Image from page 932 of "The world's inhabitants; or, Mankind, animals, and plants; being a popular account of the races and nations of mankind, past and present, and the animals and plants inhabiting the great continents and principal islands" (1888)

Public Domain Mark This work "Surf Swimming Hawaii" of George Thomas Bettany (1850-1891) has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law.

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Surfing - One of the oldest sports in the world

The roots of surfing are lost in the mists of history like those of the Polynesians who can be named as the inventors of surfing. Probably as early as pre-Christian times (between 750 and 500 BC) the Polynesians left their homeland "Hawaiki", which is supposedly located somewhere in Indonesia, to colonize the islands known today as Polynesia.

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.

Public Domain Mark This work "Hawaiian Canoes 1784" of John Webber (1751–1793) has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law.

The Polynesians were people of the open sea, they were great at swimming, diving and navigation. They made expeditions to South America and Antarctica. Led a carefree life in a paradisiacal landscape, held many parties with music, dancing and singing, and impressed the European discoverers with its free love life. Aside from climbing, sledding through the fields, fighting games and racing, they were especially fond of water sports. Swimming, diving, canoeing, sailing, water games and cliff jumping were very common sports among the Polynesian people.

The evolution probably started with bodysurfing. That was followed by using bundles of reeds, small logs, planks of wood or kayak tips to float atop and ahead of the wave. Later on they started surfing with larger boards, lying down, sitting up or kneeling. This type of surf was common throughout Polynesia (also in Micronesia and Melanesia). Especially in Tahiti surfing started to evolve into standing. Women and men of all ages and classes went to surf.


Public Domain Mark This work "The uncivilized races of men in all countries of the world; being a comprehensive account of their manners and customs, and of their physical, social, mental, moral and religious characteristics" of John George Wood (1827-1889)) has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law.

Following the colonization of East Polynesia surfing reached the Marquesas Islands, New Zealand, Rapa, Easter Island and Hawaii. In Hawaii, surfing was perfected into riding the wall of the wave. Surfing was of great social importance. The bays with the highest and best waves were reserved exclusively for kings. Each year they celebrated the feast "Makahiki". Work was interrupted for three months to enjoy the rest, sports, dancing and feasts. In this event the surf championships, for which thousands of spectators came, had special significance. The surf was the national sport in Hawaii.

As surfing had already existed before the colonization of Hawaii (in the tenth century) it can be calculated that surfing is more than 1000 years old. However, there are indications that this fascinating sport is much older. Also in Micronesia (eg Fiji Islands, New Guinea) and Melanesia (eg Marshall Islands, Carolinas) it was usual to catch waves, but only in places where there was also an Polynesian influence in the social and cultural structures. Since the Polynesians are thought to have lived in these areas in the time before Christ, it can be assumed that surfing started in pre-Christian times.

Polynesian migration to present-day Polynesia

Captain James Cook's discovery of surfing

When Polynesia was discovered by Europeans, the history of surfing was written long before - or rather was sung long before. The Polynesians, who had no writing literature but only a sharp historical consciousness, inherited their stories in the form of songs and legends. They sang about the glorious actions of the best surfers and asked the god of the sea to keep the small waves away and to send the large waves. When James Cook discovered Hawaii in 1778 he observed the indigenous people surfing. His notes, which represent the first written text about surfing, show that Cook was fascinated by this sport.

Karakakooa Bay is situated on the West side of the island of Owhyhee, in a district called Akona. It is about a mile in depth, and bounded by two low points of land, at the distance of half a league, and bearing South South East and North North West from each other. On the North point, which is flat and barren, stands the village of Kowrowa; and in the bottom of the bay, near a grove of cocoa-nut trees, there is another village of a more considerable size, called Kakooa: between them runs a high rocky cliff, inaccessible from the sea shore. . . . The shore, all round the bay, is covered with a black coral rock, which makes the landing very dangerous in rough weather; except at the village of Kakooa, where there is a fine sandy beach, with a Morai, or burying-place, at one extremity, and a small well of fresh water, at the other. This bay appearing to Captain Cook a proper place to refit the ships, and lay in an additional supply of water and provisions, we moored on the North side, about a quarter of a mile from the shore. . .

Public Domain Mark This work “A View of Karakakooa [today’s Kealakekua], Owhyee”, of John Webber (1751–1793) has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law.

Surfing - An almost extinct sport

The expeditions that followed later were not as sensitive and human as those in Cook’s time. A part from whalers and missionaries, it was mainly warships from Europe that colonised the paradise islands. They brought diseases, alcoholism and desire to win that spread among the Polynesians. The number of Hawaiians decreased rapidly. In 1778 there were still more than 300,000 Hawaiians, in 1900 there were barely 40,000 inhabitants left.

When King Kamehameha the first, whose performance in the surf were still sung long after his death, died in 1819, the laws in force were banned which prepared the advent of Christianity and the collapse of the Hawaiian culture. In that year the feast "Makahiki" was held for the last time. The missionaries replaced the pagan traditions with strict church customs. Also, surfing was considered a useless waste of time, pagan and immoral (practiced by men and women together), and in 1823 was banned. The economic situation worsened for the Hawaiians and its connections with world trade. The income of the whaling and timber industry also fell and the industry had to pay high taxes. Things did not look good for surfing. The cultural integration of surfing was lost due to current kings being too busy, so surf around 1829 disappeared from most parts of Hawaii and Polynesia.

The lone Hawaiian surfer wearing the malo at Waikiki Beach carries one of the last Alaia surf board. The surfer was Charles Kauha. Frank Davey photographed Charles Kauha in 1898 in numerous poses, but none are of Kauha surfing.

Public Domain Mark This work "Lone Alaia Board Surfer" of Frank Davey (1860-1922) has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law.

Resurgence of surfing and its spread around the world

With the founding of the first Hawaiian surf club in 1908 a new era began, which is still living today, when the surf again was reborn and developed through George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku worldwide.

The first surfers in Europe were probably French forest workers. In the year of 1896 the idea was to ride on half logs, which some of them probably succeeded in doing.

The architect Adrien Durupt is considered the first "real" surfer in Europe. In the year of 1907 he brought back a surfboard from California to surf it close to La Baule-Escoublac in France.

In 1955 Peter Viertel, a writer married to Hollywood actress Deborah Kerr came to Biarritz for the shooting of a film. He liked the waves a lot and he bought a board in California. Frenchmen Michel Barland, Georges Henebutte, inventor of the "leash" and Joel de Rosnay started with him and soon founded the first surf club in France.

On 10th March 1963 a friend of his, the Cantabrian Jesús Fiochi, entered history as the "first Spanish surfer of all time."

Surf Riding Waikiki

Public Domain Mark Surf Riding - Waikiki von Tropic~7 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic International License. This image is based on the work at

Surfing the green wall of the unbroken wave ·