Surfing: From Ancient Tradition to Pop-Culture Phenomenon

BCE-1990s

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Surfing Before Modern History

900 BCE - 1778 CE

Ancient Polynesia: Riding waves on wooden boards emergs in Western Polynesia over 3,000 years ago.
Ancient Hawaii:Surfing, or he'enalu (literally wave-sliding) in Hawaiian, was and ancient tradition, is seen as more of an art form than a recreational activity. It was a maker of social status as chiefs and priests were often given the honor of riding on the best reef breaks and using the biggest boards (these boards were known as " 'olo "). If the ocean was tame, frustrated surfers would call upon the kahuna (priest), who would aid them in a surfing prayer asking the gods to deliver great surf.
By 1778: Surfing as a sophisticated cultural art form has reached its apex.

Contact with Europe

1778

Captain James Cook and his crew arrive in Hawaii.

The First Written Account of Surfing

1779

Captain Cook dies before returning home to England. Lieutenant James King becomes Lieutenant of the Discovery and takes on the task of completing Cook's memoirs. In this work, King describes surfing at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island.

Christian Missionaries Arrive in Hawaii

1820

By now the Hawaiian tradition of kapu (essentially a system of regulations based on social taboos) had been drastically undermined. What finally wipes out the kapu system is the arrival of English Calvinist missionaries. The missionaries put strict regulations into place; requiring more clothing, instruction in English, and limitations on play (the British qualified surfing as "play").

Remnants of Surfing

1851

Although surfing has been fading from Hawaiian culture for the past thirty years, Reverend Henry T. Cheever reports some remnants of surfing at Lahaina, Maui and writes about it in his book, Life in the Hawaiian Islands, The Heart of the Pacific As it Was and Is.

Mark Twain

1866

While writing his book Roughing It, Mark Twain sails to Hawaii. In one passage he remembers his experience surfing, "I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right 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."

Hui Nalu

1905

Native Hawaiians create an informal club, the Hui Nalu (literally "surf club") in the hopes of reviving interest in the sport.

Jack London and Friends

1907

Famed American author Jack London comes to Hawai'i and is introduced to surfing by journalist Alexander Hume Ford. Later that year London writes A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki. In this work London describes his friend, George Freeth's surfing abilities with such enthusiasm that Freeth is invited to California to demonstrate wave-riding in southern California as a way to promote the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway.

Outrigger Canoe Club

1908

Alexander Hume Ford petitions the trustees of the Queen Emma Estate to set aside a plot of land in Waikiki for a club that would preserve the ancient Hawaiian pursuits of surfing and outrigger canoeing. In May of 1908 the petition is approved and the Outrigger Canoe Club is formed.

Friendly Competition

1911

The Hui Nalu is formally recognized.
By now, friendly competitions have developed between the Hui Nalu and the Outrigger Canoe Club.

The Duke

1912

Already a famous surfer and swimmer, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku , passes through southern California on his way to the summer Olympics in Stockhlm, Sweden. He gives wildly popular surfing demonstrations at Santa Monica and Corona del Mar. After winning a gold medal in the 100 meter free-style, Duke is called the fastest swimmer in the world. He becomes a favorite in Hollywood, exposing all of his California friends to the sport of surfing.

Surfing Comes to Australia

1915

Duke is invited by the New South Wales Swimming Association to give a demonstration in Sydney, Australia. Already ocean-lovers, Australians embrace surfing instantly.

John H. 'Doc' Ball

1920 - 1930

A dentist with a passion for surfing, 'Doc' ball becomes the second surf photographer (and the first from California) to document surfing with waterproof equipment.

Tom Blake

1928 - 1941

Tom Blake, originally from Wisconsin, organizes the Coast Surfriding Championships at Corona del Mar, California. The competition is halted after the onset of World War II.
Blake is also known as the fist photographer to shoot surfer from the water using waterproof casing for cameras.

John Kelly, Rabbit Kekai, and Woody Brown

1930 - 1960

John Kelly, Rabbit Kekai, and Woody Brown are among the few surfers who brave 25 foot waves at this time. The three also make great leaps in surfboard innovation which include making boards lighter, faster, stronger, and more maneuverable.

California Surfriders

1946

Doc Ball publishes the classic photo book, California Surfriders.

Fred van Dyke and Peter Cole

1953 - 1970

Californians, Fred van Dyke and Peter Cole, enticed by Associated Press photograph, quit their teaching jobs (the day after they saw the picture as a matter of fact) and head to Hawai'i. They eventually become known as the "surfing teachers." As surfing comes out of becomes increasingly popular and the documentary The Endless Summer is released, the two become famous surfers.

An Iconic Image

1953

The Associated Press published a photo of Woody Brown surfing a giant wave at Makaha. The picture appears in newspapers in California and throughout the world. "The photo of Brown and his friends streaking that Makaha wall galvanized a large group of surfers who began an exodus to Hawai'i from California."

Gidget (novel)

1957

Inspired by his teenage daughter Kathy, author Frederick Kohner published Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas. A novel which wildly popularized surfing and surf culture.

Marge Calhoun

1958

Marge Calhoun, one of the first female surfers in this predominately male sport, wins the prestigious Makaha International Surfing Championships.

Gidget (film and television)

1959 - 1988

The three original Gidget movies: Gidget, Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and Gidget Goes to Rome are released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A TV sitcom also named Gidget and two telemovies are released in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the late 1980s that was one last failed attempt at reviving the series.
More than anything these "beach bunny" films served to popularize the sport.

Save Our Surf

1961

John Kelly, a life long activist, establishes Save Our Surf an organization which successfully blocks over thirty major coastal developments.

Anona Napoleon

1961

Just one year after recovering from temporary paralysis caused by a diving accident, Anona Napoleon wins the women's division of the Makaha International Surfing Championships.

Surfin' Safari

1962

The Beach Boys release their album Surfin' Safari which serves to popularize beach culture, "beach party" movies, and surf music.

Granny's Surfing Magazine

1964

Friend of Doc Ball's, Leroy 'Granny' Grannis continues Doc's tradition of surf photography and becomes the founding photographer for Surfing Magazine.

The Endless Summer {Watch it! It's on Netflix!}

1966

Bruce Brown's quirky and witty documentary (it certainly does not fit into our current idea of a documentary) is released. It follows Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surfing trip around the world. It inspires many surfers to start "hunting" around the globe for the perfect wave.