Ancient Hawaiians painstakingly hand-crafted their boards from wood in a highly skilled and spiritual ceremony. Unlike the boards used today, the boards they made had no fins, and ranged in size from about 7 feet (the thinner alaia board) to as long as 18 feet (the more buoyant olo board). Olo boards were strictly reserved for aliʻi and their size required great skill to handle. Aliʻi were often the most skilled surfers, and men and women alike would take to the water to demonstrate their ability. Ancient surf spots that are still popular today include Kahaluʻu Bay and Hōlualoa Bay on the Big Island.
After contact with the Western world in the early 19th century, surfing began to decline as missionaries discouraged surfing, hula, and other activities that were not considered to be Christian in nature. Additionally, the decline of Hawaiian religious practices meant that the spiritual rituals once so central to surfing began to crumble. By the 1890s, it was being mourned as a bygone pastime.
However, surfing wasn’t dead yet. Decades later, surfing experienced a major revival. Alexander Hume Ford, one of the founders of the iconic Outrigger Canoe Club, taught writer Jack London how to surf in 1907. London devoted a chapter to the “royal sport for the natural kings of earth” in his book The Cruise of the Snark, which brought surfing to the American public consciousness. A few years later, the Hawaii-born George Freeth became the first person to surf in California at Redondo Beach, touted as “the man who walked on water.”
While these events shone a spotlight on surfing, no one did more for surfing than the legendary Duke Kahanamoku. A five-time Olympic swimming medalist, Duke was as graceful on his board as he was in the water. He demonstrated surfing to crowds in California and Australia, helping to introduce the sport to Australia for the first time and popularizing it in the United States. At 6’1” Duke preferred to ride a wooden longboard fashioned after the olo boards of ancient times. He often crafted new boards on his travels, and left them behind for locals to replicate and pass down. Today, a bronze statue of “the Duke” continues to inspire surfers at Waikiki Beach.
Surfing’s next big resurgence boomed in the 1950s, when Hawaiʻi was officially designated as the 49th state and began to be promoted as a tourist destination in earnest. Through the 1960s, a wave of surf-inspired music (like several Beach Boys hits), movies (Gidget), and new highs in surfing achievements propelled surfing into American and Australian pop culture.
Over the decades, technological innovations like fins, new board materials like fiberglass, and neoprene suits have helped make surfing more accessible than ever. Today, surfing is a popular pastime all over the world, and will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Given its vibrant past, it’s exciting to imagine what surfing history will be made in the coming years.