It is not known exactly for how many years riding a wave with a board has been practiced, but it is the case that the Mochica people of Peru were doing it some 2,000 years ago. They used vessels called Caballitos de Tortora for fishing and these are still used by local fishermen today. It is not known whether the Mochica used to surf for sport, but it is thought likely that they did.
However, the Mochica also used a paddle or stick to propel themselves through the water, so this is probably closed to today’s paddle boarding than surfing.
Lieutenant James King
Surfing per se was first described by Lieutenant James King who was made First Lieutenant of the Discovery after the death of Captain James Cook in 1779. Cook had anchored his ships at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of Hawaii and was killed by the Hawaiians while trying to capture the local chief in order to recover a boat which had been stolen.
King wrote two full pages in the ship’s log describing how the Hawaiians rode the waves on wooden planks about the same length and width as themselves, lying on them and guiding them with their arms and hands. Other men would stand upon their planks and ride the surf into the shore, in some cases coming close to some dangerous rocks. At this point the men would dive off the planks and swim under water to avoid the swell.
However, the Hawaiians didn’t regard their he’e nalu, or wave sliding as it translates, as an extreme sport or game. Rather, they embraced it as a part of their culture. The upper classes such as the chief (ali’i) allocated the best beaches for themselves along with the best boards. The commoners were not allowed on these beaches, but they could ingratiate themselves with the upper classes by becoming better surfers.
Surf boards were made from one of three different types of tree. When a tree had been selected, the surfer would dig it up and place fish in the hole to placate the gods. The tree would then be cut and crafted into a surf board by a skilled craftsman who would also stain it. Three main types of board were made: The kiko’o and the alaia were between 12 and 18 feet long, and nine feet long respectively, while the olo was thick in the middle of the board, getting thinner towards the edges. Some olo boards ridden by the ali’i were apparently as long as 24 feet.
Before entering the sea, the Hawaiians prayed to the gods for strength, and if the sea was calm they would call for the priest (kahuna) to pray for surf.
Respect For Surfers
The most skilled surfers were the chief, and other members of the ruling classes who would be treated with respect for their ability to ride the waves and this became known by the Hawaiians as surfing. At the time of Cook’s visit to Hawaii, visitors to Samoa also recorded in writing seeing Samoans riding on boards and single canoes, and stories have been handed down of surfers in Tonga where the then king, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, was regarded as the best surfer.
However, surfing in Hawaii was at its’ peak at around the time of Cook’s visit. Hawaii and its’ surfing culture began to decline after this, since European contact started to have an effect. Missionaries, pirates, thieves, and general opportunists began to visit Hawaii in ever greater numbers, bringing with them diseases, vices, and different religions, which began to take their toll on the ancient Hawaiian culture.
Men eating alongside women was never permitted in Hawaii, but in 1819 – only 40 years after Cook’s visit – the then chief, Liholiho, sat down with his mother and other “chiefesses” in public and ate a meal. The old rules rapidly began to give way, and suddenly it was permissible for a commoner to surf on the ali’i’s beach without fearing for his life. Within ten years the missionaries had begun to convert the natives to Christianity, taught them to wear clothes, learn to read and write, work harder, and surf less.
Hawaiians In Decline
The Hawaiians themselves were in decline, having succumbed to diseases, alcohol, and other effects of western influence. From a population of somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 at the time of Cook’s arrival, it had shrunk to just 40,000 in 1895.
In the US, in July of that same year, three young Hawaiian princes who were at boarding school in San Mateo took a summer holiday at Santa Cruz where they went surfing on the San Lorenzo River where it runs into the sea. Twelve years later, Henry Huntington brought George Freeth from Hawaii to California to demonstrate surfing as a publicity stunt for the opening of his railroad.
Surfing In The 20th Century
On the East Coast, surfing was introduced in 1909 on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina by Burke Haywood Bridgers and a team of surfers. After that time, surfing also began in Florida.
In Australia in 1910, surfer Tommy Walker visited Hawaii, returning to Manly Beach in Sydney with a 10 foot surf board he had bought for two dollars on Waikiki Beach. He soon became an expert and a couple of years later was providing exhibitions. In the summer of 1914/1915 Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian surfer and Olympic sprint champion, gave several exhibitions on Sydney beaches. His board is today on display at the Freshwater Surf Life Saving Club in Sydney, not far from the Brookvale Surfblanks factory where the modern day thruster surfboard fins were first created by Greg Gillespie for Simon Anderson of Energy Surfboards in October of 1980.
Surfboard fins are relatively new addition to the design features of a modern surfboard. Prior to 1935, surfboards were navigated by dragging your toes or heel in the water off the edge of the board in order to do a turn on the wave. In was in 1935 that an American surfer, Tom Blake began to experiment with fin design, by placing a keel from an old speedboat to the bottom of the board. Surfboard fins later were designed to emulate dolphin fins and have evolved to a high degree of similarity to what we find on sea creatures in the oceans today.
During the 20th century the sport developed in three main centres, Hawaii, California, and Australia. In the early 20th century surfing was revived in Hawaii, largely as a result of an attempt to increase tourism, and real estate development.
Surfing increased rapidly throughout the century because of widening public awareness and better design of boards. Author Jack London tried surfing in Hawaii and wrote about it afterwards, and in 1959 a film about the life of surfer Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman, Gidget, was released to international acclaim.
Three years later, the Beach Boys released their first album on the Capitol label, Surfin’ Safari. Professional competitions first started in 1975.
Just a few weeks ago, on August 3rd 2016, surfing has now officially become an Olympic Sport, the IOC having voted to add it to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. This will be shortboard only, and take place in the sea, not in a wave pool. Countries from around the world will be represented.