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 History of Surfing

Surfing is one of the oldest practiced recreational activities in the world. The act of riding waves with a wooden board originated in Western Polynesia over three thousand years ago.  The first surfers were fishermen who found that riding waves was an excellent method of getting their catch to shore.  In the early 20th centruy surfing spread to the USA and Australia but it was in the 1950's and 1960's when cheaper, lighter boards made of fiberglass and foam arrived that people headed to the beach. The sport has spread to all locations where waves are of sufficient size.  The modern day surfers are forever seeking the "perfect" wave.

Surfing Timeline

300 - 750 AD

Polynesians arrive by outrigger canoe from Tahiti.

1700's 1777 - British explorer Captain James Cook sees canoeists riding waves in Tahiti.

1778 - Captain Cook discovers the Hawaiian Islands  and gives them the name "Sandwich Islands".

1779 - The Polynesians who arrived in Hawaii were excellent fishermen and were documented as playing in the surf with "belly boards." Thus, the first record of surfing in Hawaii, west of Tahiti, as a social caste system



1820 - The decline of surfing was accelerated by Christian missionaries who put restrictions on the activity, which in turn contributed to the collapse of Hawaii's culture.

1866 - Famous writer and humorist Mark Twain, went to Hawaii and tried surfing, demonstrating that surfing was not dead yet but was quickly declining.

1876 - British writer Isabella Bird writes about her visit to Hawaii. “It really is amost exciting pastime, and in a rough sea requires immense nerve. Thesurfboard is a tough plank shaped like a coffin lid, about two feet broad,and from six to nine feet long, well oiled and cared for.”

1898 - The United States declared Hawaii a U.S. territory.

1900s - 1910s

Early 1900s - Surfing had totally disappeared throughout the Islands except for a few isolated spots.

1900 - 1915
Hawaiian-Englishman George Freeth learns to surf and teaches islanders and visitors alike

Famous writer Jack London traveled to Hawaii where he was introduced to surfing by Alexander Hume Ford and was taught to surf by George Freeth.

London, Ford, and Freeth realized that they shared a common love for the ocean.  London wrote about it, and Freeth surfed it, and Ford campaigned on behalf of the restoration of surfing.

The Illustrated London News features a picture of surfing on the front cover.

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku became a world-renowned surfer.

Surfing reached the mainland United States in the early 1900s, with the sport itself introduced by surfers like George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku and others

1920s -1930s

1920 - The Prince of Wales learns to surf on a visit to Hawaii by ‘Duke’ Kahanamoku. The Times wrote that the Prince, “revelled in the new sport, greatly enjoying the exhilarating rides”.

1919 - Soldiers returning from the First World War surf on wooden bellyboards in the West Country, the Channel Islands and on the south coast.

1920 - Duke Kahanamoku began participating in swimming competitions and taking his surfboard throughout his travels, with the mission of popularizing the sport.

1923  -  Nigel Oxenden starts Britain’s first surf club, ‘Island Surf Club’ of Jersey.


1930s - 1950s 1930s - 1950s
Surfing slowly becomes a world-wide phenomenon, gaining popularity through film, music, and the dedication of surfers.

1934 -  The first guide to surf riding in Britain is published, The Art of Surf Riding by Ronald Funnell.

1940s - English actor Peter Lawford, friend of Frank Sinatra, learns to surf in California. Marilyn Monroe surfs with him as a tandem partner.

1950s - Many board shapers, among them Joe Quigg and Bob Simmons added fins, and experimented with balsa wood and styrofoam sandwiched between plywood, using fiberglass as a protective outer layer.

You can earn a scouting badge for surfing!

Surfers like Bud Browne and Greg Noll began shooting surfing footage and these low budget surf movies attracted a new audience.

1954 - The first English surfboards are professionally manufactured in balsa wood by Solarbo Ltd.

1959 - Surfing really hit it big with the movie Gidget

1960's 1960s
The "modern" history of surfing began with big-wave surfers starting to blend into the mainstream culture.

A new surfing craze was created as boards became more affordable. Design refinements and smaller size boards made it easier for beginners to pick up the sport at the same time they gave advanced surfers bigger challenges. The smaller, lighter boards opened up the sport to women and made new maneuvers possible.

1960 - Photographer and film maker John Severson published the first surfing magazine, Surfer.

1961 - American surfer Doug McDonald brought the first ever fibreglass and foam surfboard to the UK. The ‘Malibu’ had arrived.  Movie Blue Hawaii starring Elvis Presley is released.

1963 - Movie Beach Party hits the big screen.

1965 - Surfing once again involved prizes or cash awards but prizes were still nominal.  Movie Beach Blanket Bingo is released.

1966 -  A more "authentic" surfing film by Bruce Brown titled The Endless Summer was released. Music groups like the Beach Boys helped tp make surfing and the beach lifestyle popular.

1969 -  The Fifth Annual Duke Kahanamoku Invitation Surfing Championship was held and the first prize had grown to $1,000.

1967 - GUL makes the first commercial wetsuits.

1970s - 1980s

The Women's International Surfing Association and Women's Pro Surfing are formed

1974 - Surf magazine is launched.

1980s - Three fins are seen on surfboards for the  first time.

1983 - Roger Mansfield creates one of the first surf schools.


1990s - 2000s
Wahine, the first all-women's surfing magazine is launched

The first all-women's surf shop Water Girl opened in Encinitas

Surfers Against Sewage is launched to campaign against pollution around Britain’s coastline

Pro surfers are constantly pushing all limits to modernize the sport

Magazines, documentaries, accessories and advertisements all contribute to the mainstream popularity that surfing has today.

Surfing had gone from an elite and scared island activity to a multi-billion dollar industry showing not signs of slowing down.

Surfing History Links

San Diego State University Library

The History of Surfing From Captain Cook to the Present
By Ben Marcus