The history of surfing dates as far back as the origins of the Hawaiian people. What began in Hawaii, has quickly expanded throughout the world to almost every beach and to places where people never thought that could be surfed. From a long, heavy plank of wood, the surfboard evolved to a shorter, lighter fibreglass and foam board. Because of the far travels of many ambassadors of Hawaiian surfers, the once small sport of surfing in Hawaii began to spread to many other countries.
Today, it is not only a popular sport but a widespread art, a growing
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business, and an American subculture with a broad future ahead.
From long ago, Hawaiian would pass down chants of stories of people riding giant waves. These chants were passed down from generation to generation, however, it wasn’t till the early 19th century that they were written down by scholars like Samuel Kamakau (Young, 32).
The Hawaiian word for surfing is “He’e Nalu”. “He’e” meaning run as liquid and change from solid to liquid. “Nalu” meaning the surging motion of a wave and the foaming of the wave (Young, 31).
Some chants that go back to the 15th century AD illustrate how important surfing was in everyday life and shows that surfing going back to when the first Polynesians first arrived in the Pacific (YH, 31).
The Kapu system was a type of law that would restrict certain materials for boards, the length of boards, and beaches for Alii or the Ruling Chiefs (Young, 19). The common size of a board for an Alii was from fourteen to sixteen feet long and the common size of a commoner was ten to twelve feet long. (Young, 31)
The first Western Explorer to discover the Hawaiians was Captain James Cook, a British Naval Captain who came to Hawaii in the 1770s. He wrote what he witnessed in a log of Hawaiians catching swells with large narrow boards (Young, 31).
Evolution of the Surf Board
The surfboard evolved from the first heavy long wooden board and evolved to many types of new styles of designs that are present today. The original Hawaiian surf board was made from three major trees including the wili wili, the koa, and the ula tree. After the tree was dug down, a kumu fish was placed in the hole where the root was and a prayer was said. The tree was then shaped with an adze, then smoothed by a Pohaku Puna (a granulated coral), and glossed black with a Ti tree or hili (pounded bark). The length of the board was determined by the Kapu System’s set of rules. For an Ali’i, the length could be from fourteen to sixteen feet. For a commoner, the length could be from ten to twelve feet (Young, 31).
When surfing expanded to the United States and to Australia, many modifications of the surfboard started to happen. In the 1920s, three local surfers, Wally Froiseth, John Kelly, and Fran Heath, experimented with the shape of there tails and created the pintail for more angular turning on the waves (Yonug, 55 56).
In 1924, Tom Blake a Californian surfer, inspired by a hollow old Hawaiian paddle board he saw at the Bishop Museum (Lueras, 81), bought a 150 lbs, 16′, 2′, 4’’, slab of redwood, and began to make the first hollow surf board. He drilled holes in the board and then plugged them giving it a net weight of 100 pounds. With this first new model, he modified it and made two new boards. In 1928, he won the first Pacific Coast Championships held at Corona Del Mar using his new board design (Young, 49). Tom Blake added more modifications, and in 1935, he added a fin, now called a skeg, to the bottom end of his board giving him more stability and turning ability (Young, 49).
With all the new styles of boards, the old Hawaiian ways of straight forward riding were falling and the new turning and riding techniques of riding on the face of the wave were rising.
Bob Simmons, a California Institute of Technology graduate became hooked on surfing. In 1935, he used his engineering knowledge to curl the nose of the board to stop from pearling (when the nose digs into the water), thus making the nose lift (Young, 61).
In 1946, with the help of Brant Goldsworthy, an owner of a plastics company, Preston “Pete” Peterson made the first fibreglass, resin, and Styrofoam board. The fibreglass was made from two hallows moulded halves joined together with a redwood central stringer and sealed with fibreglass tape. This new board was faster and lighter (Young, 61).
In the 1970s, many shapers started to experiment with shorter and shorter boards. One shaper, Mike Eaton, experimented with a 5′ 10” long and 22.5″ wide board with twin fins. The new shortboards were much faster and gave quick easy turns (Young, 105).
Many accessories were made to help save the lives of the surfers and to make things easier. One very important accessory was the leash. It was made by local Californian surfers in the 1970s by tying a rope to the board and ankle of the surfer (Young,108).
Expansion to the United States of America
America was very significant in the evolution of the surfboard, styles of riding, and expansion. It was all started by George Freeth, a half Irish, half Hawaiian, local Hawaiian who taught himself to surf. In the spring of 1907, he went to Redondo Beach in California to promote the opening of the Redondo-Los Angeles railroad owned by Henry Huntington. With hundreds watching, he unknowingly expanded surfing to the United States. He later stayed in America and became the first lifeguard saving at least 78 lives and earning the Carnegie Medal for bravery and the Congressional Medal of Honour (Young, 43).
Expansion to Australia
Australia was, and is still a major surfing country that helped shape the sport of surfing. They helped with the evolution of the surfboard and they produced great surfing legends.
One day Fred Williams, an Australian swimmer saw a Tommy Tanna, a Polynesian boy brought to Australia, body surfing. Fred Williams was so impressed, Tommy Tanna taught Fred Williams how to body surf. Fred Williams got so good, he taught other swimmers how to do it and thus spread the sport of Body Surfing (Young, 36).
After going to the Olympics for swimming, local Hawaiian surfer, Duke Kahanamoku was invited by the New South Wales Swimming Association to swim at the Domain Bath in Sydney in 1915. He broke his own record swimming at Sydney’s Domain Baths (Young, 43).
While in Sydney, Duke Kahanamoku went to local beaches like Clearwater Beach (Hemmings, 2) and taught locals to surf. One was 10 years old Claude West, who won the Australian Surfing Championships from 1919 to 1924 and also saved Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (Governor-General) from drowning (Young, 47).
After Duke Kahanamoku expanded surfing to Australia, many Surfing clubs sprung. One of the clubs was Australia’s Surf Life Saving Association which build a membership of 10,000 not too long after Duke Kahanamoku’s visit (Young, 68).
By the 1950s, surfing in the United States had bloomed and turned into a whole new type of riding. Bob Cooper, a Californian surfer, went to Manly Australia and met Bernard “Midget” Farrelly, a young surfer who mastered the Californian style of riding by watching films. Bob Cooper shaped Midget into a typical Californian surfer (Young, 91).
In 1958, Bud Browne played many American surfing movies and showed the Australians the new types of American techniques of surfing (Young, 90). Then in 1959, Bud Browne filmed the first surfing movie in Australia and showed it to the Americans. The film showed Americans the different types of breaks in Australia which encouraged a lot of Americans to go there and surf (Young, 90).
Midget Farrelly was the first Australian to win the Makaha International Championships in 1962, making him the first Australian to win a major surfing title (Young, 91 92).
The Australian Surfrider’s Association was formed in 1963 Encouraging more surfing contest and organization (Young, 92).
The expansion of surfing gave a bloom of opportunity for many business industries from movies to board shapers, the surfing business was growing with the expansion and has an important effect on our economy.
The movie business in surfing had a big effect, showing and inspiring many people the different styles and waves around the world. The first filming of surfing was by the great Thomas Edison in 1898, when he travelled to Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. Then in 1943, Bud Browne, a local Californian surfer, filmed and showed The Big Surf (LS, 217). In 1956, the bestseller book, “Gidget”, was produced into a movie, making it the first movie produced by a major picture, Columbia Pictures. Gidget the movie popularized the sport of surfing and made it the “in” thing to do (YH, 82).
Many musicians used and still uses surfing as a base of one of there compositions. In the summer of 1961, a band named the Chantays, full of Santa Ana High School students made the number one world hit “Pipeline”. (YH, 85) The Beach Boys, a local bunch of Californian guys were legends because of there surf-related songs (YH, 85).
During the mid-1930s, Pacific Ready Cut Homes (in California), owned by Meyer Butto, was the first company to produce commercial surfboards. The PRCH boards were made of balsa wood down the middle glued with redwood around the rails and varnished for protection. It was 10′ long, 23’’ wide, 22’’ around the tail block. The boards sold at forty dollars each (Young, 57).
By this time, many shapers, people who make and shape surfboards, had taken it as an occupation. In 1937, Whitney Harrison was the first shaper at the first board shop, Pacific Ready Cut Homes (Young, 57). He was making one hundred dollars a month and had to make four boards a day. During the 1960s, shapers and glassers made 25,000 dollars a year (Young, 84).
In 1958, there was a high demand for balsa wood, which was popular for making the “Malibu Board”, in Australia. (Young, 89) By 1959, 1500 Malibu balsas were made and shipped to Australia where they were sold by the truckloads (Young, 90).
Surfing contests held a major part in the expansion and popularity of the sport of surfing. By the end of the 1960s, sponsorship was formed and with it, many more surfing events and contests were held around the world (Markrich, 2).
Another thing that skyrocketed the surfing industry was the formation of IPSA (International Professional Surfing Association) in 1975 (Markrich, 3).
In 1986, four contests were held in Hawaii, the Billabong Hawaii Pro, the Hard Rock Cafe World Cup, the Marui Offshore Masters, and the Gotcha Pro Sandy Beach Surfing Contest. There were 216 surfers who participated in the events, half were Hawaii residents (Markrich, 4). The total money that Hawaii gained was 4,246,818 dollars from all surf-related contests (Markrich, 19).
In conclusion, surfing has evolved from being a ritual of old Hawaiians passed down through chants, to becoming a professional sport, growing business, and popular hobby of millions throughout the world. With this much change within the Twentieth Century, imagine the possibilities and new horizons for surfing in the Twenty-First Century.
Markrich, Mike. Economic Effects of Surfing Activities in Hawaii. Hawaii: UH Sea Grant College Program, 1988.
Dyke, Fred Van. 30 Years of Riding the Worlds Biggest Waves. United States of America: Ocean Sports International Publishing Group Inc., 1988.
Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Tucson: The Body Press, 1987.
Krauss, Bob. “A Wave You Can Ride All Day”. Honolulu Advertiser. 16 February 2000: B-1.
Hemmings, Fred. The Soul of Surfing is Hawaiian. Hong Kong: Fred Hemmings, 1997.
Lueras, Leonard. Surfin the Ultimate Pleasure. New York: Workman Publishing, 1984.
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