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Surfing History

Surfing History

On this page we'll try to present an insight into the history of surfing and surf culture, including surfing's origins, the stories of the key individuals who helped grow and shape the lifestyle into what it's become today.

The Origins of Surfing

Early Hawaiian Surfers

There's no actual written or recorded history of the first surfers but it's universally accepted that the Pacific gave birth to the pastime.   Some Peruvians lay claim that their early inhabitants may have even been the very first to ride surf, prone or on their knees on craft shaped using reeds, when returning from fishing expeditions, as long as 4000 years ago.   However the commonly accepted theory on the origins of the Polynesian population states that migration began from Sumatra in Indonesia, spreading through to Fiji, the Marquesas, Tahiti and eventually to Hawaii and no doubt that during the ongoing colonisation of the Pacific islands, surfing was developed.   What is accepted as fact however is that Hawaii became and remains the surfing world's epicentre.   Hawaii's population mastered the art of standing on a surfboard around 1000 years ago with both Royalty and Commoners practicing the sport.   In fact in Hawaii Kings used surfing as a way of showing prowess and skill to their subjects thus reinforcing their status.   The kings used to ride huge "olo" balsa boards reserved only for them which were 18-25 ft in length, whilst the rest of the population had to ride smaller "alaia" surfboards.

Ola surf board

It wasn't until 1779 that the Western world heard of surfing, when the writings of Lieutenant James King, assigned to a British expedition led by Captain James Cook, published his accounts of the Hawaiian islands and the exotic ocean pastime and beach lifestyle enjoyed by the locals.   The Europeans soon began to use Hawaii as a Pacific crossroads and trading post, so it wasn't too long after in 1821 that Calvinist missionaries arrived from Britain to impose their religion and repressed ideologies on a population which they viewed as frivolous.   As surfing was often a pre-cursor to couples getting it on, the missionaries decided that it wasn't at all right or proper, so dealt a heavy blow by banning surfing which almost wiped the pastime out completely.   This almost led to the extinction of traditional Hawaiian culture for the remainder of the 19th Century and if it hadn't been for a few native inhabitants and some curious tourists like Mark Twain (who wrote about "surf bathing" in his 1872 book "Roughing it"), surfing may have disappeared altogether.

Surfing in the 20th Century

Duke Kahanamoku

The resurrection of surfing culture was brought about almost singlehandedly by two men, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku.   George Freeth was one of the original Waikiki beach boys, a group who still practiced the then rare sport of surfing.   Freeth was introduced in 1907 in Honolulu, to an American writer called Jack London who became fascinated with the sport and subsequently wrote a magazine article which was published on the US mainland and made Freeth a minor celebrity.   George Freeth then moved to California and demonstrated his surf skills at Venice beach and later at Redonodo beach where he was billed as "The man who can walk on Water".   Freeth was certainly attributed to bringing surfing to the consciousness of the United States mainland, but it was nothing compared to Duke Kahanamoku's influence who's reach became worldwide.   Duke Kahanamoku was also a Waikiki beach boy who by 1905 was breaking swimming world records and in 1912 he represented the US Olympic swimming team in Stockholm winning multiple gold medals which secured his place as a Hawaiian ambassador.   Duke travelled the world spreading the Aloha spirit and introducing surfing to countries like Australia and New Zealand who quickly took the sport into their hearts.   In 1917 Duke rode a now legendary big wave over the deep water reefs off Oahu's Wakiki beach on a 126 pound 16ft solid red wood plank which he was able to ride for over a mile!   One of Dukes companions was Californian surf pioneer Tom Blake, who was the first man to ride Malibu in 1926 and who organised the first surf Pacific coast surf riding championships, which he also won on a hollow surfboard he made himself.

Early Surfboards

As already mentioned the Hawaiians used to ride solid wooden plank surfboards made of either pine, redwood or balsa.  These boards were heavy, finless, had flared rails and were virtually uncontrollable in larger surf.  The style of the day was to straightline these boards into the beach.  In the 1930's Tom Blake helped to develop a hollow board nicknamed the "cigar box" which was a board constructed using rib-supported balsa, dowels, waterproof glue and varnish.  These boards were lighter and more buoyant but had similar riding characteristics to the plank boards.  All of these boards had a tendency to "slide ass" in waves over 6ft which meant they slipped off the wave but as surfers naturally tried to progress in style and riding bigger waves then the boards had to progress with them.  In 1937 some of the local haole teenagers redesigned a board by cutting a "V" into the tail to help it hold in the wave more effectively which it did and helped riders into bigger surf and perform more critical manoeuvres.  Following WW2 the centre of new board design was in California where board makers like Bob Simmons, Dale Velzy and Joe Quigg were building boards with a stabilizing rear fin and coating their boards with fiberglass resin.

Surfing Pioneers

Surfing may never have grabbed the publics and surfers imaginations alike during the mid-20th century had it not been for the early surf pioneers for who the island of Oahu and its north shore became the testing grounds.   These men who explored the reefs of Oahu also mapped out a lifestyle of adventure and non-conformity which shaped the perceptions of surfers that still exists today.   They pushed the boundaries of what was possible which in turn pushed forward the development of surfboard design which filtered down throughout the world of surfing.   These early north shore surfers became true watermen, many of who showed no fear and became legends in their own right.


In the early part of the 1900's the primary surfing area was the south side of Oahu around Waikiki, but as the boards developed surfers like John Kelly, Wally Froiseth and Fran Heath began to search for more challenging waves.  It was in 1937 that they headed out of Honolulu and set up camp overnight in the Makaha valley only to awake the next morning to see the huge wave exploding over the reef.  Real Makaha only starts to work above 10-12ft and it only hits 20ft a few times a year.  The Second World War then interrupted most surfers, many of whom joined the war effort, but by the mid-1940s surfers were back out at Makaha including a new face called George Downing.  Downing began to study the break and the waves with an almost scientific enthusiasm.  When the swell was up he timed and noted the intervals between waves, the number of waves in a set, the time between sets, the swell increase/decrease over a period of time and when it was calm he snorkelled the reef to check the profile.  In 1950 following a trip to California, Downing shaped a new design of big wave board which included a skeg and was 10ft long, which was much more solid in the wave face and allowed him to begin to tackle the really big swells at Makaha.

It was in 1953 that a local photographer took a picture of Downing, Brown and Buzzy Trent riding a 15ft Makaha wave which caused a sensation on the US mainland after it appeared in newspapers, Life, National Geographic and others.  A wave that size had never been seen to be ridden and it fired up a number of Californian surfers to follow a dream of surfing big waves.

In the early 1950's a mixed group of Hawaiian and Californian surfers set up a semi-permanent camp at Makaha on Oahu's westside, building huts and renting frame houses.  Their numbers grew with Californians following the 1953 photograph, but Downing remained the original and best big wave surfer.  They spent their days dedicated to surfing, fishing and chillin, but Makaha was prone to long flat periods, when talk turned to the North Shore which had been explored by some of the surfers but was considered by many as "taboo".

The North Shore

The first known modern surfers to surf Oahu's North shore began in 1943 at Sunset beach, but back then there were only a handful, that is until one fateful day in December of that year.   Two surfers named Woodie Brown and Dickie Cross paddled out into a rising swell at Sunset only to find themselves unable to get back to shore through the whitewater and vicious rips, as the swell grew to massive proportions.   They decided to paddle the 3 miles to Waimea where they thought there may be a better chance of getting in, but Dickie Cross was caught too far inside and disappeared forever under a huge set.   Brown made it to shore after a merciless beating in the bay.   Few surfers ventured to the North shore after that and the story added to the already spooky atmosphere surrounding the bay.

That is until Nov 7th 1957 when Greg Noll and Mike Stange stood on Waimea Beach watching a 12-15ft swell and Noll announced "f**k it, I'm paddling out".  Noll and Stange were quickly followed by Fred Van Dyke, Mickey Munoz and Pat Curren, but because Noll claimed the first wave that day (although that's disputed) he became synonymous with the first surfer to ride the bay.  Since that day, the North shore has become surfing's epicentre and Waimea its spiritual home.

Global Awareness

Until this time surfing was still an underground pastime pursued by a dedicated rebellious minority, operating on the periphery of the sporting world, that is until Gidget hit the book stalls and movie screens in the late 1950's.  

"Gidget, The Little Girl With Big Ideas" was a novel written by Frederick Kohner in 1957 based upon accounts of his daughter Kathy and her involvement in the surf culture around Malibu.   Columbia pictures purchased the rights to Gidget (the nickname given to her by fellow surfers... "Girl-midget") and filmed the movie on location in Santa Monica during 1959.   Both the book and the film were instant successes, with the film packing out cinemas.

The success of the movie spawned a huge number surfing and beach movies, which immediately appealed to a teenage audience ready to seek out this cool new surf and beach lifestyle.   The influence of Gidget can't be underestimated as it rapidly transformed surfing and an elite underground lifestyle to a fad for huge numbers of kids who lived within driving distance of the ocean.   It's estimated that the number of surfers in California alone grew from about 5,000 in 1956 to more than 100,000 in 1962.  

Combine this media explosion with the influx of Surf music in the early 1960s and it's easy to see why surfing enjoyed such phenomenal growth.   The music began with movie soundtracks, but soon surf music groups followed and bands like the Beach Boys, Jand and Dean, Dick Dale and the Del Tones became globally recognised names.

This youth driven kick start allowed surfing to develop into both a sub-culture and commercial enterprise, with a whole lifestyle and industry growing in response.   John Seversons magazine “The Surfer” first hit the newsstands in 1960, board shapers began to experiment with new materials, board shapes and designs, taking inspiration from maritime knowledge of shipping hull and planing mechanics.   Boards shortened during this decade from big old logs during the early part of the 60's down to 6ft boards, designed for speed and manoeuvrability by end of the decade.  

The new shorter, lighter surfboards triggered a whole new style of more aggressive surfing which began to find its home in Australia.   By the 1970's brands like Billabong, Quiksilver and O'Neill were formed and rapidly expanded.   Jack O'Neill of course played no small part by inventing the wetsuit which allowed surfers year round access to oceans the world over.  

Competitive Surfing

It was in the 1970's that the Australians were at the forefront of surfing on the emerging pro-surf tour which paved the way for a truly global surf explosion.&nsbp;  Prior to 1976 and the birth of the IPS spearheaded by Fred Hemmings, the world of pro-surfing was limited to a small number of individual contests with the biggest being the Hawaiian events like the Smirnoff Pro, The Duke Kahanamoku Classic, and the Pipeline Masters offering around $10,000 in prize money.  

By the mid-70s, events were organised in Australia, Brazil, USA and South Africa and these loose knit tournaments were linked together in 1976 in what would prove to be the embryonic stage of ASP.   The IPS was the first pro surfing governing body and on the first year of the tour Peter Townend of Australia was crowned as the very first pro surfing world champion.   Shaun Tomson (ZAF), Wayne Bartholomew (AUS) and the legendary and four-time world champion Mark Richards (AUS) followed in successive years.   These riders help to bring in a new era of surfing and by 1984, the tour had expanded to in excess of 20 internationally rated events.

As contests grew to around 60 pro events worldwide, the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals formerly the IPS) introduced a two-tiered system of ratings in 1992, incorporating the Top 44 surfers, who automatically qualified World Championship Tour (WCT).   A World Qualifying Series (WQS), was also introduced to feed the top tour with 16 people dropping off at years end to be replaced by new WQS aspirants.  

As the tour developed a departure from the '80s and early '90s format emerged.   During this time ASP World Tour events were staged at town and city beaches in mid-summer, with the objective of filling grandstands, but given the time of year and locations poor surf was generally the norm.   The result was that the rapidly growing surf industry who were sponsoring events encouraged promoters to stage top tour comps at prime surf locations and as part of a global promotional strategy the big name brands began positioning their respective events in much more exotic locations like G-land in Indo, J- Bay in South Africa, Mundaka in Spain, Tavarua in Fiji, Teahupoo in Tahiti and Trestles in California.   These events were also scheduled to be held with a waiting period during the peak swell season with the world's best riders surfing the world's best waves.

In 1999 the ASP appointed Wayne "Rabbit" Bartholomew as President and CEO and he would serve for 10 years.   Rabbit transformed the tour with huge changes that moved away from judging based on quantity of waves and manoeuvres and pulled contests from poor beach breaks to the planets ultimate surf locations.   Rabbit helped craft a new  Dream Tour  that recognized progressive surfing and placed athletes in the planet's best waves.   He also spearheaded the move towards live streaming video for surfing events, making them accessible to a worldwide audience.

It's the evolution of the ASP world tour that has allowed surfing and surfers to make massive leaps forward creating global super stars like Kelly Slater and allowing the surf brands to become multi-million dollar mega-brands.   The rest as they say is history!

There's more surfing history to come as we explore the development of big wave and soul surfing... watch this space!

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