WSJ Historically Speaking: A Short History of Surfing



One of the great sights of the dog days of summer is a surfer riding the perfect wave. In those instants of frothy flight, athleticism and grace combine in pure harmony with the rhythms of the sea. It’s no wonder that the sport inspired its own musical genre, epitomized by the happy-go-lucky melodies of the Beach Boys. Indeed, “everybody’s gone surfin’. Surfin’ U.S.A.”

Perhaps because of its popularity as an escape, surfing is often mischaracterized as the refuge of the eternal beach bum, not the sport of kings (and queens)—which it is.

For the Hawaiians, who invented the sport, surfing was no mere pastime but a profound expression of their religion and culture. They called it “he’e nalu,” or “wave-sliding,” because it was about communing with the sea, not dominating it.

On land, surfing played an integral role in Hawaii’s class system. The longest surfboards—some of them 18 to 24 feet long—and the best surfing areas were reserved for the king and the ruling class. The lower orders had to use shorter boards, but every surfboard was imbued with special significance and was made according to sacred ritual.

What struck 18th-century British naval officers—the first Europeans to encounter the Hawaiians—was the look of sheer happiness on the surfers’ faces. The great explorer Captain James Cook observed canoe surfing in Tahiti in 1777 and wrote, “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure.” Cook’s lieutenant, James King, wrote probably the first European description of surfing: “It sends them in with a most astonishing velocity…the great art is to guide the plank…on top of the swell.”

Despite such admiration, the introduction of European culture proved disastrous for the sport. During the 19th century, Hawaiians largely abandoned surfing as European diseases, missionary zeal and long hours toiling on the sugar plantations separated them from their traditions and customs.

By the time Mark Twain visited the islands in 1866, the Hawaiians—like surfing itself—had become a shadow of their former selves. But enough of them still took to the waves to inspire Twain to have a go. “I struck the bottom,” he wrote, “with a couple of barrels of water in me.”

Twenty years later, a freelance cinematographer carried one of Thomas Edison’s cameras to Waikiki and filmed a handful of surfers riding the waves. The short film captured the moment when surfing started its slow rise along the crest of popularity. The king of the epic nature story, Jack London, was taken surfing in Hawaii in 1907 and became an instant convert, writing of his “ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave.”

Those same waters would soon produce one of the greatest surfers in history, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, two-time Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, Hollywood silent-film star and global surfing ambassador. Kahanamoku even taught the future King Edward VIII how to surf in 1920.

There were few European women takers, however, until Agatha Christie visited Hawaii in 1922. She had tried prone boarding in South Africa and was ready to attempt the real thing. Wearing an emerald-green bathing suit, Christie amazed her fellow tourists by staying upright. It was, she recorded, “a moment of complete triumph.”


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