rank. Because surfing was strongly endorsed by the chiefs as well as the common people (Maka ai nana 'ma-ka-eye-naa-naa), it achieved a special status and respectability in ancient Hawaii. Renowned surfers were celebrated in song and dance and often enjoyed special privileges in royal circles. A leader's status within the class of chiefs partly depended on their strength and stamina, with surfing as their main training and proving ground.

Hawaiian surfers often exhibited their finest wave-riding style in fierce competition, wagering that they would be the best. When the waves were at their biggest, a contest of skill would be called. The surfers would bet their personal property, pride, ego, and even their status. In some instances, even a romance could be on the line, with the winner taking all.

The Near Death Experience of Surfing

The Christian missionary William Ellis (1794-1872) recalls that Kaumualii, the great king (Mo'I) from the island of Kauai, was renowned as an accomplished surfer. Ellis also recalls seeing the elderly Big Island chiefs Karaimoku ('Ka-ra-ee-moku') and Kakioena ('Ka-kee-o-en-na'), ''large corpulent men, balancing themselves on their long and narrow boards... as youths of 16'. Whichever board they chose, olo, kiko'o ('longboard') or alaia ('shortboard'), the chiefs took great pride in the skill, grace, speed, and courage with which they rode the Pacific's swells.

When the Hawaiian islands were first settled by western missionaries, surfing was slowly outlawed. For surfing, the abolition of the Hawaiian's native religion signalled the end of the sacred elements in the sport. Once the surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods, and other sacred aspects were removed, the ornate sport of wave riding was stripped of much of its cultural plumage. Also, betting and sexual freedom was looked on scornfully by the missionaries. As such, the interest in surfing quickly died. Foreigners introduced new recreational activities that interested the Western-conscious Hawaiian and in many cases served as substitutes for their traditional games. While learning the new games, the Hawaiians became preoccupied with understanding and adapting to a new life, further contributing to the neglect and disappearance of old pastimes. The new learning brought by missionaries was an imposing challenge to the islanders. Curious about the previously unimagined secrets of reading and writing, and encouraged or ordered by their chiefs, many Hawaiians undertook the arduous task of learning the scholarly skills of the West.

The combined effort of the fall of the royal system (kapu), the loss of leisure time, the attractions of a new culture, and the restrictions of a new religion, was augmented by an incredible population decline that spread through the islands. In 1778, when Captain Cook arrived, an estimated 300,000 lived in the islands. By 1900 the number of Hawaiians, including part-Hawaiians, had dropped to only 40,000, and made up only one quarter of Hawaii's total population. This decrease was most likely caused by the spread of introduced Western diseases.

Surrounded by these strange and unfamiliar pressures and forced to adjust to an entirely new social environment, it is no wonder that the Hawaiians let all the traditional pastimes fall away as they rushed to catch up with the world. Surfing's decline was only a single phase in the compacted changes of the Hawaiian people. Because the sport, with its associated elements, was so much a part of the old way of life, the abandonment of these traditions was bound to affect it. By the turn of the century, surfing in Hawaii was near extinction.

As the 20th Century began, the Waikiki area of Oahu was the centre for the few still surfing. Although Waikiki was a prominent surfing location in ancient times, its position as the centre for the remnants of the sport depended on the major shift in the Hawaiian population from Kona to Honolulu. This concentration may help to explain why surfing survived at Waikiki. Yet by 1900 even at its so-called 'centre', there was barely a suggestion of the sport's former glory.

1903 to 1908 marked the true revival of the sport, encouraged by a number of old timers2. However, by this time the large olo boards were no longer made3. The alaia type boards in use could not match the fine relics of earlier days. Most boards were about 6-feet-long, and many were hardly more than rough-hewn planks. It can be said that the sport returned to its infancy - the boards were short, the riding techniques were simple, the whole pastime was unelaborated and was practiced by only a few. However, soon after the turn of the century the first signs of a revival appeared.

Surfing's Rebirth

During the 19th Century few Caucasians learned to handle a surfboard, and it was a popular myth that only a Hawaiian could balance himself successfully while standing and riding a wave4. Despite this belief, in the early 1900s, a number of Honolulu residents, including many enthusiastic schoolboys and beach boys, re-discovered the waves at Waikiki, and gradually interest in the sport was renewed. One of these was George Freeth who was born in 1883 of Hawaiian and Irish parentage.

George Freeth

In 1907 George Freeth was brought to Redondo Beach, California, to demonstrate surfboard riding as a publicity stunt to promote the opening of the Redondo-Los Angeles railroad owned by Henry Huntington (who gave his name to Huntington Beach). Freeth stayed on in California to become the first lifeguard, and in this way brought the art of surfboard riding to the United States. He became a national hero and earned both the Carnegie Medal for bravery and the Congressional Medal of Honour when in a particularly violent storm in December 1908, he made three trips through mountainous surf to rescue seven Japanese fisherman. At least 78 people owed their lives to his work as a lifeguard. He was a great swimmer as well as a surfer, and in 1912 he would almost certainly have been selected to represent the United States at the Olympic Games had it not been ruled that he was a 'professional' because he was a paid lifeguard. At the age of 35 he died in San Diego during a national influenza epidemic; locals said that Freeth exhausted himself rescuing several swimmers at Oceanside and became an easy victim of the virus. He was a great man, he had the build of a surfer and by 'standing on the water' at Redondo Beach he began the move of surfboard riding out of Hawaii through the rest of the world.

Back in 1900, at the age of 16, he taught himself to ride standing up on the board instead of lying down. The board on which he accomplished this was a solid, heavy, 16-foot olo design5. As the locals were rediscovering surfing at Waikiki, tourists from the United States and Europe were discovering Waikiki for the first time. In 1901 the first major resort opened in Waikiki. The Moana Hotel was plush and built in a Beaux-arts style of architecture, distinguished by a grand Banyan tree in the courtyard fronting the beach and by a wooden pier that extended some 300 feet into the water. In order to promote the Hotel, advertisements began appearing around 1906 proclaiming surfing and canoeing to be exciting vehicles of sport for tourists.

Surfing is, and always will be, a sport of intense excitement, and the shared experience of riding waves is most responsible for its revival. In order to facilitate this experience another Waikiki institution was beginning to emerge as a main player responsible for surfing's emerging popularity in the early 1900s - the Waikiki beach boys. Prominent in the new movement was Alexander Hume Ford, an adventurous mainlander who was so enamoured with the sport that he took it upon himself to personally boost its revival and popularity. In 1907, Ford organized and formed the Outrigger Canoe Club for the purpose of 'preserving surfing on boards and in Hawaiian canoes'. Hence the birth of the world's first organization whose sole mission was the perpetuation of wave riding. Their charter read:

We wish to have a place where surfboard riding may be revived and those who live away from the water front may keep their surfboards. The main object of this club being to give an added and permanent attraction to Hawaii and make the Waikiki beach the home of the surf rider.

The club soon offered facilities for dressing, and a grass hut for board storage right on the beach. This gave surfers easy access to the sand and to the long sloping rollers. Ford conducted surfing classes for youngsters at Waikiki. Also in 1907, it was Ford who taught Jack London how to ride a surfboard. During his famous cruise on the Snark, London spent several weeks in Hawaii, and camped for awhile in a tent on the beach at Waikiki. About this time London wrote an impassioned article on 'The Royal Sport' that appeared in a national American magazine and spurred interest among Hawaii's residents, as well as on the mainland.

The Outrigger Canoe Club was mainly for Caucasians of Honolulu. Three years after its foundation, a second surfing club was formed. The Hui Nalu (Surfing Club) began informally around 1905, and was officially organized in 1911 to promote the sport among Hawaiians. In this way the Hawaiians eventually regained their place on the beach, and with their renewed participation and the friendly rivalry between the two clubs, the sport began to recover its status as an important part of Hawaii's life. In 1911, as many as a hundred surfboards could be seen at Waikiki on the weekend. Modern surfers had finally recovered some of the skill that greeted Captain Cook some 140 years earlier. Surfing, it seemed, was back on its feet.

Surfing Goes International

By 1912, surfing was beginning to expand from the Redondo Beach area with places like the Palos Verdes Cove being ridden. It was Duke Kahanamoku6 who brought surfboard riding to Australia. In 1912, CD Paterson, of Manly, had returned from Hawaii with a solid, heavy redwood board which a few local bodysurfers had tried to ride, but couldn't. Then three years later the New South Wales Swimming Association invited Duke to swim at the Domain Baths in Sydney, where he broke his own world record for the 100 yards with a time of 53.8 seconds. While he was in Australia he made a tour of the beaches and chose Freshwater to give an exhibition of the art of surfboard riding. He didn't know about the old redwood board in the district so he set to work to build his own out of piece of sugar pine supplied by a surf club member whose family was in the timber business.

Sunday morning. A clear, brilliant day. Spectators were milling around to watch. Manly Surf Boat was on, and had to give Duke assistance to drag his board through the break - an offer he laughed at good-naturedly. Picking up his board he ran to the water's edge, slid on and paddled out through the breakers. He made better on time on the way out than the local swimmers who escorted him. Once out beyond the break it wasn't long before he picked up a wave in the northern corner, stood up and ran the board diagonally across the bay, continually beating the break. Duke showed the crowd everything in the book, from head stands to a finale of tandem surfing with a local girl, Isobel Latham.

At this point surfing truly became an international sport. As surfing was recreating itself all around the globe, another institution was about to emerge from the ranks; board shapers - a kahuna from ancient times. Although the old traditions and rituals accompanying the act of selecting a tree had been replaced with a modern ritual - plunk down some cash for a plank and drag it home - the soul of the Kahuna expressed their desire to maintain a link with the past through the Shaper.

By the late 1920s tourists flocked to Hawaii to experience the world's most famous beach - Waikiki. Surfing was becoming very popular in southern California, partially because of the new and lighter hollow boards that were being produced by Tom Blake. The design was influenced by the ancient boards he had seen at the Bishop Museum. The original blank was 16' x 2' x 4' thick - and about 150 pounds. It finished up 15' x 19' x 4' looking like a cigar but it was only 100lbs.

From about the early '30s surfers weren't content anymore with simple wave riding - the surfers' ambitions out-raced the equipment they had to work with. Ever since then the surfboard was the focus - pushing technology and design to provide boards that could match surfers skills. Leading the field was Tom Blake. Recalling his new board's introduction to the public:

When I appeared with it for the first time before 10,000 people gathered for a holiday and to watch the races, it was regarded as silly. Handling this heavy board alone, I got off to a poor start, the rest of the field had gained a 30-yard lead in the meantime. It looked really bad for my board and my reputation and hundreds openly laughed. But a few minutes later it turned to applause because the big board led the way to the finish of the 880 yard coarse by fully 100 yards.

Blake emerged from the water triumphant, and his reputation as an inventive and a keenly competitive waterman grew even stronger.

With this success the hollow board was on its way to revolutionize modern surfing, but not without the usual controversy along the way. Sides were taken on both sides of the boards. 'Blakes Cigar' as it was called in Hawaii had set new records in the 100-yard and half mile paddling events of the Hawaiian Surfboard Paddling Championships on 1 January, 1930. Waikiki surfer and paddler Sam Reid recalled the controversy in a 1955 memoir he wrote for the Honolulu Star Bulletin.

It was a hollow victory, for Blake had hollowed out his 16 ft cigar board to 60 pounds weight, compared with an average 100 to 120lbs weight of the other nine boards in the event.

The purists demanded that all contests be limited to solid boards while others called it the beginning of a new era in surfing. Reid went on to say reverberations of the hollow board argument were heard from one end of the Ala Wai to the other and echoes can still be heard at Waikiki even today, 25 years later. At a meeting of the three surfing clubs, Outrigger, Hui Nalu, and Queens, held immediately after the disputed races, it was decided that henceforth there would be no limit whatsoever on the design of paddle boards.

Within a year, Reid said, surfboard builders were experimenting with all sorts of sizes, shapes, weights, and materials, including airplane fabric boards, hydroplane bottoms and converted single sculls. Imagination of design ran wild as he recalled. Later in 1930, Blake received the first ever patent on a surfboard for his Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard. These first models were manufactured by their Thomas N Rogers Company in Venice, California and a few years later by the LA Ladder Company.

During this time, the Hawaiian scene was in full swing. Waikiki was the lap of luxury without a doubt. The tourist industry was bringing thousands of people every month to Waikiki. People from all over the world came to Waikiki, among these were many famous actors, musicians, filmmakers, and politicians. Among these early guests was Edward, Prince of Wales, who created quite a stir when he stayed at the Moana Hotel and went for an outrigger ride. Also a few years later Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, and many others were regularly seen at Waikiki. By this time the Beach Boys of Waikiki had become internationally famous not only for the surfing prowess, but also for their music, clowning antics, and colourful names. Who could forget names like Steamboat, Turkey Love, Rabbit, and Blue Molokai?

The Golden Age of Surfing had just begun...

Related BBC Links

1He'enalu is an Hawaiian term adopted by ancient poets to describe their spectacular sport of surfing. However, like many other Hawaiian things, this word contains what is known in Hawaii as kaona, a hidden meaning. he'e can be interpreted as 'to change from a solid to a liquid form, or to run as a liquid'; nalu can refer to the surfing motion of a wave, or the foaming of a wave. Together they can be interpreted as 'wave-sliding'.2Namely William Dole (Dole Pineapple Co), Dudie Miller, Duke Kahanamoku, Harold Castle (Castle and Cook) George Freeth, Dad Center, Kauha, Holstein, Jordan, Lishman, Atkinson, Steamboat Bill, Winter, Brown, Kaupiko, Mahelona, Keawamaki, May, Curtiss, Hustace, Roth, Aurnolu and McKenzie.3Travellers can see original royal boards from over 200 years ago at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.4Mark Twain, during his trip to Hawaii in the 1860s said, 'None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.'5 The story is that it had been given to him by his uncle, a Hawaiian prince. The board is now a treasured item in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.6'Duke' is surfing's most famous individual. Along with being an Olympic Gold Medal swimmer, Duke was a famous lifeguard, actor, eventually becoming Waikiki's official ambassador. One June day in 1925 at Newport Beach, Duke was enjoying a picnic with fellow actors when a pleasure yacht, the Thelma, capsized in raging offshore surf. Of the twenty-nine people on board that day, seventeen died. With his surfboard, Duke managed to save eight, battling his way out and back through churning white water, three times. Newport's police chief called Duke's performance 'the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen'.

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