The History of Surfing

The following article is taken from the book Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader.

From the warm-water beaches in South America to the frigid waters off the north coast of Scotland, if it can be surfed it probably has been. But it wasn't too long ago that the sport was unknown outside of Hawaii.


For at least 3,000 years, seafaring Polynesians who settled the many islands in the Pacific Ocean have been surfing. The Hawaiian Islands were among the last the settlers reached, sometime around 400 A.D. These pioneers depended on the ocean for their livelihood and were skilled at navigating the white water that surrounded their island homes. Their surfing skills were a byproduct of their canoeing skills -the ability to pilot a canoe through heavy surf onto an unprotected beach was key to their survival.  Early Hawaiians called the sport he'e nalu, or "wave sliding," and rode two different types of boards: Olo boards were 16 to 18 feet long (or even longer) and could weight 150 pounds or more. More common was the shorter type of board called alaia. At 8 to 10 feet long, it was lighter and more maneuverable than the olo, and is the forerunner of the modern surfboard.


Surfing played a huge role in Hawaiian culture. The most revered wave riders were called ali'i, or "high class." They were often political leaders who competed against each other while entire communities cheered from the beach. The priests, or kahunas, would pray each morning for good waves. Surfboard construction also had a set of rituals, performed in beachfront temples dedicated to the art. But it wasn't just the leaders who surfed -nearly everyone in old Hawaii rode the waves, regardless of age, gender, or class.

When British explorer Captain James Cook's Third Pacific Expedition arrived there in 1778, his men thought their eyes were playing tricks on them -the natives were zipping through the sea while standing upright on wooden planks. One sailor wrote, "The boldness and address with which I saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was altogether astonishing and is scarcely to be believed."


Although the Europeans who first landed in Hawaii were awed by the native surf culture, the missionaries who came later were not amused. They disliked the idea of scantily-clad natives frolicking on the beach, so they tried to supress the sport. In the century after Captain Cook's arrival, the native population of Hawaii dropped from an estimated 300,000 to just 40,000 -and surfing nearly vanished. Fortunately, the determined Hawaiians who survived 19th-century colonialism refused to stop riding the waves.

And later visitors were just as impressed as Cook's men had been. On a trip to Hawaii in the 1860s, Mark Twain gave "surf bathing" a try. "I got the board placed right," he wrote, "and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me."

By the turn of the 20th century, tourism had become integral to the Hawaiian economy for both natives and non-natives. White businessmen romanticized the island culture, with surfing at its center. Native Hawaiians found that one of the few ways to earn a living was to provide tourists with an "authentic" island experience. One such tourist was novelist and newspaper correspondent Jack London, who took a surfing lesson at Waikiki Beach in 1907 with a 23-year-old "beach boy" of mixed Hawaiian and Irish descent named George Freeth. In a magazine article titled "The Royal Sport," London described Freeth as "a young god bronzed with sunburn" who "leaped upon the back of the sea" and stood "calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit...flying as fast as the surge on which he stands."


Twain's and London's colorful accounts caught the attention of mainlanders looking for new adventures. In a bid to bring that island culture to the States, a wealthy California businessman named Henry Huntington hired Freeth to come to California and give regularly scheduled surfing demonstrations. Huntington's goal: To promote the seaside town of Redondo Beach. He'd recently built a rail line connecting it to Los Angeles, and Freeth was instrumental in convincing the citizens of L.A. that a weekend at the beach was a good way to spend their leisure money. Once the idea caught on, Huntington made a fortune selling oceanfront property. Southern Californians came out in droves to see Freeth ride the waves -and many didn't want to go back home at the end of the weekend.

Another surfing ambassador, Olympic swimming star Duke Kahanamoku, came to California in 1912 and gave similar demonstrations. He'd go on to become the most famous surfer of the early 1900s.

Solidifying its place as a viable sport, in 1928, Californians organized the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships at Corona Del Mar and held the event annually until it was interrupted by World War II in 1941. After the war, California culture exploded. Americans from all over the country headed west in droves to take advantage of the good jobs and the booming economy. With an ever-increasing number of people on the beach, just one last piece remained to move surfing from a niche hobby to a national phenomenon: the development of cheap, lightweight, mass-produced surfboards.


Until the late 1940s, boards were made of solid wood and weighed 80 to 100 pounds. It took a great deal of physical strength and determination to wrestle one of those old planks through the waves. That all changed when board makers figured out how to seal lightweight balsa wood inside of a thin layer of fiberglass resin. These new boards were about ten feet long, weighed only 20 to 30 pounds, and were far more buoyant then their heavier predecessors. In time, expensive balsa wood was replaced by molded plastic foam, making true mass production possible for the first time. With that, surfing suddenly became a lot cheaper ...and a lot easier.

And just as it had in Hawaii centuries before, surfing became more than just a sport, but a center of an entire culture -in this case, pop culture. It began in 1957 when Hollywood screenwriter Frederick Kohner created a character based on his teenage daughter's exploits in the burgeoning surf scene at Malibu Beach. He named the character Gidget, short for "Girl Midget." The Gidget franchise went on to include seven novels, three films, and a television series. Surf movies became a drive-in staple: Elvis Presley rode the waves in 1961 in Blue Hawaii; and in 1966 filmmaker Bruce Brown made what has become the classic surf documentary, The Endless Summer, which followed two surfers as they spent the summer chasing waves around the globe.

By the mid 1960s, teenagers from the quiet shores of the east coast to the land-locked Midwest were watching Gidget movies and listening to The Beach Boys. Those kids dreamed of moving to California to take up the surfing lifestyle. And they did -in droves.


For the old guard of surfers who'd pioneered the California version of the sport, all this new attention wasn't necessarily a good thing. More than the Hollywood sanitization of their lifestyle, they grumbled that their once-pristine beaches had become crowded overnight. Many of them left California and relocated to Hawaii ...or to wherever on earth they could find big waves.

(Image credit: Flickr user Camila Pérez E.)

That emigration, along with the advent of wetsuits for surfing cold waters, made the possibilities endless. In the chilly seas off Alaska, extreme surfers wait for chunks of glacier to fall into the sea and then try to ride the massive waves they cause. In the Amazon River, waves from the Atlantic Ocean, known as tidal bores, can roll 100 miles or more upstream from where the river meets the ocean. Surfers sometimesride a single wave for as long as half an hour, covering distances up to seven miles.

Yet Hawaii remains the Mecca to surfers the world over. Enthusiasts make pilgrimages to the islands not just for the near-perfect conditions, but also to surf the same waves where the kings of old perfected the art so many generations ago.


* One of the strangest surfing records was set in the summer of 2005 at a surfing competition in Australia: 47 surfers rode together on one giant, 40-foot, 1,200 pound surfboard.

* The most surfers ever to ride a single wave was 73, set in 2006 at Muizenberg Corner, a beach in Cape Town, South Africa.

* Dave "Daily" Webster of Bodega Bay, California, surfed every day from September 3, 1975 to February 29, 2009 -10,407 days in a row. (He worked nights so he'd never miss an opportunity to catch a wave.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader. This special edition book covers the three "lost" Bathroom Readers - Uncle John's 5th, 6th and 7th book all in one. The huge (and hugely entertaining) volume covers neat stories like the Strange Fate of the Dodo Bird, the Secrets of Mona Lisa, and more ...

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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Too bad it's not noted that Santa Cruz, CA is the first "Surf City" when 3 Hawaiians brought surfing there in 1885 ... not Huntington Beach.
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