History of Surfing: Where It All Began & How The Culture Has Changed

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Credit: Flickr, João Trindade

Surfing is a water sport where a person rides waves in an upright position. 

Surfers ride natural waves on the ocean, river, or other body of water. The idea of the sport is to glide across the water until the wave breaks, for as long as possible. Where did this sport originate though? Why is it so popular today? Let’s take a look at the history of surfing and why this sport is so iconic.

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Credit: Flickr, Eduardo Avalith


When Did Surfing Originate?

Bodysurfing dates back to pre-Columbian origins. The Moche and Chimu cultures fished in waters for survival. The fishermen would surf the waves to head back to the shore, with their nets filled with fish in their hands. Peru’s north coast holds evidence of this presence and is also home to some of the world’s best waves. Surfing continued for 2000 years as people continued fishing to eat. However, some evidence also suggests that people rode the waves for fun afterwards.

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Credit: Flickr, Jitze Couperus

As you can imagine, their boards weren’t the same as the modern day. These wooden panels helped them to steadily stand on the board to catch fish. They weren’t built to catch waves – that would be a bonus to make travelling back to the shore easier and quicker. Some people argue that this isn’t the real history of surfing, as these fishermen were paddling more often than riding waves.

Hawaii Origins

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Credit: Flickr, DeWayne Hansen

Many believe that Polynesia is the first evidence of surfing. In the 12th Century, cave paintings showed people riding the waves and looking happy while they did so. The Polynesians brought surfing to Hawaii where the sport became even more popular. It wasn’t just for fun though -- surfing became a part of the religion. In fact, people practiced religious rituals when making their surf boards to protect and secure the Gods’ goodwill. It seemed that surfing was liberating as everyone could surf – including women, men, children, and even kings.

How Did The History of Surfing Continue?

Famous people such as Mark Twain and Jack London reported on surfing and its high interest. More and more surf clubs appeared. Tourists loved the idea of trying a new sport in a different place in the world. As it became more popular, lifeguards appeared on the beach to keep people safe and secure during these formal sessions and serious competitions.

Duke Kahanamoku was one of the most famous surfers, born in 1890. As one of the best surfers on the Hawaiian Islands, he became a talented swimmer who people loved to watch. In 1912, he competed and won a 100-meter freestyle contest. As a result of his success, he traveled around the world introducing surfing to new regions such as Australia and California.

As Hawaii joined the U.S. as one of their states, tourism on the islands increased like never before. People visited the island from all around the world to surf for fun. Even today, the sport of surfing is wildly popular around the world.


How Has The Surfboard Developed?

As the sport became more recognised, the surfboard itself obviously changed as new materials and skills were introduced. In ancient Hawaii, riding waves was an art. It was a ritual to build a surfboard and the practice was not performed lightly. In fact, it became a training exercise and experience for Hawaiian chiefs to practice.

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Credit: Flickr, a200/a77Wells

At the time, there were two kinds of surfboards – an Olo and an Alai. Chiefs or the noblemen rode the Olo, whilst the commissions rode the Alai (a more common surfboard). Both boards were wooden and ranged from 10 to 16 feet long depending on wealth and social class. Most typically, an Alai reached 10-12 feet, whilst an Olo commonly reached 14-16.

Progression of the Surfboard

In 1926, the surfboard dramatically changed design. Tom Blake designed the first hollow surfboard which consisted of redwood. It had hundreds of holes drilled into it with a thin wooden board on top. This was 15 feet long and weighed 100lbs, and though criticized at first, was faster than previous designs. This new design received tremendous success and became mass-produced in 1930. New designs came onto the market to improve riding waves and make them more streamlined for surfers.

Dale Velzy took the surfboard to the next level. The Californian created what was called the Pig Board, and later changed to the Sausage Board. As a skilled crafter and surfer, he considered the shape and design of the surfboard in comparison to the surfer. It needed to adapt to waves easier and be water resistant. It wasn’t until the ‘50’s that surfboards had polyurethane foam inside of them. This foam is easily shaped and airbrushed, in addition to reducing time for the finishing process.

The surfboard hasn’t changed too much since the ‘50’s, though they have become much thinner and lighter to carry. Airbrushing and painting is certainly important to a surfer in the current day. This is for a personal touch, as well as appearing more angelic and noticeable whilst riding the waves.


How Has The History of Surfing Changed To This Day?

Surfing has certainly become more popularised around the world, and is recognised as a competitive sport. Not all countries have a coastline, so tourists are willing to travel across the globe to join the surf culture. Many people don’t just do it for fun, but compete to identify themselves in the surfing community.

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Credit: Flickr, bulldog2518k

After the second World War, the surf culture popularised in Southern California. Since then, it’s become more than just an activity, but a lifestyle, community, and experience. People quit their jobs to surf professionally across the world. Songs and movies created an image of surfing everyone could associate with. The Beach Boys, for example, embraced the culture even though they weren’t surfers themselves. During this era, the term ‘soul surfer’ became popular, meaning a person who surfs to be close to nature and spends much time in the water.


Surfing has changed and continues to do so. 

Not everyone surfs, but everyone has heard of it. What was once a community of people stereotyped, has changed dramatically. The culture associated with surfing is laid-back, happy, and nature-loving. We hope that this positive view continues in the future.

What interesting facts do you know about the history of surfing? Share your knowledge in the comments below.

Related Article: Get A Luxury Motorized Surfboard for Waveless Fun!

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