Surfing’s Turbulent History
Updated: Apr 16
Today, surfing is everywhere–if there is swell in the water, there are people riding it. But the history of surfing is not quite as smooth as the waves that we seek.
There are more surfers out in the water today than ever before. Every swell-exposed coast across the globe seems to have its own crew of surfers navigating their local lineups and enjoying the fluid playground that unfolds before them. While the sport has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry, the history of wave riding comes from far humbler beginnings.
On a small island chain, 2000 miles from the nearest continent, Native Hawaiians discovered the art of wave riding that we now refer to as surfing. Like ripple in a pond, or perhaps a swell traversing the ocean, surfing has gone global. In this post, I hope to shed some light on surfing’s origins in Hawai’i, its rebranding in California, and the Hawaiians, both past and present, that have brought it to where it is today.
Hawaii Prior to European Contact
For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians survived and prospered on the abundant resources of an isolated island chain. This was made possible through sustainable agriculture and a spiritual connection with both the land and sea. With such incredible knowledge and understanding of the natural world around them, Hawaiians were able to embody the concept of sustainability. Life in Hawai’i was about interacting with the environment, not simply as a method of survival, but also as a form of recreation and spirituality. The most obvious example of the nexus between recreation and spirituality is surfing.
Surfing in ancient Hawai’i not only looked different than it does today, but it was also treated differently. Similar to the Hula, a Hawaiian form of storytelling and dance, surfing emphasized a connectivity with the Akua (Gods) and nature. Riding the traditional Alaia surfboard, Hawaiians of all ages and genders enjoyed the spiritual connection that came with riding playful, and sometimes dangerous, surf that consistently hit the island nation.
Unlike surfboards today, Alaia boards were thin, heavy, sharp, and carved from indigenous trees like Koa. Without fins, riders used the narrow rail of the board to grip the breaking waves and the flat bottom to slip and slide towards shore. The ruling class had their own boards called the olo, which were 14 to 18 feet long and constructed from the more buoyant wood of the willi willi tree. Surfing in ancient Hawai’i was a way of life. Thanks to Europeans and American Missionaries, it came close to being lost forever.
European Arrival and American Missionaries
Captain James Cook first arrived in Hawai’i in 1778, where he was credited with the “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands. When he came back for a second time, a year later, he was killed by the Hawaiian people after an altercation between the locals and his crew. Despite his death, the world had already learned of the tropical island chain in the Pacific. The first wave of white people that came to Hawai’i were the British. On their boats came diseases never seen or experienced by Hawaiians. In 1804, over half of the Native population, up to 150,000 people, died from what is hypothesized to be Typhoid Fever.
American Missionaries came next, introducing Christianity and a Western educational system. Hawaiians were facing an imminent threat as colonialism and colonization gripped the islands. In an attempt to further isolate Hawaiian people from their culture, many traditional Hawaiian practices were banned. This included the Hawaiian Kapu system, the practice of hula, and, yes, surfing.
Surfing Has a Resurgence
In the face of colonial disease, forced religion, and manipulation, Hawaiian culture persevered. The oral language, transcribed with the English alphabet, was taught, while enforcement of cultural practices became more lenient. People continued to surf, but things were very different from the way they used to be. Within the new, Western society, Hawaiians were forced to work on plantations to earn money to survive. Communal land ownership was essentially gone and this new lifestyle left little to no time for leisure.
Surfing really took off again when Waikiki became an American tourist destination. Famous white Americans like Mark Twain publicized their vacations in the islands and the beautiful surf. Seemingly overnight, the marshland of Waikiki was dredged and developed, completely altering the natural coastal environment. Hawai’i suddenly became profitable as a surf destination. Hollywood hopped on board as well and popularized the sport with movies like the Gidget series.
Following the movies, a wave of beginners began to take over Californian beaches. In an original act of localism, old-timer and racist Miki Dora began to spray paint swastikas on his surfboards, promoting the idea that waves belong to those that live near them or have surfed them the longest, and that all “newbies” or “out-of-towners” should be subject to violence. California was co-opting surfing with its tan, blonde, “surfer dude,” completely straying away from traditional Hawaiian values of respect, inclusion, and community. In just a few decades, surfing had come back, but it was far from the same.
Hawaiian Surfers That Paved the Way
Despite the white washing of surfing in Hollywood and American media, Native Hawaiian surfers have continued to be at the forefront of the sport. Often referred to as legends, icons, and ambassadors of surfing, these Hawaiians have influenced the way surfing is perceived and recognized across the globe. Regardless of the countless renditions of surfing and wave riding, the intimate connection that these surfers have with the ocean, waves, and even people, are tied tightly to the Hawaiian culture. Even in the face of racism, forced to live in segregated accommodations on the Pro Tour while in South Africa, Hawaiian surfers continued to represent Hawai’i with dignity, power, and respect.
Duke Kahanamoku was among the first to take surfing across the globe. After gaining American notoriety for his success as an Olympic gold medalist swimmer in the 1920s, Kahanamoku took surfing with him everywhere, sharing the art form with anyone fortunate enough to listen to him. Eddie Aikau, the legendary north shore waterman, lifeguard, and big wave surfer embodied Hawaiian power and grace while riding waves. His silhouette is synonymous with big wave riding and his unwavering compassion ultimately led to his death while attempting to save his fellow crew mates on the sinking Hokule’a in 1978. To this day, the most famous big wave riding competition at Waimea bay is named in his honor.
In terms of professional surfing, the late Derek Ho, Pipeline Master, was one of the best to ever do it. In 1993, Ho was crowned the World Champion of Surfing. He was the first Native Hawaiian to win the title, representing Hawai’i at the biggest stage and coming out on top.
Hawaiians Who Are Changing the Game
Today, there is a new crew of Hawaiian surfers who are cementing their names into the surfing world. While promoting on YouTube and Instagram, surfers from across the world are elevating the sport on a daily basis, making it arguably one of the hardest times to be a professional surfer. Someone forgot to tell those kids on the North Shore. They are absolutely killing it. Both online and in competition, a new wave of Hawaiians are taking the main stage and reminding people Hawai’i is, and will always be, the heart of surfing.
Moana Ka’aeamoku Wong is leading the next generation of pipeline chargers. Just a quick scroll through her IG and you will see enough barrels to last a lifetime. It’s no surprise that she has locked up a sponsorship deal with Volcom and I can’t wait to see her show out this upcoming winter. Honolua Blomfield is a 2x World Surf League Longboard Champion and she’s only 18 years old. Regarded as the queen of style, Blomfield has changed the way professional longboarding is judged and perceived by onlookers. One of the most famous surfers on YouTube, Mason Ho (nephew of Derek Ho), is surfing’s ambassador of fun. On a weekly basis, Ho blesses us with 10-15 minutes of weird waves and weirder boards, his smile visible on screen the entire time. His online success has landed him multiple wild card appearances on the World Surf League where he is always the crowd favorite.
Surfing, like so much of Hawaiian culture, was brought to the edge of extinction by European explorers and American missionary colonizers. Disease, Christianity, and Western education pushed Native Hawaiians and their traditional practices to the margins. In the face of this adversity, Hawaiian surfing legends have preserved and passed down the true spirit of wave riding. Today, the next generation of Hawaiians continue to raise the bar higher and higher and show no sign of stopping. Surfing in Hawai’i boasts a long and turbulent history, but the resilience of the nation’s people and culture is why surfing is as widespread and loved as it is today.