A Quick History of Surfing

James
by on
in: Surf Travel, Surf Industry, Other

Surfing has existed as a sport for less than one hundred years, but before that it was a way of life. No, I don't mean to be a beach bum, live in a tent or van on the beach, I mean an actual part of society. There were rules, a hierarchy and even the kings and queens did it. We thought we would delve into this 'far-past' and forgotten side of surfing to see if there are any lessons we can take from the original masters.

Before the Polynesians, as we know them now, starting surfing they wandered across oceans and seas for centuries until they came across a chain of islands that were too good to pass up. With  volcanic mountains that grew out of the sea and green valleys that were full of nutrient rich soil perfect for growing all the food they needed they settled and called it 'Owhyhee' or, as we say, Hawaii.

For over a thousand years these people evolved in almost complete isolation before they were 'discovered' by a bunch of guys on a boat from England (which is part of the UK). These guys had very different ideas about how people should live their life, and so in 1777 the slow change and forced conformity to the newcomers' values began.

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Captain James Cook who was on that first boat wrote in his journals that, " I could not help concluding this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea." 

So we could surmise that from this Jimmy Cook was maybe the first documented westerner to watch someone surf and by all accounts saw the pleasure in it. Captain James Cook was the original surf fan. But the adoration was not to last and the westerners began landing more ships and imparting their values both religiously and socially to the 'natives'.

Before the arrival of the western ships the Polynesian Hawaiians had developed their own set of 'kapu' or taboos that governed their lives. The 'kapu' formed a code that told them where to eat, how to grow food, predict weather and most interestingly to us, how to build a surfboard.

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Hawiian surfboards of this era came in four different types, the 'olo' being the largest at up to twenty four feet long and was reserved for the upper class or 'royalty', then came the smaller and less used kiko'o. For the commoners use were the smaller alaia which was a stand -up board and the smaller still paipo which was more like the size our bodyboards of today and would be ridden in a similar fashion, prone.

It is thought that reason the upper classes or royalty only having access to the larger board involves flotation, that the more important one was, the higher one would ride on the waves. The paipo being the lowest with the less volume and the olo being the reserved for the highest born.  

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There are many things we could say about the people of Owhyhee and how their lives changed so much during the western colonization, but the fact that remains relevant to me is one of loss. Surfing was outlawed during the beginning of the nineteenth century. Natives were banned from wearing so little and forced to conform to the western standards of the time. There is evidence that some of the more dedicated shunned the new rules that were imposed and surfed in secret, but they were few. 

With the help of names like George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku surfing was revived, repackaged and sold to the Californians in the early 1900's and from that point it has spread across the world gaining popularity until we reach the point of today.

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So what can we learn from this. The way I see it is that the people of Owhyhee had it right. Surfing was completely integrated into their lives. They did not, like us today, struggle to find the time to surf, they surfed as part of their lives. It was not a choice but a social responsibility. All the joys that I harp on about on a daily basis regarding surfing being the best feeling on earth is true and on some level the good folk of the islands were way ahead of us on that score.

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Too many things get in the way of surfing in today's world but should they? We are only here for a short time and we should make the most of what we have. Surfing is good for you, it is healthy, sociable and brings happiness. If you can move things in your day to get a surf in, then do it. Get in the water, delay that email you must sent or the message you must reply to and get in the water. Do what the Hawaiians did and go surf.

 

The beautiful way of all things surf before the westerners got a hand in.

The beautiful way of all things surf before the westerners got a hand in.

The line up back in the days before the 'civilized' world

The line up back in the days before the 'civilized' world

The day of reckoning, the day everything changed and surfing slowly disappeared.

The day of reckoning, the day everything changed and surfing slowly disappeared.

One of the guys of Owhyhee with an alaia.

One of the guys of Owhyhee with an alaia.

A recreation of an olo, the biggest of the old Hawiian boards.

A recreation of an olo, the biggest of the old Hawiian boards.

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