When did surfing first start


Surfing—standing upright on a board and guiding it across the face of a breaking wave—exists today as a leisure pursuit with its own distinct culture and as a professional sport. While modern surfing is an international pastime, the roots of its technical form and cultural content lie in Hawaii and California.


Historians trace the origins of surfing to premodern Hawaii. Hawaiians of both sexes and from all social strata surfed, and early European explorers and travelers praised their skills. American missionaries, however, disapproved of the "constant intermingling, without any restraint" of men and women and banned the pastime in the mid-nineteenth century (Dibble, p. 101).

Surfing underwent a revival concomitant with the development of Hawaii as a tourist destination in the early twentieth century. American writer Jack London and Hawaiian surfers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku assisted the subsequent diffusion of the pastime around the Pacific. London published several accounts of surfing in popular American magazines after a visit to Waikiki. Henry Huntington hired Freeth as "the man who walks on water" to help promote his new railway line to Redondo Beach in California. An Olympic swimmer, Kahanamoku gave surfing exhibitions in Los Angeles, California; Sydney, Australia; and Wellington and Christchurch, New Zealand, while on swimming tours.

Surfboard Technology

Primitive technology hindered the popularization of surfing. Kahanamoku's generation rode solid wood boards. They were large (eight to twelve feet long, twenty-four inches wide, three inches thick) and heavy (weighing approximately 100 pounds). Tom Blake attached plywood over crossbeams to produce a lighter (sixty- to seventy-pound) "hollow" board in the 1930s. He also added a single fin under the tail, enabling riders to better steer their craft. In the early 1950s, Joe Quigg began making lighter (twenty- to thirty-pound) malibu boards (named after the California beach where they first became popular) from balsa wood wrapped in fiberglass. Toward the end of that decade, polyurethane replaced balsa. Polyurethane and improved catalysts (to harden fiberglass resin) facilitated mass production of malibus. The so-called shortboard revolution occurred in the mid-1960s. Literally overnight, boards dropped from ten feet to eight feet long, and surfers experimented with new shapes. A major influence on shortboard design was George Greenough, a kneeboard rider from California. Still made from polyurethane and fiberglass, contemporary boards have three fins, are around six feet long, eighteen inches wide, and 1.5 inches thick, and weigh about fifteen pounds. Rails (edges), noses, and tails are shaped by hand to meet specific (usually local) wave types.

Surf Riding Style

Board technology was a major influence on riding styles. Early boards had no fins, thus limiting surfers' ability to maneuver their craft; riders simply pointed the boards shoreward. A relaxed, upright stance was the essence of good style. Malibus revolutionized surfing. They enabled riders to "trim" (travel at the same speed as the breaking wave), "stall" (slow the board to allow the breaking wave to "catch up"), and change direction. Regional variations in style followed the malibu, reflecting distinct philosophies of the ocean and waves. Hawaiians sought to flow in rhythm with the breaking wave. They saw "the wave and the performer as a coordinated unit; the surfer dances with the wave, letting it lead him along its natural direction." Hawaiian style derived from an "innate respect for the waves" (Lopez, pp. 101, 104). Californians turned surfing into "an original American dance, a delightful mixture of ancient Polynesian sport, bullfighting, skiing and sailing." Unlike Hawaiians, who flowed with waves under nature's guidance, Californians sought "to enhance the beauty of a breaking wave" (Parmenter, pp. 117-118). Tinged with notions of cultural superiority, Californians believed that surfers aesthetically enhanced waves. A third, overtly aggressive style of riding emerged in Australia, where surfers sought to "dance on the wave, attacking it from all angles and reducing it to shreds" (Lopez, p. 103). This style emanated from within the Surf Lifesaving Association. A paramilitary-type body that gained hegemonic control of Australia's beaches, the association nurtured the idea that properly trained individuals could conquer waves.

By the mid-1980s, aggressive riding had become the dominant style, facilitated by short, finely tuned boards that freed surfers to move across, around, inside, and over waves at will. Urban development and intense competition for waves, particularly at the epicenters of surfing—North Shore (Oahu, Hawaii), southern California, and east coast Australia—reinforced aggressive surfing. Instead of escaping into nature, contemporary surfers immerse themselves in greasy, foul-smelling waters that assault and jolt their senses, and frequently give them ear, eye, and throat infections. Dulled by toxic wastes and detergents, the oceans now merge with ashen skies, waste-strewn sands, and pallid concrete highways and housing estates. Rather than a place for reflection, contemplation, and relaxation, the beach is another industrial urban site where surfers release aggression and express profanity, nihilism, and general dissatisfaction.

Surfing Culture

Malibus popularized surfing and precipitated a unique American youth culture that combined the relaxed, casual hedonism of Hawaii and the free-spirited beatnik philosophy of the mainland. Surfers communicated through their own language ("like wow," "daddy-o," "strictly squaresville"), humor, rituals, dress (T-shirts, striped Pendleton shirts, narrow white Levi's jeans, Ray-Ban sunglasses), and hair styles (bleached-blond hair and goatee beards). At the heart of surfing culture was the "surfari"—a wanderlust trip in search of perfect waves. Surfing rapidly penetrated the consciousness of baby boomers on the back of Hollywood surf films (romantic beach musicals and comedies: Gidget [1959], Ride the Wild Surf [1964]), surf music (a thundering guitar-based sound played as single-note riffs: Dick Dale's "Miserlou" [1962], the Chantays' "Pipeline" [1962], the Astronauts' "Baja" [1963]), "pure" surf films ("travelogues," with footage of surfers riding waves: Trek to Makaha [1956], The Big Surf [1957], Spinning Boards [1961]), and specialized surfing magazines (Surfer, Surfing).

Public commentators frowned upon the nonconformism of surfing culture. They condemned surfers' antisocial behavior (exemplified by the "brown eye"—exposing the anus to public view from a passing vehicle) and branded them itinerants, nomads, and wanderers. Surfing was seen as an indolent, wasteful, and selfish pastime that lacked an institutional anchor.

A sporting element within surfing organized competitions to counter negative images and win the activity social respectability. In 1953, the Waikiki Surf Club hosted the first International Surfing Championships for men and women at Makaha, Hawaii. Makaha marked the official birth of the sport of surfing. Most surfers rejected competition, unable to reconcile it with their quests for autonomy and freedom. Indeed, during the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s surfing competitions virtually collapsed under the belief that they symbolized excessive materialism. Surfers preferred the creativity and self-expression of "soul-surfing"—riding waves purely for the benefit of communing with nature.

Ironically, the counterculture contributed to the development of professional surfing. The "work-is-play" philosophy of the counterculture encouraged a group of perspicacious (predominantly Hawaiian and Australian) surfers to establish the Association of Surfing Professionals in 1976 to coordinate competitions and financially support the best riders. To attract corporate sponsors, the ASP had to portray surfing as a mainstream sport comprising disciplined athletes. But this strategy merely fueled tensions between professional and ordinary surfers. "We [should] encourage surfing to be publicly damned," railed one surfer recently: "People don't have to fear us—they just have to not want to be us, not want to identify with a label that spells sick, perverted deviant" (Stedman, p. 81).

See also:Beaches, Snowboarding, Swimming


Booth, Douglas. Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand, and Surf. London: Frank Cass, 2001.

Dibble, Sheldon. A History of the Sandwich Islands. Honolulu, Hawaii: Thomas G. Thrum, 1909.

Finney, Ben, and James Houston. Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport.San Francisco: Pomegrante Artbooks, 1996.

Kampion, Drew. Stoked: A History of Surf Culture.Los Angeles: General Publishing, 1997.

Lopez, Gerry. "Attitude Dancing." Surfer (June–July 1976): 101–104.

Parmenter, Dave. "Epoch-alypse Now: Postmodern Surfing in the Age of Reason." The Surfer's Journal (Winter 1995): 112–125.

Stedman, Leanne. "From Gidget to Gonad Man: Surfers, Feminists, and Postmodernization." Australia New Zealand Journal of Sociology 33 (1997): 75–90.

Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Sydney, Australia: Palm Beach Press, 1983.

Douglas Booth

Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America