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Author: Wendy Maples

The history of surfing

Updated Monday, 20th June 2016
Surfing is now a popular pastime around the world, but just a few decades ago there were only a handful of places where you could surf properly. What changed to turn it into a global phenomenon?

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Surfing legend begins with Polynesian and particularly Hawaiian prehistory, when surfing was ‘the sport of kings’ as well as commoners.

Early Hawaiian surfing was on longboards carved from island trees and the action of surfing was similar to stand up paddle surfing, recently rediscovered by Britain’s surfing community.

Today’s surfing re-emerged in the early 20th century in California and Australia. Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic swimming champion, is often credited with popularising surfing at this time, as he toured the world giving surfing demonstrations following on from his Olympic success.

Since then, surfing has experienced a number of waves of popularity around the world. California and Hawaii became epicentres for surfing and surf culture in the 1960s, but over recent decades surfing has emerged as something of a global phenomenon; where there are good breaks and big waves, there are surfers.

However, surfing isn’t all about the big waves. Surf culture and sport is a great example of how technology can change accepted practice and open up new enjoyment.

The long boards of the ’60s were mainly made of balsa wood; often over 12 feet in length and about 2½ feet wide, they were pretty heavy (though not as heavy as the older Hawaiian boards which were made from local hardwood). It took a strong man (and surfers in the ’60s were predominantly men) to carry them across the sand and into the water. New materials and techniques for shaping the boards changed this, and nowadays boards are made with hand-shaped polyurethane blanks covered with fibreglass and resin.

This made them lighter, but reshaping the boards enabled them to be smaller as well, and these new, smaller boards extended surfing’s reach from the Pacific right across the world. According to local Brighton surfer, Steve Rutherford, there are a few ‘legendary’ breaks like ‘The Cribbar’ off Fistral and ‘Baggy Point’ near Croyde that produce the pealing point surf that longboards were designed for – but only under certain tidal and weather conditions. Smaller boards opened up surfing in the UK, where beach breaks, which are surfable on a smaller, more manoeuvrable board, are more common.

A surfer riding a wave

A surfer riding a wave.

In the UK, and elsewhere, diversification of surfing is a major trend, with a range of surf craft – long boards, thrusters, stand up paddleboards – selected to suit different abilities, personal preferences and tidal conditions.

Long boards are still popular – although they are lighter and generally not as long as the old boards. The early addition of a tail fin increased the stability of the long boards, but shorter boards and boards with twin tail fins or the three-fin ‘thruster’ boards allow for faster action across the wave; ripping back and forth and even jumping off the crest of the wave and back down onto its surface – a technique borrowed from skateboarding – is possible with a shorter board.

This style of surfing, which involves cutting up the wave, is in contrast to a more recent trend, namely stand up paddleboards. Paddleboard surfing involves a longboard and, as the name suggests, the use of a long-handled paddle. The paddle enables leisurely cruising along the water beyond the break and helps with stability and turning as the board travels across the surface of the wave.

For many potential surfers, the main downside of surfing is getting wet. Of course, getting wet is fine when the weather’s hot or the water’s warm, and summers in the Pacific waters of Southern California, Western Australia and the islands of Hawaii provide lots of both.

In Britain the height of summer may only bring a few weeks’ sunshine, with water temperatures rising little above 18° even on the warm South West coast, and it is considerably colder in most of the northerly coastal waters.

To combat Pacific winters, not to mention the Atlantic and North Sea chill almost any time of year – and to take advantage of what are often better surfing conditions in the Winter months – manufacturers have developed a range of neoprene wetsuits and drysuits that keep in body warmth and allow for almost year-round surfing.

Unfortunately, getting wet involves other risks as well. There’s a whole lot of nature out in the seas and oceans, not all of it friendly. Surfers can come off badly in encounters with jellyfish, sea urchins and, in the greatest extremes, sharks. Mostly though, surfers battle with man-made dangers, in particular effluent from sewage pipes and ships, and storm run-off that can include car oil from roads, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers and plastics. Even getting into the water can be hazardous, with bare feet at risk of broken glass and needles on the beach.

In 1990, a group of surfers in Cornwall formed the SAS, ‘Surfers Against Sewage’. Using a graphic campaign, the SAS was successful in bringing the issue of dirty waters off Britain’s coasts to government, industry and the wider public.

As a result of the SAS and a variety of other anti-pollution campaigns, raw sewage is now dumped less often along Britain’s coastline, with more sophisticated ultra-violet treatment and longer pipes ensuring that human waste is rendered non-toxic or dumped much further out to sea. However, there are still areas where UV treatment isn’t used at all, or where it is only used intermittently during the year.

That said, conventional images of surfers don’t in the main paint them as activists. Indeed, surfing culture has more often been portrayed as a laid back and somewhat escapist culture. Classic representations of surfing culture, such as the films ‘The Endless Summer’, ‘Big Wednesday’ and ‘Point Break’, show surfers as in some way apart from mainstream culture, either in terms of their everyday commitments and lifestyles, or in terms of their ideas and attitudes to life.

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