Put on your boardshorts (or swimsuit) and throw up a shaka. No trip to Hawaii is complete without catching a wave or two. Never stepped foot on a surfboard? Hawaii has some of the best breaks for beginning surfers, and plenty of surf academies to get you up and shredding.
Before paddling out, we have a primer on the surprisingly turbulent history of the sport.
You’re probably familiar with the name Captain James Cook. A crew member on his ship, the HMS Endeavor, noted surfing during the first recorded visit to Hawaii by Europeans. However, humans had been surfing on “planks” for an indeterminate amount of time prior to Cook’s visit, as surfing was an integral part of Polynesian culture. Polynesians first arrived in the Hawaiian island chain in the fourth century, and though they brought early surfing techniques to the islands, credit is given to Hawaiians for inventing standup surfing.
In the late 1700s, surfing was a central part of the culture, society, and even religion – prior to paddling out, surfers would pray to gods for protection and courage. Surfing was both an art and a measurement of status – locals were often judged based on their skill on the waves, and chiefs used surfing to demonstrate their prowess and leadership in the water and on land. The Hawaiian term for surfing, “he’e nalu”, means “wave sliding”.
Three Hawaiian princes came to the Northern California hamlet of Santa Cruz in 1885, surfing at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River and formally introducing surfing to the U.S. Meanwhile, surfing culture in Hawaii had taken a hit as disease, missionaries, and new religions took over the islands. By the time the 20th century rolled around, surfing was close to dying out in Hawaii.
George Freeth traveled to Huntington Beach, California from Hawaii to promote the opening of a new Southern California railroad line. He surfed at the Huntington Beach pier before traveling the coast for further surfing demonstrations. Two years later, surfing came to the East Coast by way of Wrightsville, North Carolina, now designated as the birthplace of East Coast surfing.
Surfing arrived at Manly Beach, Australia, when Tommy Walker surfed the break on a $2 board purchased in Waikiki. In 1914, Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku visited the continent for demonstrations, further fueling the popularity of the sport in Australia.
Around this time, surfing was experiencing a revival in Hawaii, to the point that it was used to promote tourism to the islands and sell real estate. Traveling exhibitions given by Duke Kahanamoku further cemented surfing as a Hawaiian cultural icon, while bringing the sport to coastal communities around the world.
A number of developments beginning in the 1950s helped catapult surfing into the mainstream. Cold water surfers rejoiced when Californian Jack O’Neill designed the first neoprene wetsuit, giving watermen the opportunity to surf year-round, stay in the water longer, and perfect their skills. Dave Velzy became the first surf sponsor, tying the sport to advertising by providing top surfers with boards; today, professional surfers live on endorsements and brand partnerships. Surf films took off, with movies like Gidget and The Endless Summer framing surfing as an alluring, popular sport enjoyed by good-looking people.
Surfboards started shrinking in the 60s as shapers developed shorter, more nimble boards that allowed surfers to create new moves and be more stylistically creative. This helped drive the popularity of surf competitions, which today are judged on style, form, and the boldness of maneuvers.
Today, surfing is as much about lifestyle and culture as it is sport. Magazines, films, festivals, competitions, brands, artists, and more center around those who surf, and want to surf. The surfing community is built on a rich history, and despite its ups, downs, and wipeouts, continues to be a communal – and spiritual – experience.
Read more: Beginner surfers in Hawaii
Ready to hit the waves? Book your next Hawaiian getaway with AllTheRooms, and a portion of your booking will support the work of the Whaleman Foundation.
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