Surf History: The Origins and History of Surfing

Flowing over the ocean's waves is neither child play nor a bed of roses, but a gut-testing adventurous game called surfing. The origin of surfing is mired in the various historical accounts as per the archaeological studies and historical evidence. Some historians attribute Peru as the motherland of surfing. Other historians attribute the Hawaiians as the first surfing nations of the world. On the other side, historians studying Africa claim that surfing sprung out from the coastline of Ghana, Africa. Meanwhile, the historical evidence of Polynesia makes the readers believe that the surf is a Polynesian invention. 

Despite the fluidity or subjectivity in academia on the origin of surf, some facts are very straight: the surf was initially used for fishing to ensure food security, the Hawaiian people see the surf through a religious lens - they were surfing religiously, used to pray for surfboard and ocean waves, the Peruvians and Polynesians interacted with each other, and they learned surfing from those historical interactions.

Therefore, it is fair to assume that surfing spread with rapid interactions with other nations after the 17th century. Nonetheless, the same interaction paused indigenous surfing, such as the European colonization of Hawaii, which made surfing nearly extinct. Religiously, surfing was disregarded by Christian priests, calling it vulgar and sinful. Even the colonizers discouraged surfing as it seemed unethical.

In Africa, surfing became the victim of apartheid. The blacks were not allowed to do surfing along with the white population even though the blacks were the indigenous people of Africa. This is why the historical accounts proving Ghana as the cradle of surfing are not widely available in international discourse. 

The film industry's rise in the 1950s and 1960s beefed up the fame of surfing globally. People started to enjoy playing and watching the surf. Thus, Australia and other European states such as Portugal and France became the world's best destinations for surfing craving people. In Parallel, South Africa's shores started attracting crowds from all over the world.  

Now, surfing is a way to pocket money. Surfing attracts tourists from all over the world. The gadgets that are used in surfing have evolved, too. Therefore, a chain of industrial growth moved with surfing in the international sports arena. With such a bumpy journey, surfing finally made it to be part of the World Olympic Games. 

Polynesians - The Inventors of Surf

Surfing is one of the adventurous sports of the maritime nations. All you need are skyscraping waves, a board, and a bold stomach to do adventures with the mighty ocean waves. Notably, historians hold a contested stand over Surf’s origin. Nonetheless, amidst this tug of war on Surf’s origin, most of the historical documents have unearthed that the origin of surf dates back to 12th-century Polynesian culture - Polynesians are the inhabitants of the Polynesian Islands. Intriguingly, surfing was dubbed a "royal sport" and a "sport of kings" in the 20th century because it was thought to be inextricably associated with ancient Hawaiian religious and political civilization. 

Surf’s Origin in Peru

Apart from Surf's origin in Polynesian culture, archaeological evidence, specifically pottery dating from 1100 to 1400 BCE, has allowed the readers to determine that the Caballitos de Totora are the earliest known vessels designed for surfing. Caballitos de Totora, also known as little Totora Horses, could be seen in Huanchaco, Peru. It is situated approximately 560 kilometers north of the capital, Lima. Historical accounts illustrate that these reed paddleboards, known as "tūp" in the Mochica culture, were created to navigate the waves and fish in coastal waters.

Surfing between Peru and Polynesians

Surf History

The comprehension of the historical background of the surfing sport becomes intricately entangled due to the presence of two significant factors. Firstly, the absence of a written language within both ancient societies, i.e., Polynesian and Peruvian, creates uncertainty about the precise credentials of their sporting practices. Secondly, it is believable that these two societies had probable communications during numerous points in ancient history, rendering it particularly stimulating to define the accurate origins of their mutual cultural artifacts precisely. 

However, historians believe that for the sake of survival, the Polynesians introduced surfing. Before surfing, it was nearly impossible for people to face the gigantic waves of oceans around them, get their food, and trade beyond their limited markets and areas. Therefore, the necessity pushed them to adopt a medium to flow over the waves and trade with other nations. Surfing made them get more food from the open waters of oceans. This food was enough for their local consumption and a way to earn a livelihood by selling the surplus food at their disposal to other nations dwelling in their surroundings. 

Jose Antonio del Busto, a Peruvian historian, hypothesized that in 1500, a Peruvian named an Inca voyaged to Polynesia, and he interacted with the culture of Polynesians and started commercial activities with them. Interestingly, in 1947, to prove this hypothesis, a Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl, reached Polynesia from South America on an old raft during his famous journey called the “Kon-tiki expedition.” This voyage proved that the Peruvians and Polynesians had been doing historical, cross-cultural exchanges and trade.

Unquestionably, it is obvious that surfers from ancient Peru, spanning a period of three millennia ago, do not have the luxury of using sleek and hydrodynamic surfboards similar to those used by current surfers. In its place, their chosen mode of marine transport contained reed boats, lovingly named "caballitos de totora" (translating to "little reed horses") by Spanish observers who observed native fishermen dexterously guiding these exceptional vessels across the water's surface.

The famous book “Sports and Nationalism in Latin America” has peeled out the historical layers of surfing in Peru. According to this book, in the 20th century, surfing retook its position in Peru when a Peru-born man named as Carlos Dogny Larco brought back the charm of surfing from Hawaii. Even, intriguingly, D. Kahanamoku gifted a surfboard to Dogny to pursue his passion for surfing.

Archeological studies further found that the Mochica and Chimu cultures of Peru are the cradles of surfing. These two cultures transformed the Pacific Ocean into the world's largest fishery. Moreover, based on the evidence, the archeologists believe that the people of Chan Chan city of Peru still use the 1000BC style little Totora Horses for fishing - these surfboards are believed to be one of the ancient surfboards of Peru.

Peru's cost with the mighty Pacific Ocean makes it the world's best destination for surfing and other water sports. Thus, the land of Peru is fertile for world-renowned surfers such as Felipe Pomer and Sofia Mulanovich. The former was a world surfing champion in 1965, while the latter clinched the world Surfing championship title in 2003.  Notably, Felipe Pomar remained an ardent supporter of the theory that surfing originated in Peru, saying in his interview with BBC News that fishermen in pre-Incan communities surfed these boats like surfboards, standing up when they came to shore with their catch.

One noteworthy breakthrough in the history of surfing in Peru is creating the surf school called "OLAS PERU." This institution originated in 1992 in Punta Hermosa. Initially, with a meager admission of only five children, this institution has a mentionworthy significance in Peru. One of those five children was Sofia Mulanovich, who scaled the highest limits of success in the sport.

Notably, the school was originated by Roberto "MUELAS" Meza, who commenced his teachings in Punta Hermosa. Over time, the institution has played a pivotal role in creating the capacities of many ambitious Peruvian surfers in the fresher generation. Further,  Luis Miguel de la Rosa, alias "MAGOO," is another remarkable symbol in Peruvian surf schools who have won the national championship an incredible seven times. Additionally, former champions like Carlos "CHALO'' Espejo and Rocio Larrañaga are vigorously involved in teaching and sharing their vast experience with individuals who aspire to learn and master the art of surfing.

Despite Peru being called the motherland for surfing, the surf became limited to a particular class and an ethnic group. Notwithstanding, the waves of time and circumstance altered this trend, and surf became available to every class and ethnic group in Peru. This universality of surfing in Peru, as per the historians, is attributed to three significant developments: firstly, when the government bottled up the skyrocketing hyperinflation in the late 1980s; secondly, the end of Shining Path guerrilla fighting in the early 1990s and third the persistence of a stable government in Peru.

Surf’s Roots in Africa

Kevin Dawson underscores in his book “Surfing in Africa and the Diaspora” alludes that in 1640, the first known account of surf was penned down in Ghana, Africa, almost a hundred years prior to the known historical accounts of Hawaii. Dowson further argues that contrary to popular belief, surfing was not brought to Ghana by Westerners; instead, young people in the Accra area of Ghana already used traditional surfboards, which are still used in some coastal areas today. Last but not least, Dawson highlights that traditionally enslaved Africans and their Afro-American, Caribbean, and South American descendants were surfing and surf-canoeing from the eastern United States down to Brazil as early as the 1700s. This was before the mainland United States was exposed to Hawaiian surf culture.

South Africa in the Realm of Surfing 

Surf History

In the African continent, the South Africans experienced the first surf in 1910. The first surfing was started in Muizenberg; therefore, this place is called the birthplace of surfing in South Africa. In the initial stages, the South Africans were using wooden surfboards. However, when the South African veterans returned from Hawaii after WWI, they introduced an indigenous design with timber watertight boards. The same type of surfboard was widely available at Waikiki Beach at that time.

In the streak of Africans being surfers, it is worth noting that the pioneering act of stand-up surfing is credited to Heather Price, who hails from Zimbabwe. As the tale goes, during her stay in Cape Town in 1919, Heather fortuitously came across two American Marines possessing excellent solid-wood surfboards, demonstrating the Hawaiian style. These generous souls courteously lent Heather one of their boards. Thus, they introduced her into the realm of stand-up surfing. 

South Africa’s standing in surfing was cemented when 1965 it established the South African Surfing Association. This step made South Africa one of the best destinations for surfing, craving people all across the world. Meanwhile, South Africa’s St Francis and JBay became unprecedentedly famous among global surfing audiences.

Prior to 1964, the Western Province Surfing Championships was organized at Long Beach. This was the first golden opportunity for the “Capeys” and “Banana Boys” to fix their horns on water waves. The event ended in an amicable environment owing to Max Wetteland, who was a Durban surfer. Before this event, he had participated in the International Surfing Federation (ISF) organized World Championships in Sydney. There, he learned the rules of surfing. The same surfing rules and regulations were applied in this local event.

In academia and print media, South African Surfer, founded by Durban, was the first magazine editorial spearheaded by Harry Bold, Brian Wilson, and Roger Ashe. This magazine documented the birth and evolution of the surf in South Africa. Moreover, Southern Surfer was the next magazine founded by Natal Surfriders Associations in 1970.

Though the 1960s was called the “Golden Decade” of surfing in South Africa, surfing was still a privilege for the white population due to the segregation imposed under the broader umbrella of apartheid. Notably, the Sea Shore Amendment Act limited white-skinned people's surfing access, putting aside the indigenous black Africans.

Hawaii: The Surf Nexus

Surfing reached Hawaii with Polynesians. With every passing year, surfing planted its deep roots in the Hawaiians. It started recognizing more than a sport, but a religious and pious practice. The selection of trees to make surfboards was a paramount task as the board was supposed to be intertwined with religious ceremonies to ensure protection and seek the gods' bliss. 

Regarding surfing in Hawaii, the arrival of Britishers in Hawaii in 1778 led to the ban on surfing, considered a sinful act by the Christian priest. Nonetheless, for the Hawaiian people, surfing was not just a sport rather it was a culture. Linguistically, In Hawaiian, the term for "surf" is he is nalu, which roughly translates to "sliding on a wave." For a lower-class Hawaiian, the surf was a springboard to ascend to the upper class by showing their skills, strength, and art to face the ocean's gigantic waves.

In Hawaii’s rich surfing history, the chiefs, in the age of fifties and sixties, were adept and skillful in riding over the waves of oceans fearlessly. Notably, the chiefs used to spare their leisure time for get-testing sports such as surfing. These sports, in return, helped them not only as a source of pleasure but also as a way of physical habituation, guaranteeing they endured physically fit for their roles as chiefs, which demanded strength and skill. Moreover, the chiefs were privileged enough to have the best surfboards(Alaia and Olo) reserved for them.

Additionally, surfing by a common woman remained in the thick of a taboo for centuries in Hawaii. For queens, specific places were allocated where only they could surf. For instance, Waikiki Beach at Oahu was a place allocated for queens to surf. Once, an ordinary man, Piikoi, surfed at the Waikiki beach. Consequently, he was beaten to death by the chief’s guards.

In earlier Hawaiian surfing culture, the start of surfing was based on religious rituals.  According to Ellies, the god of surfing in the Hawaiian belief was called as Huaori. Even Koa or Wiliwili trees were used to make the surfboards, as both these trees are considered sacred in Hawaii.

Impacts of Colonialism on Surfing

Surfing remained in the blood of Hawaiians until the colonizers usurped their land. It was the 1770s when Captain Cook planted their feet in Hawaii, and things started to change for the Hawaiians. Captain Cook opened the doors for Christian priests who started indoctrinating the Hawaiians with Christianity. Under the shadow of Christian teachings, the surf was called vulgar, immoral, and anti-religious. This made the Hawaiians take distance from surfing. The people in Hawaii were made to remain busy serving the colonizers. Adding injury to insult, deadly diseases such as STDs and Cold forced the Hawaiians to leave their land forever during the late 1800s.

It was the 19820s when the Calvinist missionaries reached Hawaii. Hiram Bingham was spearheading the mission at that time. Before they arrived in mainland Hawaii, they encountered a surfer on the ocean. Bingham reconnected this encounter with the following words, “The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism, among the chattering and almost naked savages, whose heads and feet, and much of their sunburnt skins were bare, was appalling.”

Historical Look to Surfing in the Mainland USA

History accounts that J.K Kataniana’voi, E.D Keliiahonii, and D.Kawananakoa, the trio of Hawaiian princes, brought surfing to the USA in 1885. Later, in 1907, George Freeth, born on Oahu Island, Hawaii, introduced surfing as a stunt on the mainland of the USA. Firstly, it was played in California. Freeth’s exceptional command of this sport made him called “Man Who Can Walk on Water” and “Hawaiian Wonder” in the USA. 

Surf on Australian Waters

Surf History

The surfing history of Australians bears a mention as it is estimated that 2.5 to 3.5 million active surfers live in Australia. John Ogdon, in his book “ Salt Water People” underscores that the Cammeragal clan of Harbour used to go fishing, swimming, and surfing before the arrival of Europeans.

In recorded history, Albie Thoms’s book “Surfmovies: The History of the Surf Film in Australia '' reveals that Charles Paterson brought a Hawaiian surfboard from Honolulu to Australia in 1909. Later, Paterson became the president of the Surf Bathing Association. However, the surfboard was an alien gadget for the people; thus, it remained unused but iconic in Australian surfing history.

Australia did not remain immune from surfing for a longer period. In December 1914, Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii popularized surfing among Australians when he showed his extraordinary skills at Freshwater Beach, Sydney. With the passage of time, Australia started hosting international surf championships on its waters.

During the 1930s, the Australian surf industry experienced an uptick in its progress due to its usage as a life-saving skill. The first life-saving club was established in 1907 in Sydney.

In the 1950s, visiting Hawaiian and Central American lifeguards presented Australian surfers in admiration of the improved performance capabilities that fiberglass/balsawood boards influenced during a surf carnival. These fin-equipped, shorter, lighter Malibu variants were already well-liked in California and could be accelerated and steered across the wave face.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Australian surfing remained on the epic as the surfers started to make surfboards from foam, wood, and fiberglass. Additionally, the cinema, American TV, music, and locally made Aussie surf bands played a key role.

In the historical journey of surfing in Australia, Snow McAllister, a well-known Australian surfer and notable figure in the world of surfing, earned the famous title of 'The Father of Australian Surfing'. With an astonishing seven decades of experience, McAllister's contributions to the sport extended beyond his impressive skills on the waves. He also ventured into surfboard craftsmanship throughout his distinguished career, skillfully constructing a hollow timber surfboard. This fantastic creation spanned an impressive length of 12 feet, measured two feet in width, and boasted a thickness of three inches, featuring a solid nose. Startlingly, the price of this bespoke surfboard amounted to a mere two pounds, making it an exceptional bargain for enthusiasts seeking an exceptional ride. 

History of Surf in Europe

Europe experienced its first surfing activity when Duke Kahanamoku succeeded at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. In Europe, Portugal's land blessed the surfers to do surfing on its waters in 1926. However, another piece of historical evidence mentions that Ignacio de Arana, the then-Spanish consul in Hawaii, shipped the first-ever surfboards to Europe. However, there needs to be shreds of evidence proving the usage of those two surfboards in Europe. 

Further, surfing remained limited to Portugal till WWII. During WWII, the US troops introduced surfing to the people of France. In France, the US troops transformed Biarritz into Europe's best destination for surfing. Since then, the French have enjoyed surfing with full zeal and zest. 

Surfing in Portugal and France

Surfing is essential in Portugal because it is a significant tourism activity, and Portugal has excellent natural resources along its coasts. Owing to that, surfers also contribute to Portugal’s economic development. Moreover, surfing is deeply rooted in Portugal’s culture and heritage. The best months for surfing in Portugal are September and April. It historically recorded the evidence of wave riding in Portugal as far back as 1926, and the demonstration comes in the form of a 28-second black and white film. It is saved in images in Becelas. It displays a group of men bodyboarding the whitewash at Leca da Palmeira, close to Porto.

Moreover, some historians believe that the history of surfing in Portugal traces back to the renowned surfer rider Pedro Martin de Lima in 1959, who is considered the father of Portuguese surfing. Following the downfall of the Estado Novo regime in 1974, the national surfing team was established in 1987 after the Carnation Revolution. In 1996, the Figueira da Foz hosted the World Championship.

The intriguing account of surfing in France starts in September 1956 along the picturesque Basque Coast in Biarritz. It was during this time that the serendipitous discovery of surfing in France took place, with three individuals playing significant roles in its introduction. Amongst them were Peter Viertel, Dick Zanuck, and the renowned Ernest Hemingway, who, with the purpose of filming a cinematic adaptation of Hemingway's literary masterpiece, "The Sun Also Rises," found themselves immersed in the world of surfing.

Surf and Social Class System

Until the 1400th century, the purpose of surfing was limited to warrior training and fishing. Afterward, surfing became seen as a water festival or a water sport. Socially, it became a yardstick to create a social class within society. The well-adept people remained at the top of the social class hierarchy. Further, women, in general, were not allowed in the initial phases of surfing. Later, with time, women made their position in the surfing industry. Further, the blacks were discriminated against by the whites in the African continent on surfing. Lastly, when Christian priests reached Hawaii, they started to call the surfers sinful compared to those not surfing. Ultimately, it created a binary between the pious and the sinful.

Surf’s Historic Journey to Be an International Sports

Surf's international recognition as a sport came when the Waikiki Surf Club organized the first-ever men's and women's international surfing championship at Makaha, Hawaii. This competition introduced internationally accepted rules and laws for surfing as a sport. Moreover, the Australian Surfriders Association helped form the International Surfing Federation in 1964 when international surfers were playing in the world surfing championship in Sydney. With the day-in and day-out efforts of 25 million surfers, the International Olympic Committee included surfing in the 2016 Olympics. This was a great success for the surfers worldwide.

Role of Films and Music in Surf Historical Evolution

It would be unjust to brush aside the film industry's role in making surfing an international sport. In the 1960s, when the film and music industry started mushrooming globally, so did the surf hand-in glow with music and films. Films, for instance, Gigdet, beefed up the popularity of surf beyond the borders of California. That is why the 1960s is called the ‘Golden Age” of surfing. 

Additionally, the impact of films put an unprecedented push on the popularity of surfing. Before the movie was released globally, there were approximately five thousand surfers. Nonetheless, after the movie, the number of surfers jumped to 150,000. As a result, the beaches started to become crowded with an outpour of people searching to enjoy the flow of waves through surfing.

Moreover, the films introduced another domain in surfing: the need for a perfect wave. In 1964, “The Endless Summer” was a movie in which four surfers traveled the whole world in search of the perfect wave. After this movie, those who travel surfing are called “soul Surfers” or “Free Surfers.”

Moreover, the magnificent decades of the 60s and 70s saw a thriving hippy culture and the global growth of surfing, converting it into a way of life. One distinguished cultural phenomenon that played an essential role in this move was the release of the film 'The Endless Summer,' which brought South Africa to the lead as a surfer's haven, tempting wave devotees from all corners of the globe. This film masterwork helped as a catalytic agent, pushing South Africa's standing as a paradise for surfers craving to ride waves throughout each passing year.

A Glimpse of the Geopolitical History of Surf

Lastly, the Surf's geopolitical history is worth mentioning here. As a sport, Surf has been used in history to pursue political interests. For instance, Scott Laderman, in his book Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing in the 1970s, the surfers of Indonesia were praised and promoted globally to cover the atrocities done by the ruling elite of Indonesia against its masses. 


Surfing has occupied an irreplaceable position in the field of global sports index. The historical evolution of surfing, its roles, and its equipment made people do this adventurous sport in a comparatively safe environment. The bird's eye view of surfing history illustrates that it remained amid unnumbered challenges throughout its growth. Nonetheless, the invention of the TV and film industry, coupled with the printing media, made this sport survive. Nonetheless, with time, it became commercialized, and capitalized societies used these sports to earn money. In contrast, it aimed to catch fish.

Intriguingly, surfing and other sports did not remain immune from international politics. The global powers used these sports to hide the atrocities of states. This was done through what today is called "Sports Washing." The Indonesian example (discussed above) is the actual orchestration of the role of sports in the international geopolitical chessboard. 

James Davis

Written by James Davis

I'm a true California local, and I've spent my life riding the waves along our stunning coastline. Surfing has always been my greatest love, and in my writing, I try to capture its genuine essence. My words aim to transport you into the heart of the surf culture, where the ocean and surfers come together in perfect harmony.

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