Watery Roots: Surf History

Surfing’s roots go deep. As one of the oldest practiced sports on the planet, surfing originated in Oceania where the sea was quite literally a way of life. While bodysurfing (kaha nalu in ancient Hawaiian) certainly predated water dancing, ancient Polynesians were surfing in some form thousands of years ago, using large wooden boards—more akin to a ka’ele (in ancient Hawaiian), the main hull of an outrigger canoe—as a means to reach bigger fish in deeper water. On their paddle in, fishermen would catch the waves, making for an easier return to land. Somewhere along the way, islanders began riding waves for the sake of riding waves.

Surfing History - Surfing through Human History - South Florida

   When ancient Hawaiians first started riding waves, sometime in the thirteenth-century, the boards were very different than the lightweight composite sticks seen today. He’enalu, wave-sliding in old Hawaiian, was done on large wooden boards called olo (long boards, between 18 to 24 feet, which were reserved for royalty), kiko’o (longboards, about 12 to 18 feet, used on bigger waves), alaia or omo (mid-sized boards, about eight feet or shorter), or paipo (two to four foot body boards). Hand-hewn from koa, ‘ulu, and wiliwili trees, the boards, and surfing itself, were as much art and spiritual ceremony as it was sport. From selecting the tree and shaping the board, to riding the waves, virtually every aspect was distilled through ceremony with rituals marking the process with offerings and requests from the gods for help in taming the powerful and mystifying sea. Truly the “Sport of Kings,” chiefs had rights to the largest, best waves—they were the top dogs of the lineup—and were privy to the best guns (big-wave boards, or the kiko’o) made from the best trees, and were often the best surfers in the lineup.

Surf History in Hawaii - Bishop Museum

Courtesy of Bishop Museum Archive

    The first western interaction with surfing came in 1778 on Captain James Cook’s third expedition to the Pacific, where he happened upon the Hawaiian archipelago (which he called the Sandwich Islands) while traveling from Tahiti to North America aboard the HMS Discovery and Resolution. On his second visit to the islands, Hawaiians killed Cook when he abducted Kalani’opu’u, the King of Hawai’i Island, holding him for ransom in recompense for a missing boat. Stepping in to complete Cook’s expeditions, Lieutenant James King was made First Lieutenant of the Discovery, and given the task of completing the narrative of Cook’s journals. It was here the first mention of surfing is made, with King describing a scene from Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island:

“But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d.

   “On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.”

Kalaniopuu, King of Hawaii, bringing presents to Captain Cook. Shows a Hawaiian canoe with

Kalaniopuu, King of Hawaii, bringing presents to Captain Cook. Shows a Hawaiian canoe with “crab-claw” and many oarsmen, carrying Kalaniopuu, the Hawaiian chief, to visit Captain Cook aboard the ‘Resolution’. The main canoe, an outriger, is followed by two double-hulled canoes without sails, full of oarsmen, and one boat is carrying wrapped carved figures. The Hawaiian coastal hills can be seen in the right background.

   While things didn’t go well for Cook, European influence drastically changed the archipelago, the world’s most remote inhabited islands, introducing disease, and later the overthrow of the chiefdoms by westerners leading to the eventual annexation by the United States. Now Hawaii is largely regarded as the birthplace of surfing, with wave riding making its mainland push in the early twentieth-century when the Duke, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, headed stateside.

Surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku standing on beach with surfboard in Los Angeles, California, circa 1920.

Surfer and Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku standing on beach with surfboard in Los Angeles, California, circa 1920.

   An Olympic swimmer, who won a total of three gold and two silver medals in the 1912, 1920, and 1924 Olympic Games, Duke would travel the nation and the globe for swimming competitions. While in port, he would often hew a bonzer board out of some local lumber and catch a surf in-between competitions. The novelty became such a crowd pleaser that it became part of the show, with hundreds of people crowding the beach to see Duke drop in on his monster wooden boards. Too big to bring with him, Duke would often leave the boards behind, inspiring a new generation of board shapers in new corners of the globe. His travels helped introduce the world to surfing, becoming the catalyst in many places that have come to dominate the sport, namely California and Australia.

   While shifting from those early days, where finless, hulking wooden rafts dominated the sport, the essence is still the same. Royalty may not dominate the lineup, but the pecking order still starts with the best surfers. And while the influx of mass-produce, machine-made boards has diminished the spiritual connection one once had with their ride, there are still master craftspeople hand-shaping boards, as well as a growing DIY movement that has reintroduced the ritualistic and fundamental aspects of surfing—albeit in a garage—that once dominated the sport. Outfits like Korduroy.TV proselytize that living in the present mantra inherent to surfing, and the inventiveness that runs through the sport’s roots, tapping into that old surf club mentality with DIY tips, rad surf videos, and more.  

Modern day Alaia made by master shaper Jon Wegener.

Modern day Alaia made by master shaper Jon Wegener.

   Even alaias are experiencing a renaissance, led by master shapers Tom Wegener and his brother Jon. The finless boards made out of paulownia, a lightweight, rot-resistant wood, alaias give modern-day surfers a chance to tap into those deep primordial roots. Finless and very lightweight, the ride is much more about feel rather than speed and aggression, making for a more soulful, sliding ride (also, its pretty hard to do, even if you have years of experience). The reemergence of these early boards has created a devoted following—not just because they are fun to ride, but are fun to make as well. Sites like alaiaDIY.com offer DIYers all the tips and info one needs to get their own garage project off the ground. The trial and error is worth the trouble: that first ride on a board made by you is one of the best you’ll ever know.

Surfing Museum - Palm Beach County Surfing Project

Some of the photos on display at the Surfing Museum in Delray Beach.

Photo courtesy of Surfing Museum

    Tapping into South Florida’s distinct surf history is the Surfing Museum, part of the Palm Beach County Surfing History Project. Started by five local surfers, the goal behind the nonprofit organization is to—as the name suggests—preserve, document, and exhibit “surfing history in Florida, focusing primarily on Palm Beach County.” Located in an unassuming building in Delray Beach, the museum contains a treasure trove of local surfing history artifacts adorning its walls. Thousands of photographs from more than 100 photographers dating as far back as 1919 document the region’s impact on the sport, and are displayed alongside an extensive collection of surfboards from champion surfers to grommets, memorabilia from SoFlo’s surf culture, as well as Florida Atlantic University’s exhibit “Surfing Florida: A Photographic History.” The museum, which is volunteer-run, offers a unique timeline of how surfing, and our slice of coast, has changed with the times.

Just a few of the Surfing Museum's collection of boards on display in Delray Beach.

Just a few of the Surfing Museum’s collection of boards on display in Delray Beach.

Photo courtesy of Surfing Museum


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