History of Surfing – Origins and Evolution

Did you know that surfing is a very old sport? When man discovered that he could hold himself up to the water by leaning on some kind of board, he began to “ride the waves”.

However, surfing did not start as a recreational and/or sports activity. There are some testimonies about natives of Peru who fished in a boat called “caballito de totora” that allowed them to stand up while they fished, then we find references in Hawaii where the inhabitants had perfected a kind of board and waited anxiously for the waves to slide on them.

The history, origin and evolution of the origins of surfing have very interesting characteristics that will awaken your interest in this sport, so we encourage you to describe them in the following post.

The History of Surfing

When we started to investigate about the history of surfing we found out that there were no original written documents that could testify with certainty the origin and evolution of this sport until this century.

But do not be discouraged because there are some testimonies of old European travelers who, when they traveled the different coasts in their long journeys to look for new territories, also documented their experiences.

Later on, images appeared captured on different coasts where natives used some types of boards to balance on the waves, but surfing declined due to the arrival of Christian missionaries to the islands who saw it as something typical of the savages, a primitive practice. For many years it was forbidden, almost to the point of oblivion.

All this was complemented by the appearance of modern surfing which, as it spread around the world, captured the interest of expert chroniclers, thus managing to reconstruct the history of surfing which you can find in different documents and web pages.

The first surfing championships that reached the world category were held in Sydney in 1964. Therefore, at a sports level, it can be considered that surfing is a new sport, hence the great changes in the board and some movements only appear in the 20th century.

history of surfing

Why is it called Surf?

When you hear the word Surf, maybe you think about the sea and the waves. If this is your case you are not far from the meaning of this word.

It is called Surf because of its origin in English meaning “wave crest, break or swell” and was the term with which they identified this activity in the Hawaiian bay of Kealakekua in the image of the renowned artist John Webber.

Origins of Surfing

The origins of surfing can be traced to the year 1771 when Captain James Cook witnessed the pirouettes performed by the natives on a group of islands that they would later call Hawaii. You can also find references to the invention of the surfboard by natives of this island who referred to surfing as He’enalu in their native language.

In the beginning it was described as a very dangerous activity and it seemed incredible that anyone could learn it. It was practiced only by men in their 20s and 30s, because

In addition, there was class discrimination, because only the noblemen were allowed to surf and the best beaches were reserved for them, while it was forbidden for the lower classes, although some managed to access this privilege by surfing on very heavy boards.

Evolution of Surfing to the Present Day

Reviewing all the history of surfing, we found some very interesting anecdotes that can show how the evolution of surfing has been until today.

All this information is organized for you to see it in a chronological way below:

  • 1778: Captain Cook explores the shores of Hawaii and discovers a very interesting activity that the natives did on a board in order to avoid the waves and stay on the crest.
  • 1800: Surfing goes into decline because Europeans impose their customs and culture. Many natives die because of European diseases, much of the traditions are lost.
  • 1820: Christian missionaries arrive where everything was considered immoral including the practice of surfing, this activity was practically extinguished in the whole island.
  • 1840: Writers and journalists arrive in Hawaii who denounce how the natives were treated and begin to describe the practice of surfing to the world. Among the famous writings is that of Mark Twain “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” where he describes the experience of a surfing beginner.
  • 1898: The Hawaiian monarchy falls and the island becomes part of the American territories, the natives were already free to return to the practice of surfing.
    Beginning of the 20th century: Re-emergence of Surfing in the Hawaiian coasts, especially the island of Ohau under the direction of 3 haloes (non-natives) and a native Hawaiian.
  • 1910-1920: Hawaiian Duke Kajanamoku becomes an Olympic swimming champion on repeated occasions and in his travels around the world he begins to practice surfing causing great impact on the public and awakening their interest.
  • 1930-1940: Surfing becomes popular in California with the first championships. Many pictures arrive to magazines and newspapers all over the world.
  • 1950-1960: Research on new shapes of surfboards is born. In this period you will find the first signs of shorter and thinner boards, the use of other materials such as fiberglass and polyurethane foam. In addition, the world of surfing is filled with music with the creations of the Beach Boys.
  • 1970: Surfing reaches Europe and the wetsuit is invented, while Mark Richards wins 2 world titles. The great brands you now know are born: Quiksilver, Billabong, O’neill and Rip Curl. As far as the technical part is concerned, 2 fins are used on the boards.
  • 1980-1990: More world titles, changes in the technical aspects of the boards by including three fins and their ability to dismantle them. They change the style of surfing with new maneuvers.
    21st century: The internet launches surfing towards globalization: events, equipment, instructors, better beaches, the best wave, you can find everything through the net. Surfing manages to occupy a great position in sports worldwide.

Up to here a brief summary of the evolution of Surfing, although we think it is important that you also know a little about how this sport was positioned in Spain, let’s see some key aspects of its beginnings in this region:

  • 1960-1970: Surfing emerges spontaneously and in different places: Asturias, Cádiz, Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, Cantabria and the Canary Islands.
  • 1970-1980: Pepe Almoguera manufactures his own board in Malaga and other young people also follow his example. Then they form the Málaga Surfing Club and the Guanarteme Club that covers the whole archipelago.
  • The waves in Las Palmas can reach up to 4.5 meters high which generates a great interest towards surfing in this region, especially Playa de Las Canteras, Playa de Alcaravaneras, Playa San Cristobal and Playa de La Laja.
  • In the Principality of Asturias the surfing tradition was also developed in the coastal towns of Tapia de Casariego, Navia, Luarca, San Juan de La Arena, Salinas, Luanco, Gibón, Rodiles.
  • In 2012 the magazine Airberlin Magazin describes Las Palmas de Gran Canaria as the Hawaii of the Atlantic.