Surfing History

Surfing History: Tracing The Roots

Whenever you find yourself looking back at core memories, it tends to make you realize how much time has passed since it happened, and how amazing it is for you to recall it. For surfing history, valuable information and artifacts would have been lost without the research and tracing that protects its heritage. If you’ve been meaning to learn more about surfing history, keep reading to know about its ancient roots and how it has developed through the years.

Tracing the Roots of Surfing History

Polynesia: the Titans of Surfing

Before making it to Hawaii, surfing history started in Polynesia, around Samoa, Tahiti, and the Tonga regions as early as the 12th century based on a historical cave painting that depicted a man surfing. Unlike how surfing is now a professional and recreational sport, surfing during this period played an important role in their belief system and government.

The elements of their culture were often related to water, from swimming, fishing, and hunting. Hence, it is no surprise that ancient surfing would originate from them.

Religion was often involved from crafting a good surfboard, to facing the powerful, thundering waves and heart-racing dips. To elect their leader, he must prove his bravery by surfing against violent conditions. If he performs well, then he is worthy of the throne.

Surfing Culture in Hawaii

As seafarers, the Polynesians would soon reach Hawaii, credited for the invention of surfing. Hawaiians adopted much of their culture from Polynesia, especially towards the sport. In Hawaiian mythology, the gods guard the oceans and sea and cause the waters to swell and waves to rise to challenge the men.

Royal members of the family had the privilege to surf on the best tides, while the common folk had a calmer surfing territory. In their culture, however, surfing was a sport that was open to all – men, women, and children. Aside from surfing turf, the size of your surfboard also determined your status in society – royals and chieftains had long and heavy boards, while commoners used shorter and slimmer ones. Leaders and peasants could even surf off against each other for fun or to settle disputes.

When crafting their boards, the surfer must first give an offering to the gods, resting on the spot of which plant or tree would be their material – either koa, ulu, or wiliwili. They then call on a local crafter to carve the board that weighed about 175 pounds.

In the mid-1700s, European navigators began to share records of the so-called “sliders of waves” or what native Hawaiians describe themselves as “he’e nalu”. They would spot surfers off the coast, astonished at what they were doing and how they did it. In the diary of Captain James Cook, he described the surfers to have an expression of pleasure even as they were riding on turbulent water.

The Near Wipeout of Surfing

When European colonizers reached the land, the surfing history of Hawaii almost disappeared. They found the natives to be savages, and prohibited surfing in order to civilize them. However, this did not stop them from doing so, with surfing being important to their lifestyle. The local surf scene of Hawaii slowly revived after the European rule ended.

Introduction of Surfing to the World

In 1916, the world was shocked to see a person of color competing in the Olympics. This was no other than surfing legend Duke “The Duke” Kahanamoku to represent Hawaii in the professional swimming leg that year. Winning the gold, he went on to participate in more international swim meets, often bagging the title. He once again competed in the Olympics a few years later and took home another gold medal for the Land of Aloha. Duke had changed surfing history forever through his image.

His influence would introduce surfing to the United States, and between the early 1920s to 1950s, the tourism industry in Hawaii was booming just to catch a wave. California also began picking up the sport and modifying it, which led it to be modernized. Malibu and Venice beaches were the place to be if you weren’t booking a ticket to Down Under, Australia where surfing peaked next.

Surfing Revolutionized

With surfing picking up from one beach to another, surfing gear had transformed as well. Unlike the heavy hand-carved surfboards that belong to Polynesia, synthetic materials like polystyrene and polyurethane became an alternative for the sport’s commercialization. Features such as fins that would help increase speed, traction pads to improve your grip, and a resistant leash for safety were added to the plank. Appropriate wet suits were also designed to withstand extreme conditions.

In the 1960s, surfing was declared a professional sport.


Despite its near-disappearance from Hawaiian culture, surfing history is now well-documented and the sport is more alive than ever. With its cultural value, its history should be protected and respected by the many people who enjoy it today. Go ahead and share this knowledge in your coconut the next time you catch some waves with your beach buds.

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