Knowing the history of surfing implies understanding why it is such a popular sport today. Let’s see how this discipline was from its beginnings.
But first, if you are interested in learning how to surf for real, we have been surf school Lanzarote for more than 25 years in a fantastic place called Famara. If you are interested in this sport, feel free to contact us.
History of Surfing, the origin: Peru and Bolivia, 16th century
While we now consider Hawaii to be the most iconic surfing location in terms of history, the reality is that the sport does not have a clear origin. That is to say, there are not many written documents attesting to this, while historians do not agree on the existing versions.
As this is a really old sport that has evolved over time, it is difficult to give an exact date. However, what could be said is that it was European travelers who first encountered this discipline, so it is important to reconstruct its past.
Today, it is a sport that is practiced almost everywhere in the world. The most developed surfing industries are in Australia, Europe (especially Spain and France) and the United States. However, it is also important to see that, for the beginning, we must move to South America.
The first thing we can say is that there was an element known as the caballito de Totora, which is a type of boat, built with stems and leaves, created for fishing in Peru and Bolivia. However, it was also used to glide over the waves in a similar way to surfing, being in the sixteenth century when we speak of a protosurf.
Origins and history of surfing: Hawaii, 18th century
This situation was described by the Spanish anthropologist Fray José de Acosta, who wrote about the cultures of the indigenous people of Peru, describing this activity on the Totora horses as “neptunes that cut the waves of the sea”. This monk wrote it in his book “Natural and Moral History of the Indies”, which was published at the end of the 16th century.
At the same time, we know that by the 18th century, almost 200 years after the writings about the Totora horses, a crew led by the British navigator James Cook appeared. There he also wrote about the art of gliding on water, which had been observed on some tropical islands.
James Cook, known for “discovering” the Hawaiian Islands, spent time with his crew here. This allowed him to learn about their way of life, understanding many of the customs of the indigenous people. This included, of course, the practice of surfing.
This activity was called he’enalu in Hawaiian, meaning “sliding on the waves”. The leader of the indigenous people of the island, called the kahuna, was the one with the best board, which was made from the wood of the best tree. At the same time, it was an elite sport, since the best beaches on the island were reserved for the nobility, while the lower classes were not allowed to surf.. It was a sport of reputation, designed for the upper class..
Although the first traces of surfing as we know it today were found in Hawaii, it is thought that they were not the originators of this practice. In fact, most of the inhabitants came to this territory from other islands in the Pacific Ocean, especially those related to Polynesia. This is why it is thought that it was in that place where the surfing we understand today began.
However, there were also some important differences. Mainly, we know that the surfers of that time caught the waves lying down, unlike today. In addition, it is assumed that it was a method to bring the fish to shore, that is, to speed up fishing and seeing this activity as a food necessity, and not just for fun, that is, as a sport.
Disappearance of surfing between the 19th and 20th centuries
Since the beginning of the 1800s, with the arrival of Christian missionaries to the island, surfing, as happened with so many other traditions, ended up with a ban in the Hawaiian territory for being considered immoral. This is why, at this time, the culture of the territory tends to disappear with the arrival of the foreign population.
The fact that the Hawaiian way of life has become extinct is due to the imposition of European culture, in addition to the large number of diseases brought by ships to the islands and the prohibition that existed with respect to indigenous customs. Thus, over the next 150 years, it could be seen that the Christian missionaries almost erased all traces of this sport in the water.
We saw that, for the duration of this stage, the strict culture of the Calvinist monks who inhabited the island was strictly religious.The surfing was not only complemented with work, so there was no room for sports and leisure activities, such as surfing, already installed in his vision as a sport. In addition to the decline of the indigenous population, which only accounted for 30% of Hawaii’s total population, we already know that surfing was only practiced by a brave few.
Surfing renaissance, the resurgence in the 20th Century
However, this ban would not last long. Since the 20th century, the custom of sliding on waves with wooden planks on Hawaiian beaches has been revived. This happened through a group of descendants of ancient Hawaiian kings, who wanted to start with this recovery of their customs.
Among them, we could highlight Duke Kahanamoku, considered the most important father or personality of modern surfing. Throughout the 1920s, we saw that Duke was an Olympic swimmer, as well as one of the managers of the first surf club on the Hawaiian beach of Waikiki, holding a large number of events that became popular, making it spread to Europe, Australia and the U.S., all through his travels around the world.
This is why this sport became so popular on the beaches of California in the 1930s. That is the time when they began to hold major surfing championships, creating, for example, the first specialized surfing sports magazines.
At the same time, the sport began to become more professional, something that could be seen in the improved surfboards, as well as the addition of a surf keel to the bottom of the board, an innovation by Tom Blake. The keel allowed those now considered sportsmen to perform turns and maneuvers while surfing the wave, being one of the main equipmentadded to the sport, in addition to the appearance of neoprene.
On the other hand, we know that between 1939 and 1945, due to the Second World War, there was a quite shocking stoppage in the practice of this sport. However, it was also useful for many sailors, who had been stationed in the Pacific, to learn of its existence. Then, during the war, other equipmentused later in the sport were discovered. When the war ended, surfing was already extremely popular.
Closer to these times, we saw that in the 1960s a musical and film culture emerged around the sport. We saw this in relation to films, such as Gidget, as well as groups like the Beach Boys, who spread surf culture throughout California and the rest of the world. It is considered the “golden age” of surfing, with the development of shorter boards, the appearance and use of new equipmentfor manufacturing, as well as a surfer culture that has continued to the present day. In addition, in the early 60’s longboards were created, ideal for performing tricks.
Ten years later, in the 1970s, surfing began to become popular in Europe, and the first wetsuit was created. Two keels were also used, allowing for sharper turns and much more delicate and complex maneuvers. From that date on, the world competitions began, demanding greater preparations for the competitors.
We hope you have enjoyed the history of surfing and if you are interested in learning, don’t hesitate to sign up for our surf lessons in Lanzarote.