History of Surfing

It’s still not entirely clear when and where exactly surfing originated. There is ample evidence, legends and myths about surfing in the varies tales from the Polynesians throughout the South Pacific long before contact with Europeans, but truly, modern surfing as we know it began in Hawaii in the early 1900’s, marked most famously by the “Waikiki Beach Boy” Duke Kahanamoku. Duke was an accomplished waterman, an Olympic gold medal swimmer, and good-looking which attracted the attention of Hollywood. He eventually starred in a total of seven films and brought the visibility of the sport of surfing from the vacation beaches of Hawaii to the mainland beaches of California where he eventually met Tom Blake, creator of the first “lightweight” hollow surfboard. This lighter, faster, more buoyant board is credited with making the sport of surfing more accessible to a greater number of people, and the beginning of the popularization of the sport throughout California in the 1930’s and 1940’s.


Polynesian surfers

The Polynesian natives are believed to have invented surfing.


Notable surfers

Surfing remained a marginal, sub-cultural of California’s youth through several decades. It was viewed by the mainstream as a “cult”, the perception of social deviants without purpose or focus. What the masses didn’t understand was that, in fact, surfers did have a purpose and an intense focus, that of doing whatever they could to allow themselves the ability to surf at all times, something that many surfers still possess today. As Drew Kampion said, “ Surfing was both cult and subculture – the subcult of stoked.” There were many surf spots and surf clubs up and down the California coast during this time, but none marked the true essence of California surfing like Malibu (the “bu”), a beautiful right point break that peels perfect wave after wave, located just north of Los Angeles along the historic Pacific Coast Highway. Malibu was (and still is today) a hotbead of talented longboard surfers with hot head attitudes to match. Most famous of these historical Malibu surfers was Miki (Da Cat) Dora, who dominated the peaks of Malibu throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was equal parts showboat and asshole, effortlessly cross-stepping to the nose of his board while pushing some poor shmuck in the back who may have had the misfortune of dropping in on Dora, or worse, having Dora launch his board straight at him.


The Endless Summer

Poster for the movie The Endless Summer.


Other notable surfers from the 1950’s and 1960’s are Hobie Alter, Dewey Weber, and Hap Jacobs/Dale Vezy, early California surfboard shapers; big wave surfers Greg Noll and Buzzy Trent; and Robert August and Mike Hynson, two globetrotting surfers immortalized by the now famous film THE ENDLESS SUMMER.

The next major revolution in surfing came in the early 1960’s, credited in large part to the film GIDGET, released in 1959. “The movie Gidget was huge,” wrote Surfer publisher Steve Pezman in 1977. “It swung surfing into mainstream prominence at a time when it was ready to accommodate new interest, thanks to foam, wetsuits and accessibility.” Talk to many old time surfers today and they still curse the release of this film and the shift (or demise) of surfing from subculture to mainstream. For better or for worse, surfing blew up and the line-up in most urban settings has been a snarled, dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest mentality ever since.

1968 – while many throughout the world concerned themselves with the atrocities of the Vietnam War, surfing was experiencing, once again, its own revolution, the advent of the shortboard. Until this time, surfers rode 9 foot to 10 foot longboards with varying nose, tail and width shapes to enhance their surfing experience. Between 1966 and 1968, surfers/shapers Nat Young, Bob McTavish and George Greenough are credited with collaborating on and experimenting with shorter surfboards. As Drew Kampion wrote, “In 1968, surfing experienced the greatest cultural and conceptual shift in its history as virtually the entire sport threw away its 9 foot and 10 foot boards and took up shortboards. In a single year, the sport was almost completely transformed. Surfboards went from 9 feet 6 inches to 8 feet 6 inches to 7 feet and below, and anyone on a longboard was surfing a dinosaur.” Thus began not only the revolution in equipment, but also in style and ability, opening up waves and surf spots that had been untouchable on a longboard. The speed and the turning abilities of the shortboard allowed surfers to surf in more radical ways than ever before, and on more radical waves epitomized by the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii.


Banzai pipeline

Banzai pipeline.


Pipeline was and still is considered one of the world’s heaviest waves. It channels big, steep hollow waves from deep ocean swells onto shallow (and sharp) coral reefs breaking close to shore. Only the very best surfers in the world, still to this day, will attempt Pipeline because a miss-timed take off or a bad bottom turn will send you sucked up and over the falls onto very sharp and dangerous reef with a heavy wave smashing down on your head. Early standout pioneers in the 1970’s include Shaun Tomson, Gerry Lopez, and Larry Bertelsmann, just to name a few.

With each new decade in surfing comes a new evolution in equipment (the surfboard), which in turn leads to a new leap in surfing style, ability and visibility for the sport. By the end of the 1970’s many of the world’s surfers were carving big turns and pulling deep into hollow tubes due to the relative speed and maneuverability of the single fin shortboard. What came next? The three fin (thruster) set up which allowed for even smaller, faster boards with more grip and more hold in the wave. Surfers could now take their surfing from a back-and-forth style across the face of the wave to a more intense, vertical style of up-and-down surfing across the face of the wave. This is when we started to see surfers really push the limits of snaps and off-the-lip maneuvers, using the three fins to push the board from the bottom of the wave driving vertically up the face of the wave, snapping hard or hitting the lip of the wave, and then driving back down the face of the wave to start the maneuver all over again. Welcome to high performance shortboarding as we know it today. Welcome Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Mick Fanning and the countless other surfers around the world who rip the hell out of the wave with a thruster fin set up.


Surfers in the 1980's

What’s next?

Clearly, the evolution of surfing still lies in the technology and design of the surfboard. We’ve seen this throughout the history of surfing and this remains to be true today. With the closing of the historical Clark Foam Factory in December of 2005, surfers and shapers around the world have been clamoring to discover the next big design and technological shift in materials, including new foam and resin technologies, carbon fiber and Kevlar, plastics and beyond. Click here to read more about surfing equipment.