The 5 minute history of surfing

The history of surfing is essentially linked to the history of the surfboard. The first western record of surfing takes place in 1778 on the island of Hawaii by Captain Cooks 3rd expedition to the new world.

Surfer circa 1890

Early surfer circa. 1890

However by that time surfing had already been in existence for hundreds of years. The westerners were much impressed with this fantastic art of riding waves into the shore. But western influence would send this art into a steep decline for 150 years, and it was not until the 1950’s that hundreds of surfers could once again be found on the Hawaiian beaches.

The Kapu system of rules and social structures developed by the polynesian people living on Hawaii was extremely complex. With severe penalties for a commoner riding a wave reserved for a chieftan of chiefess. The influence of christianity and calvinist doctrine quickly dismantled these social restrictions in favour of a more westernised model. The foreign ‘Haole’ consistently destroyed much of Hawaiian culture throughout the 19th century ending in the complete annexing of Hawaii by the. U.S.A. However the sport of surfing hung on kept alive by a few pioneers on the beaches. Western visitors occasionally tried this occult sport for its exotic experience: including Mark Twain who talked about his ’surf bathing’ adventures. However it was not until the turn of the century that surfing left the island of Hawaii.

Three friends began the 20th century surfing revolution, they all met at the Waikiki swimming club on Hawaii at the very start of the century. Jack London was a western writer who espoused the incredible feeling of catching a wave. Alexander Hume Ford was a journalist who in 1908 started the Haiwaiian outrigger canoe club, which began direct competition with the traditional Hui Nula (surf club for Hawaiians). And finally George Freeth – was a local Irish/Hawaiian who became the supposed first man to surf in california (however it is known that Hawaiians had visited the area much earlier and surfed waves).

SFL, 25:49.  Makaha pioneers, Rabbit Kekai in middle, Wally Froiseth on right

Makaha pioneers, Rabbit Kekai in middle, Wally Froiseth on right

Within 10 years the Surf clubs on Hawaii had several thousand members. It was at this time that perhaps the most legendary surfer of all time appeared. Duke Paoa Kahanamohu the only man to ever surf a wave for over a 1000 yards in 1917. Duke competed in the the olympics in 1920 and 1924. This marked the end of the 1st period of surf revival and the development of surf into a club system in both Hawaii and California.

The 1930’s saw the development of the California surf scene. Two Californian men where instrumental. Tom Blake helped develop the surfing fin to stabilise surf boards, and in 1928 set up the Pacific Coast surf riding championships. The championships ran until the begginging of the 2nd world war in 1939. John H. “doc” Ball – set up the California surf riders club in 1946 at the end of the second world war.

Another three friends would take surfing into the second half of the century and to its current prominence. Rabbit Kekai was a Hawaiian mentored by the legendary Duke Kahanamohu. Woodbridge Parker or ‘Woody’ was the child of a rich family and a famous aviator who after the tragedy of his wifes death moved to Hawaii. He used his knowledge of flying machines to advance the Surf board design to include aerodynamic curves. Finally John Kelly was a big wave surfer who was one of the earliest environmental activists, and tried to stem the destructive development in Hawaii in the 1960’s.

In 1953 associated press published a photo of Woody brown and two others riding  wave in Hawaii, and this sparked an American exodus of surfers travelling to the lure of Hawaii. For the next 15 years Hawaii became the Surfer pilgrimage, and these pilgrims took the word of surf back to the world, and so by the end of the 1960’s surf culture had entered the main stream with music, film and writing to form the begginings of the massive commercial enterprise it is today.

SFL, 16:02, The Famous Photo of Makaha that Began an Exodus of Surfers to Hawai'i

Famous 1953 photograph which seeded california exodus

For more information on the history of surfing and surf boards try the following website.

  • Share/Bookmark

Leave a Reply