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Few sports have a more interesting backstory than the history of surfing.
If you have ever wondered what sets waves in motion, here is the answer: random violence of varying intensity. Everything from earthquakes to ship wakes spawns waves. Still, the standard spark is the wind. As the wind wafts over the sea, friction makes its surface ripple or rear up depending on how much oomph the wind has. Simple.
How surfing came to be is more complicated. You wonder whose bright idea it was to ride a plank on moving towers of water – a strange activity when you think about it.
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Thank a race of people with a name beginning with “P.” Some sources nail the birth of surfing on Peruvians. As early as 4000 years ago, Peruvians rode surf kneeling or prone on craft made from hollow, buoyant reeds, when returning from fishing trips, speculation suggests. But most sources who have studied the history of surfing pin the credit on the Polynesians. That is, Hawaiians and Tahitians. The act of riding waves on a wooden board apparently arose in their neighborhood a little more recently – over 3000 years ago. Again, the first Polynesian surfers were innovative fishermen who realized riding waves was a slick way of getting ashore with their catch.
Over the centuries, catching waves evolved from being part of work into a sport. People gradually realized that surfing was cool – much more than a means of getting from A to B.
Hawaiians gloried in the sport of “he’enalu” or “wave-sliding” with a whiff of snobbery. The chief (Ali’i) was the deftest wave rider in the community. Just to underline his superiority, he owned the best board made from the best tree. The ruling class had the best beaches and the best boards. Everyday surf dudes were banned from using the same beaches, but they could gain stature by proving their ability to ride clunky third-class boards.
Mark Twain, was struck by surfing when he visited Hawaii in 1866. “In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing,” Twain wrote.
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Likewise, the British explorer Captain James Cook described what a buzz a Tahitian got catching waves with his outrigger canoe. “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea,” Captain Cook wrote. You wonder whether Cook was tempted to have a go himself – he too would have looked splendid carving waves in his white wig.
The history of surfing was forever changed as the sport spread along the Californian coast, gaining irresistible momentum. In 1915, Olympic swimming champion, Duke Kahanamoku, who was every bit as amazing as his name suggested, pushed the boundaries further, introducing surfing to Australia.
At this point in history, surfing boomed, fueled by surf rock, surf movies, surf fashion – you name it. Surfing duly surged into the breathtaking, big money global sport we know today. What an amazing distance it has traveled from its Polynesian roots.