If you find yourself questioning who the first person to fashion a surfboard could have been, and who would dare be the first person to bravely mount it above the waves- I’m afraid there’s no simple answer.
While the history of surfing dates back pretty far, it’s impossible to make an accurate guess as to when exactly it was “invented” and who the first surfer was. This is because there’s simply no record of it, however, there is plenty of speculation as to who it could have been. Let’s take a look.
The earliest reference to surfing ever found is in Polynesia. It comes in the form of a cave painting that depicts someone riding on a wave. The painting has been dated back to the 12th century.
It’s thought that it was the Polynesians who brought the sport to Hawaii, where its popularity spread like wildfire. In Hawaii, surfing was regarded as part of their religion and they incorporated the sport into their daily rituals and practices.
Everyone took part in surfing back then, regardless of age or class – men, women, children, and kings would all ride the waves. However, it wasn’t a free for all – they had a strict system in place where stewards would regulate who could surf on certain spots on the beach.
The first written record of a reference to surfing was found in the pages of Captain James Cook’s diary. The pioneer of new lands was also interested in surfing – Who’d have thought? Here’s what he wrote:
“Twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set out together from the shore. The first wave they meet, they plunge under and suffering it to roll over them, rise again beyond it, and make the best of their way, by swimming, out into the sea.”
Shortly after this diary entry, Christian missionaries were responsible for the colonization of the island.
Life for the Hawaiian people changed dramatically – their previously free-spirited society was forced to wear clothes at all times and they had to visit the church regularly. And as children began going to school and parents working harder than ever, surfing quickly slipped out of fashion.
Surfing was viewed as immoral by European and American missionaries, who discouraged involvement in its practice or ritual.
Whereas most people would pray to their local Kahuna for waves after a dry season, missionaries wanted to preserve indigenous spiritual traditions. While it never vanished completely, it had lost its strong influence on the community.
Where did surfing originate from?
While we already know that surfing most likely originated in Polynesia, where it found its way to Hawaii.
But after the colonization of the island, it didn’t pop up again until the early 1900s where it left Hawaii and spread to North America and Australia, where the sport was adopted by pilgrims. With the popularity of surfing spreading all around the world, the demand for the sport began to increase.
Surfing caught on in the United States, and James Matthias Jordan Jr. brought surfing to the East Coast, along with the ancient techniques of the Polynesians. So, with more surfers came more advancements to the surfboard.
The first hollow wooden surfboard came about in 1929 and the fin wasn’t added until 1935. In the 1940s, fibreglass became an ideal substitute for wood, and Jack O’Neill’s creation of the wetsuit provided access to surfing for ambitious wave riders all around the world.
Over time, Hawaii, Australia, and California started to come surfing havens for those looking to explore the sport as well as the laid-back lifestyle that supposedly came along with it.
By the 1960s, surfing culture was at an all-time popularity high, thanks to movies and surf music such as The Beach Boys sparked widespread interest in the sport.
Southern California beach culture began to soar in popularity and competitions and a professional surfing community started to develop.
This soon became the same surfing culture we know and love today, with numerous different surfing competitions, events, conventions, special beaches, and even an entire subculture that revolves around this activity.
We should expect to see surfing transform in the future decades as the next generation of professional surfers yet again pushes the boundaries of what we thought is possible in the ocean.
We should expect to see new and inventive board forms and surfing styles as the sport continues to expand and improve. But whatever changes occur, we can still expect surfing to be a sport that celebrates a love of the ocean.