The True Story Of How Surfing Came To Be

Surf — which means “wave crest, break or swell”, was coined based on John Webber’s depiction of surfing in his drawing of Hawaiian bay of Kealakekua. Surfing goes back to a time when pirates existed, when fishermen stood on wooden watercraft to fish and when Hawaiian natives created a board for recreational purposes. 


While there aren’t any concrete evidence as to when surfing was first manufactured and who were the first to create the activity, there are many recounts of it occurring in ancient journals of travellers who documented their expeditions. Then, portraits of natives catching the waves on boards they made surfaced until Christian missionaries banned the activity all together. In fact, it was almost a forgotten sport. 


Of course, such an amazing sport of coasting on intimidating waves managed to make its way back to popularity. Modern surfing infected the rest of the world like a pandemic, and before you know it, people were holding surfing competitions. The first ever was documented to have taken place in the year of 1964, in Sydney, Australia. Surfing was now declared a sport, and saw tremendous growth in popularity and improvements to the design of the surfboard. It also is a huge influence on beach culture and the music genre, “Beach Rock”.

Earliest Account of Surfing

The first account to mention surfing appeared in the year of 1771, by Captain James Cook, the famous British explorer and explorer who was a Royal Navy Captain. He documented seeing early Hawaiian natives enjoying themselves balancing a board on waves. 


While today’s surfing permits anyone the pleasure of riding the waves, it was not always like that. In fact, surfing — or He’enalu — was reserved for males of higher class in the Hawaiian system. The King and members of the higher class had longer boards, while others out of the class had shorter ones. Because He’enalu was regarded as an important facet of the native culture, every surfboard was developed using a sacred ritual. He’enalu directly translates to “wave-sliding”, because it was regarded as a spiritual act of communicating with the sea instead of taking control of it.

The Decline of Surfing

In the 1800s, many native traditions, including surfing, started dying out thanks to European imperialism. This had many devastating and lasting effects on natives’ culture and livelihood, as the arrival of the Europeans had brought along diseases that took the lives of many natives. This saw the gradual decline of traditional practices. 


When the Christian missionaries came, they made impositions on most of the native customs and practices, including surfing as it was regarded as immoral in their perspective. This completely wiped out surfing all together from Hawaii.

Criticism of Colonizers

In 1840, journalists who came to Hawaii criticised and condemned the terrible treatment of the natives. The writers were able to spread the word about surfing to the rest of the globe, even including surfing practices in fictional novels. 


Towards the end of the 1800s, freedom was returned to the natives after the fall of the monarchy rule and Hawaii becoming an American territory. Hawaiian natives were free to surf again. 

Surfing — A Popular and Influential Activity

In the 1900s, we started to see surfing become a sport. Olympic swimming champion Duke Kajanamoku, a Hawaiian, surfed during his travels. This only caught the intrigue of the public and increased the popularity of surfing across the places he travelled. 


A few decades later, the first surfing championships brought the popularity of the sport to California. Surfing was now the talk of the town after publications worldwide published ample photos and pieces on the activity. 


It was only in the 1950’s that people started manufacturing surfboards that were shaped to be water-dynamic. Further research and development saw the use of fiberglass and polyurethane foam, and the development of slimmer and smaller boards. This was also the era of the music genre “Beach Rock”, introduced to the world by the popular Beach Boys and their catchy songs. 


In the ‘70s, surfing wetsuits were created to withstand cold waves. This has helped in maintaining a comfortable body temperature for the surfer, and ensured their wellbeing while surfing. Australian Surf Legend Mark Richards also clinches two world titles in this decade. Today, he holds the title of Four-Time World Surfing Champion and has his own brand of surfboards. Household surfing and swimwear brands such as Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl also launched back then. However, in this period, surfboards still had two fins. 


The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the rise of more surfing legends, and the further improvement of the design of surfboards. They now were manufactured to have three fins instead of the usual two. New surf moves were created to influence the standard style of surfing as well.

Surfing Today

The 21st Century saw the creation of jobs in the world of surfing; as well as organisations of related events, developing of relevant equipment, surf instructors, maintenance of beaches and tourism! Not to mention the booming industry of surfing competitions, which boasts the skills of the top surfers from around the globe.

Surfing in Spain

Not only did documentation of surfing mention the natives of the island we now know as Hawaii, it also mentioned similar activities in Spain. In the 1960s, we started to see the appearance of surfing in different regions of Spain. As the decades pass, surfer Pepe Almoguera crafts his own surfboard in Malaga, sparking the interest of many and causing them to follow suit. Hence, the Malaga Surfing Club and the Guanarteme Club was created in the 70s. 


Spain’s Las Palmas is well-known for its big waves — some have been recorded to reach almost 5 meters tall, ideal for surfing. Coastal towns in the region saw the incline of interest towards the sport as more people picked up boards to tackle the waves. 

The humble beginnings of surfing may have started out as an exclusive activity, privy to the royal and the rich. Now, it exempts no one. It challenges anyone willing to take on the sport and has been influencing cultures, brands, and many people’s lifestyles. We hope that this article has shed some light on how surfing came to be and it has brought about a profound meaning to the activity. Hopefully, this has inspired you, like it has many others, to venture into the world of surfing too.

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