The History of Wave Surfing

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Surfing's Hawaiian Roots

The Beginning

Board Surfing has existed for centuries in the Hawaiian Islands and was practiced by the native Hawaiian people for both religious and recreation purposes. Although no one knows for sure exactly where and when stand-up surfing began, there is no doubt that over the centuries the ancient sport of "he'e nalu"1 was perfected by the Kings and Queens (and likely the men and women) of the Hawaiian Isles, but it is believed that it started long before the 15th century AD. Because of their fortuitous position by way of longitude and latitude, the Hawaiian Islands enjoy the great waves of the Pacific in all shapes and sizes. Hawaiians attached great mystique to the ocean and her moods. Not unlike the Eskimo, who utilizes several hundred words to relate forms and concepts of ice and snow, the Hawaiian people likewise assigned numerous persona and poetic metaphors 2 to the ever changing sea, or 'kai'.

A hula girl playing the ukulele

Of the Hawaiians who surfed, it was the ali'i or chiefly class who 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 "maka ai nana" (ma-ka-eye-naa-naa) (common people), 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 leaders status within the class of chiefs depended, in part, on their strength and stamina with surfing as their main training and proving ground.3

Surfing's Near Death Experience

The Christian missionary William Ellis (1794-1872) recalls that Kaumualii, the great mo'i (king) 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 sixteen." Which ever board they choose, olo, kiko'o (longboard) or alaia (short), 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 signaled the end of the sacred elements in the sport. Without the surf chants, board construction rites, sports gods, and other sacred aspects all removed, the once ornate sport of wave riding was stripped of much of its cultural plumage. Before long, betting, sexual freedom, and even the act of surfing met disfavor under the influence of missionaries. Without these activities, 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 new games the Hawaiians also became preoccupied with understanding and adapting to a new life; this further contributed 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 all this- the fall of the kapu (royal) system, 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 Capt. 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 (likely caused by the spread of western disease) and comprised only one forth of Hawaii's total population.

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 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 it's 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 center for the few still surfing. Although Waikiki was a prominent surfing location in ancient times, its position as the center for the remnants of the sport depends as much 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 "center", there was barely a suggestion of the sport's former glory.

In 1900 one of the early surfriders at Waikiki, William Cantrell says, Princess Kaiulani4 was an expert surfrider from around 1895 to 1899. She rode a long olo board made of wili wili. She apparently was the last of the old school at Waikiki. From 1903 to 1908 marks the true revival of the sport, encouraged a number of old timers 5 By this time, the large olo boards were no longer made. The alaia type boards in use could not match the fine relics6 of earlier days. Most boards were about 6 feet long; many were hardly more than rough-hewn planks. The sport might be said to have returned to its infancy: boards were short, riding techniques were simple, the whole pastime was unelaborated and practiced only by a few. Soon after the turn of the century, however, the first signs of a revival appeared.

Surfing's Rebirth

During the 19th century few Caucasians learned to handle a surfboard. It was a popular myth, in fact, that only a Hawaiian could balance himself successfully while standing and riding a wave.7 Despite this belief, in the early 1900's, a number of Honolulu residents, including many enthusiastic schoolboys and beachboys, 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. 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 design.9 As the locals were rediscovering surfing at Waikiki, tourist 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 in what is most responsible for its revival. In order to facilitate this shared experienced another Waikiki institution was beginning to emerge as a main player responsible for surfing's emerging popularity in the early 1900's -- the Waikiki beachboys. Prominent in the new movement was Alexander Hume Ford, an adventurous mainlander who was so enamored with the sport that he took it upon himself to personally boost its revival and popularization. In 1907, Ford organized and formed the Outrigger Canoe Club,10
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. 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 11 how to ride a surfboard.

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), which 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 hundred and forty years earlier. Surfing, it seemed, or rather, surfing itself, 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 Kahanamoku12 who brought surfboard riding to Australia. In 1912, C.D. 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 Assn. 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 beached 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 had to give Duke assistance to drag his board through the break - an offered 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 about re-creating itself all around the globe, another institution was about to emerge from the ranks . Board shaper - 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 1920's 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 which were being produced by Tom Blake. The design was influenced by the ancient boards he had seem 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 30's 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 1st 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 lead 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 ana keenly competitive waterman grew even stronger.

With this success the hallow 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 Jan 1 1930. Longtime Waikiki surfer and paddler Sam Reid recalled the controversy 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 120 lbs.weight of the other 9 boards in the event." The purist demanded that all contests by limited to solid boards while others called it the beginning of a new era in surfing.
Reid goes on to say reverberations of the hollow board tiff 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 3 surfing clubs, Outrigger, Hui Nalu, and Qeens, 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 Hallow Surfboard. These 1st models were manufactured by their Thomas N.Rogers Co. in Venice,Ca. and a few years later by the L.A. Ladder Co.

At this time too the Hawaiian scene were 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 were Edward, The Prince of Wales, who created quite a stir when he stayed at the Moana Hotel and went for a outrigger ride. Also a few years later Shirley Temple, Bing Crosby, and many others were regularly scene at Waikiki. By this time the Beach Boys of Waikiki has become internationally famous not only for the surfing prowess, but also for their music, clowning antics, and colorful names. Who could forget names like Steamboat, Turkey Love, Rabbit, and Blue Molokai

Surfing's Golden Age

The 1950's were the Golden Age of surfing. All along the Southern California, USA, coastal communities form Santa Barbara to San Diego literally 1000's of gremmies13 took to the waves and beaches like never before. Because of the post war prosperity and the commercialization of board manufacturing almost any kid could mow enough lawns, deliver enough newspapers, or collect enough bottles to get himself onto a good lightweight board.

By the end of the decade manufactures were about to brake the techno barrier, with the new advances in foam and resin technologies. Years before Joe Quigg was suspected of being a German spy for his persistent inquiries into resins and setting fluids. Bob Simmons had opened the door to this technology in the late 40's when he created a plywood covered foam and fiberglass board. Now some 10 years Hobie Alter, Gordon Clark, Harold Walker, and then Greg Noll began producing all foam boards. These boards didn't change surfing style particularly, the light weight balsa boards were responsible for that , but the foam boards made board design more predictable and consistent. You could make the same board over and over again without worrying about different weights of wood bad grain or whatever problems there were with wood.

1959 was and epic year for surfing, We thought names like Dora, Noll, Edwards, or some other heavyweights like them would impact surfing in a big way, God were we wrong! The name that impacted surfing like an asteroid slamming in was Kathy Khroner. Say who!?! Yep! that's right, but most of us new of her by the name Gidget.Before we knew what was happening , Gidget was going everywhere and a steady stream of Beachy movies were unleashed on the American public. 14 About the only good that came from these corny cinematic embarrassments, aside from providing some part-time employment for Mickey Dora, Munoz, Johnny Fain , and Tubestake, was the new style of music they featured. The surf guitar and the screamin reverbin surf sound was born.

The movie Beach Party marked the first time Dick Dale and the Deltones played to a national audience and a short time later another inane beach movie Muscle Beach Party announced the introduction of Little Steve Wonder. This time marked the beginnings of a serious tribal revival, and serious surfers weren't at these lame movies, not a chance, because when they weren't surfin you could find them at places like the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Harmony Park in Anaheim, or at the Aragon Ballroom at POP in Santa Monica These places were a sea of Goodyear treaded Huarache sandals, Pendleton shirts, and faded levis as 3-4000 people a night packed these halls to stomp the night away. Groups like the Bel airs, from the So. Bay, Dick Dale and the Deltones, The Baymen, or the Chantay's rocked the halls. Who could forget such memorable tunes as Taco Wagon,Lets Go Trippin, Let there Be Surf, Mr. Moto, or Pipeline. This was bitchin music, something you could get into and within a couple of years there were more than 40 surf bands in and around So. Calif. pounding out the surf beat in halls and auditoriums all up and down the coast.

Along with there surf beat came surf fashion. Everyone wanted to at least look like a surfer even if they couldn't be a surfer. beyond the faded levis , huarache sandals, and pendleton shirts, the first true fashion created for surfers were the baggie surf trunks which were worn long to keep the mean wax rash from your legs. Hang Ten was the first company to mass produce surf trunks. They advertised in Surfer magazine and sold their trunks in all the local surf shops. Mike Doyle was one of the first models for the company. As Mike remembered, surfers were into anti-fashion so true to style as soon as Hang Ten became popular with non surfers they stopped wearing their trunks. But by then surf posers were everywhere.

What most people didn't realize at the time was the intense amount of creative energy that was focused on the sport of surfing. The 50's were no doubt the most prolific period in the 1000's of years of surfing's history. Within these 10 years surfing went from a arcane coastal pastime to a multi million dollar industry supporting entrepreneurs chemists, engineers, artists and craftsmen. There was no good ol boy network to rely on, no deep pocket defense contracts for funding, and there was no National marketing scheme in place. What there were some sawhorses under a pier, some garage workshops, a few cameras, and a couple of Bell and Howe 8mm movie cameras, and that was about it.

Surfboard Evolution

The Sixties were a time of refinement and growth of surfing. The boards became more and more complex as the theories of hydordynamics were being applied to surfing. The new boards had channels and vees cut into their bottoms. New theories were tested and new designs proven. Though longboards remained popular during the early 60's, balsa wood had been almost exclusively exchanged for foam and fiberglass. The jet propelled introduction of the shortboard transformed the way that everybody looked at surfing, and pretty much converted every surfer to a shortboarder overnight. Between 1968-1970 the average length of the surfboard went from 10 to 6 feet, and lost about eight lbs. Manufacturers could hardly give away the longboards and many ended up shaving off a few feet and reselling them as 6.5 footers.

It is debatable who started the shortboard revolution, though George Greenough (AST) was of major influence taking positive qualities from the designs of his knee boards, along with the influence of Bob McTavish (USA). Shaper Bob Simmons (USA) and Surfer David Nuuhiwa were also prominent influences in the transformation to the shortboard during the sixties. The major advantage over the new shape was its emphasis in speed. Making good use of the foam and fiberglass technologies, the shortboard was extremely maneuverable and enabled the rider not only to surf the waves vertically like the longboard, but also to ride inside the pipe and carve radical turns in and out of the white water. During it's early stages, the shortboard went through several progressions, one being the lack of control of the tail end, hence the creation of the pintail design to add stability in the pocket of the wave. In Australia, designers were making their boards thicker to aid flotation, though this restrained it's speed, while in the USA the board remained thinner, but didn't hold it's buoyancy as well. Shortly after, a little lift was added to the nose of the surfboard to help with flotation. The flexible fin also came into the picture and eventually the shortboard became the basis of the all around performance board of today.

The excitement of the shortboard in the late sixties carried though into the early 1970's as surfers started to get the hang of the new riding style. Unfortunately, improvements made to the surfboard during the 70's were few, with the exception of general experimentation relating rail curve and the shape of the tail.

One of the biggest things to happen to surfing occurred in 1973, when surfer Jack O'Neill invented the leash, or leg rope. This piece of stretchy yet extremely strong surgical tubing enabled the surfboard to be attached to the leg of the surfer, hence keeping the board from washing ashore every time the surfer missed a wave. Leashes were designed in different sizes depending on the size of the wave and are attached to the board at the tail end by a plug that is soundly embedded. It is truly a great design because it allows the leash to be interchangeable between boards and easily replaced in case of damage.

A mermaid-esque girl gliding with a surf board

A huge change came with the introduction of tri fins, or the thruster. The three fin layout increased the board's ability to change direction quickly without losing much speed. The introduction of the three fin surfboard in 1981, with its three fins permanently glassed on became the standard board for most surfers. In the meantime, the longboard was entering a revival phase, which expanded into the 90's where it remains influential to the board design industry today. In fact, half of today's surfing population ride the same style of longboard as the boards designed almost fifty years ago.

In the 1990's, shapers started to use computer controlled machines to cut a nearly completed shaped board from a foam blank.

1"He'enalu" is a Hawaiian term adopted by ancient poets to describe their spectacular sport of surfing. It is a word rich in nuance. Like many subtleties expressed by this highly-evolved civilization, the world for this popular form of recreation is rich in what Hawaiians call kaona, or hidden meaning. The first half, "he'e," can mean for instance, "to change from a solid to a liquid form, or to run as a liquid"; the second part, "nalu" can refer to the surfing motion of a wave, or the foaming of a wave, hence he'enalu, or wave-sliding. 2Hawaiians even had an appropriate word, hopupu (ho-poo-poo), that referred to a state of being stoked, or emotionally excited about something. In his important manuscript Traditions of Hawaii, the 19th Century Hawaiian scholar Kepelino Keauokalani (kay-ow-o-ka-la-ni), recalled that, "during November, which in the Hawaiian calendar is called 'ikuwa,' in honor of 'deafening' wind, storms and waves that occur during that month, early Hawaiians would become particularly hopupu." 3 Hawaiian surfers often exhibited their finest wave-riding style in fierce competition, wagering 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, their pride, ego, and status. In some instances, even a romance could be on the line -- winner taking all.4Princess Kaiulani was the daughter of Governor Archibald Cleghorn and Princess Mariam Likelike and the niece of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani. Kaiulani was given the Ainahau estate in Waikiki by her Godmother Princess Ruth, and there she entertained Robert Louis Stevenson in 1889. He wrote a celebrated poem, "Forth from her land to mind she goes," on the occasion of her departure to attend school in England, after which she traveled throughout Europe with her father. The Princess was widely loved as a linguist, musician, artist, horsewoman, surfer, and swimmer.5 Willia 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.6 Travelers can see original royal boards from over 200 years ago at the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu, Hi, USA.7Mark Twain, during his trip to Hawaii in the 1860's said, "None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly."8In 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 Honor 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 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. Freeth 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. 9 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.10
The 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 surfrider."
11During 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.12'Duke' is surfing's most famous individual. Along with being an Olympic Gold Metal 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 call Duke's performance "the most superhuman surfboard rescue act the world has ever seen" 13Young surfers14If you wish to see a good theatrical film centred on surfing, watch Big Wednesday or The North Shore.

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