Surfing History

Surfing is an ancient sport which originated in Hawaii. Carvings found in rocks on the islands intimates the sport’s inception point may have been as early as the 16th Century.

He’enalu, as surfing is known in the native language, was more than an idle past-time in Hawaiian culture. Historical evidence suggests that the conventions and stringent rules which governed the social hierarchy were upheld as forcefully in the ocean as they were on the land. The art of surfing well was considered to be conclusive proof of a man’s virility and athletic prowess. Chiefs indicated their status with surfboards known as ‘olo’ boards, which were sometimes as long as 24 feet and carved expertly from low-density woods. Poorer surfing enthusiasts used shorter boards made from heavier woods, which became known as ‘alaia’ or ‘kiko’o’ boards. An entire culture involving rituals, prayers and steadfast rules about honour developed around the sport. It was considered no over-reaction to punish a common man who ‘dropped in’ on a social superior’s wave with a swift execution.


First Lieutenant James King provided the first written account of surfing in 1779 as he sat aboard the HMS Discovery, which was anchored in Kealakekua Bay. King’s incredulous observations were recorded in the journals of James Cook, whom he had recently replaced as Commander of the ship following Cook’s execution by Hawaiian chiefs. King tells of looking on in wonder as "twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore." It is clear from King’s account that the thrill surrounding the inherent danger of surfing was as much a characteristic of the sport in the 18th Century as it is now:

"The first wave they meet, they plunge under, and suffering it to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way, by swimming, out into the sea. The second wave is encountered in the same manner with the first; the great difficulty consisting in seizing the proper moment of diving under it, which, if missed, the person is caught by the surf, and driven back again with great violence; and all his dexterity is then required to prevent himself from being dashed against the rocks… The boldness and address, with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous manoeuvres, was altogether astonishing, and is scarcely to be credited."

Despite its importance to the host culture, surfing’s popularity gradually declined in Hawaii over the course of the 18th century. This was at least in part due to the determination of foreign settlers to eliminate elements of traditional Hawaiian culture. By the beginning of the 20th century, a few surfers remained, mostly on the islands of Maui and Kauai and at Waikiki, but surfing had ceased to be the cultural phenomenon of the previous one hundred years.

Indeed, it was only the efforts of a few dedicated surfers which brought about the sport’s resurgence.. When a teenager named George Freeth taught himself to stand up on a surfboard in Hawaii in 1900, surfing was publicised as a sport ideal for the increasing fleet of tourists to try out and watch. The sport became even more popular in Hawaii when a man named Alexander Hume campaigned for an Outrigger Canoe Club. The club was finally established in 1908 and support the local surfing community, largely by providing a place for enthusiasts to keep their boards. The popularity of the sport soon spread to California and became increasingly popular worldwide as the 20th century progressed.