Riding atop the crest of a mighty wave, feeling the rush of saltwater beneath your feet, and surrendering to the sheer power of the ocean—this is the essence of surfing. Humans have been drawn to the captivating allure of riding the waves for centuries, embracing the thrill and harmony of dancing with nature’s water force. But what lies beyond the surface of this exhilarating sport?
In this article, get to know the world of surfing, exploring its rich history, its different forms, the equipment that makes it possible, the types of waves surfers catch, and the moves and tricks that leave spectators in awe.
What is Surfing?
Surfing is a water sport in which a person, referred to as a surfer, rides a surfboard on the face of a breaking wave. The surfer paddles out to the lineup, where the waves break, and then waits for a suitable wave to catch. When the wave approaches, the surfer uses their arms to paddle quickly and starts to ride it by standing up on the surfboard.
Waves suitable for surfing are often found on ocean shores, but they can also be found in standing waves in the open ocean and other bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, or man-made wave pools.
Surfing originated in ancient Polynesia and has evolved into a popular recreational activity and competitive sport worldwide. It is commonly practiced in coastal areas with suitable wave conditions, such as beaches and reef breaks. Surfers often seek out locations with consistent waves and good surfing conditions.
Surfing requires balance, coordination, and wave knowledge. Surfers use their body weight and movements to maneuver the board and perform various maneuvers on the wave, such as carving, cutbacks, and aerial tricks. The objective is to stay on the wave for as long as possible and perform stylish and dynamic maneuvers.
History of Surfing
Surfing has a rich and extensive history that dates back thousands of years. It originated in ancient Polynesia, where it was a recreational activity and deeply ingrained in the culture and way of life. Here is an extensive history of surfing:
Surfing is believed to have originated in Polynesia, particularly in places like Hawaii, Tahiti, and Fiji, around 2000 years ago. Modern surfing as we know it today is believed to be originated in Hawaii. It was known as “heʻe nalu” in Hawaiian, which translates to “wave sliding.”
The history of surfing dates to AD 400 in Polynesia, as the people started to make their way to the Hawaiian Islands from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. They played in the surf on Paipo (belly/body) boards. It was there when the art of standing and surfing upright on boards started.
From the 1400s onwards, the purpose of surf riding started to change. While surfing was originally used for the purpose of fishing and warrior training, it became more of a pastime for the Polynesians. Surfing no longer became a chore but evolved into the “Sport of Kings.”
One of the key factors that made surfing deeply significant to these individuals was the profound spiritual bond it fostered between the community and the ocean. This connection was established long before the surfers even set foot in the water.
To attract the best waves, priests known as ‘Kahunas’ engaged in chants and dances, conducting rituals aimed at appeasing the ocean and invoking the provision of surfable waves. Before facing the powerful ocean breakers, each surfer would also offer prayers to the gods, seeking protection and strength.
Although surfing declined in some Polynesian regions due to colonization and cultural changes, it thrived in Hawaii and experienced a revival in the early 20th century.
The involvement of the ‘Kahuna’ priests extended to the sacred craft of constructing surfboards for the upper class. This process encompassed cutting down a ‘Wiliwili’ tree and making offerings, such as a red ‘kumu’ fish, as a gesture of gratitude to the gods. These ancient customs remained integral to surfing until it reached its pinnacle of sophistication in the late 1700s.
Arrival of the European Explorers
The history of surfing took a turn with the arrival of European explorers in the Pacific. In the late 18th century, British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew encountered Polynesian surfers in Hawaii. Other explorers wrote about the art of surfing in Hawaii for their exploration journals.
European explorers (including Captain James Cook) made the first recorded sightings of surfing around the 1760s. By this time, surfing had reached its peak within Polynesian society.
Shortly after Captain James Cooks’s arrival, his journal ‘A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean’ made it back to England in 1780. Once published, Hawaii became every adventurer’s next voyage. Unfortunately, the newfound popularity and European contact were not good for the ancient Polynesian islands.
Surfing started to fall into a 150-year decline. The important spiritual traditions were deemed irrelevant by the new arrivals that forced a Westernized regime on these Polynesian societies.
The ‘haoles’ (non-natives) brought new languages, new religions, and new diseases to the islands. The number of natives drastically reduced from hundreds of thousands to just forty thousand. This oppression continued for over 100 years until the very early 1900s when surfing was reborn to the world.
In the early 20th century, a cultural renaissance known as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” began, which sought to revive and preserve traditional Hawaiian practices, including surfing.
George Freeth Jr., born on November 8th, 1883, in Hawaii, is widely regarded as the “Father of Modern Surfing.” During his youth, Freeth spent countless hours riding the waves of Hawaii, and it was during one of these sessions he caught the attention of American journalist John ‘Jack’ London. London vividly described their first encounter in his book ‘Surfing: A Royal Sport, 1907.’
With the decline in the practice of surfing among the native population, Freeth stood out as one of the few who still pursued the sport. After the publication of London’s book, Freeth’s fame skyrocketed, and he was sought after by businessman Henry Huntington.
Henry Huntington, an American businessman visiting Hawaii, owned properties along the Californian coastline and sought their success. Recognizing the potential in Freeth, Huntington convinced him to return to the United States and be showcased as the “Hawaiian Wonder.”
In 1907, Freeth altered the course of surfing history on the California coast. Twice a day, he would display his impressive surfing skills, captivating the imagination of onlookers. Before long, the wave of surfing started to sweep its way along the Californian coastline.
Not long after, surfing appeared in Australia, thanks in part to another man hailed as the “Father of Modern Surfing.” Following George Freeth Jr.’s introduction of surfing to California, Duke Kahanamoku, famously known as ‘The Big Kahuna,’ brought the sport to Australia.
Similar to Freeth, Duke was born and raised in Hawaii, embodying the essence of the ‘Aloha Spirit’ and possessing a deep passion for surfing. In 1914, Duke embarked on a journey to Freshwater Bay, Sydney, to participate in his inaugural surfing exhibition. There, Duke showcased his exceptional surfing skills, captivating the imagination of the locals. His newfound fame allowed him to tour Australia’s coastline, spreading the popularity of surfing wherever he went.
The collective contributions of both George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku had a huge impact on the world of surfing. Without them, it is uncertain what the future of surfing would have become. The surfing community will forever cherish their invaluable contributions and the roles they played in the resurgence of the beloved pastime.
Surfing Spreads Globally
The 20th century saw surfing gradually spread to various parts of the world. In the 1920s and 1930s, surfers from California started exploring the waves of Waikiki in Hawaii and brought their surfboards back to the mainland. Surfing gained traction in California, particularly in places like Huntington Beach and Malibu. Introducing lighter, more maneuverable surfboards made surfing more accessible and popularized the sport among a wider audience.
Evolution of Surfboard Design
This newfound popularity led to significant advancements in surfboard technology during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This thirty-year period witnessed a monumental shift in the history of surfing, marked by numerous innovations.
In the early days, surfboards were made from solid wood and were heavy and cumbersome. In the 20th century, surfboard shapers began experimenting with materials like fiberglass and foam, leading to lighter and more responsive boards. This allowed surfers to perform more advanced maneuvers and ride different types of waves.
The technological progress during this period made surfing more accessible, enjoyable, and affordable for the general public. Surfboards became lighter and more maneuverable, enabling surfers to push the boundaries of the sport.
With many of these innovations originating in California, the state quickly earned a reputation as a hub for surfing excellence.
Surfing Becomes Part of Pop Culture
Surfing has developed a unique culture and lifestyle over the years. Surfers embrace a love for the ocean, a sense of adventure, and a connection to nature. The culture surrounding surfing encompasses fashion, music, art, and environmental activism.
During the 1960s, the West Coast of the United States emerged as the epicenter of surfing culture, captivating enthusiasts from around the world. The allure of spending summers amidst the thrilling Californian breakers was irresistible. This sentiment reverberated through various forms of media, including film, music, and print, creating a vibrant celebration of the surfing lifestyle.
Surfing evolved into a competitive sport mostly in the 1970s. The first organized surfing competitions took place in Hawaii, with the Outrigger Canoe Club hosting the first recorded event in 1905. But it was only in the 70s that a new era of professionalism in surfing began. In 1976, the International Professional Surfers (IPS) was formed, which later became the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) and is now known as the World Surf League (WSL). Today, professional surfers compete in various events worldwide, including the Championship Tour (CT) and the prestigious Pipeline Masters in Hawaii.
Surfing’s Greatest Momentum
The 1990s and 2000s marked a significant era in the history of surfing, solidifying its professional status with the establishment of the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Tour. During this time, a remarkable group of surfers known as ‘The Momentum Generation’ emerged, led by the iconic figure of Kelly Slater. Their groundbreaking surfing film, ‘Momentum I (1992)’, showcased a new wave of exceptional talents, including C.J. Hobgood, Mick Fanning, Taj Burrow, Joel Parkinson, and Andy Irons.
This period witnessed a surge in competitive surfing, characterized by bigger turns, longer barrels, and an expanding repertoire of aerial maneuvers. It was a time when the history of surfing reached new heights of athleticism and excitement. At the forefront of this era was Kelly Slater, who not only achieved unprecedented fame through appearances in surf films, his own video game, and even Baywatch but also secured 11 world championships from 1992 to 2011. Slater’s dominance solidified his status as the greatest surfer of all time and elevated the sport’s popularity to unprecedented levels.
Amidst Slater’s remarkable achievements, another pivotal event occurred in that era. In 1995, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially recognized the International Surfing Association (ISA) as the governing body for surfing. This recognition brought surfing one step closer to being included in the Olympic Games. The efforts of newly elected ISA President Fernando Aguerre to advocate for surfing’s inclusion in the Sydney Olympics marked a significant milestone for the sport.
The combined impact of Kelly Slater’s unparalleled success and the prospect of surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics shaped the trajectory of the history of surfing, cementing its position as a global phenomenon and opening doors for its future growth and recognition.
What are the Forms of Surfing?
Surfing encompasses various forms and disciplines that cater to different styles, conditions, and preferences. Here are some of the notable forms of surfing:
Shortboarding is the most common and widely recognized form of surfing. Surfers ride shorter boards, typically 5 to 7 feet long, and perform high-speed maneuvers, quick turns, and aerial tricks. Shortboarding is associated with performance surfing and is often seen in professional competitions.
Longboarding involves riding longer surfboards, typically over 9 feet in length. Longboards provide stability and ease of catching small waves, making them ideal for cruising, noseriding (walking to the front of the board), and performing stylish and graceful maneuvers. Longboarding has a more laid-back and classic aesthetic.
3. Big Wave Surfing
It’s what it sounds like – it’s riding very big waves. It’s an extreme discipline that involves riding massive waves, often exceeding 20 feet (6 meters) in height. These waves are typically found in locations with powerful surf breaks, such as Waimea Bay in Hawaii or Mavericks in California. Big wave surfers require specialized equipment, physical fitness, and extensive knowledge of wave dynamics to navigate and survive in these challenging conditions.
4. Tow-in Surfing
Tow-in surfing is a form of big wave surfing that emerged in the 1990s. It involves using a personal watercraft (PWC) like a Jet Ski to tow the surfer into the wave at high speeds. This technique enables surfers to catch and ride waves that are too fast and powerful to paddle into, expanding the possibilities of riding larger and more challenging waves.
5. Stand-up Paddleboarding (SUP)
Stand-up paddleboarding involves standing on a larger and more stable board while using a paddle to propel oneself across the water. SUP can be practiced in various conditions, including flatwater, rivers, and even small waves. It offers a full-body workout and has gained popularity as a recreational and cross-training exercise for surfers.
Bodyboarding, also known as boogie boarding, is a form of surfing where the surfer lies on a smaller, more buoyant board, typically made of foam, and rides waves in a prone position. Bodyboarding allows for closer contact with the wave face, faster takeoffs, and specialized maneuvers like barrel rolls and flips.
7. River Surfing
River surfing involves riding standing waves found in rivers and tidal bores. Surfers use shorter and more maneuverable boards designed for river conditions. River surfing locations include Munich’s Eisbach River in Germany, the Severn Bore in England, and the Standing Wave in Bend, Oregon.
8. Tandem Surfing
Tandem surfing involves two people riding the same surfboard together. Typically, one person acts as the “base” by paddling and controlling the board, while the other person performs acrobatic and artistic maneuvers on the wave. Tandem surfing showcases coordination, balance, and synchronized movements.
Types of Waves Surfers Ride
No waves are the same, especially on different coasts around the world. Experienced surfers can ride all of them, though each has its own difficulties. Here are the types of waves that surfers ride:
- Rolling Waves – Rolling waves are the most familiar and preferred waves, as they break gradually and smoothly along the face. They provide a long, peeling ride, often associated with point breaks or well-formed beach breaks. These are usually a feature of a flat and sandy shoreline.
- Hollow/Barrel Waves – Hollow or barrel waves are also highly sought after by surfers. As they break, these waves form cylindrical shapes, creating a hollow space or tube. Surfers can ride inside the barrel, which is considered the ultimate challenge and thrill in surfing. Barrel waves are often found at reef breaks and can provide incredible tube-riding opportunities.
- Dumping Waves – Dumping waves, also known as closeout waves, are waves that break all at once. They lack a defined open face, making it difficult for surfers to find a rideable section. These waves can be powerful and steep but do not offer a prolonged ride. Dumping waves are a result of an abrupt change in the seabed.
- Surging Waves – Surging waves come with a sudden increase in power as they approach the shore. They surge forward with a burst of energy, often breaking abruptly. Large storms often produce these kinds of waves, and surfers can ride waves ahead of waves hitting land far away. Surging waves can be challenging to ride due to their intense power and rapid-breaking nature.
- Standing Waves – Also called stationary waves, standing waves occur when the wave energy interacts with an obstruction, creating a stationary waveform. Unlike typical ocean waves, standing waves do not move forward but remain fixed in one location. River and tidal bore waves are standing waves that surfers can ride.
- A-Frame – An A-frame wave is a wave that breaks evenly and symmetrically in both directions, forming a peak in the center. When viewed from the side, an A-frame wave resembles the letter “A.” A-frames can allow surfers to go left or right, offering versatility and the opportunity to perform maneuvers on either side of the wave.
- Mushy Waves – Mushy waves are characterized by their lack of power and steepness. These waves often break slowly and lack the energy and force of more powerful waves. Mushy waves can be suitable for beginners or for practicing maneuvers that require a slower pace, but experienced surfers may prefer more powerful and dynamic waves.
- Reform Waves – Reform waves refer to waves that break initially in a section that may not be ideal for surfing but then reform or reshape further down the line. As the wave continues to break and change, a more suitable section for riding may emerge. Surfers can adapt and adjust their positioning to catch and ride the reformed section of the wave.
It’s worth noting that while these terms are commonly used in the surfing community, wave characteristics can vary, and the terminology used may also vary among different regions and surfers. The specific terminology that describes waves can sometimes overlap or be subject to personal interpretation based on local surf culture and conditions.
Equipment Used for Surfing
Surfing requires specific equipment to enhance performance, ensure safety, and maximize the surfing experience. Here are some essential pieces of equipment used in surfing:
The surfboard is the primary tool used for riding waves. Surfboards come in various shapes, sizes, and materials to suit different wave conditions and surfing styles. Common types of surfboards include shortboards, longboards, fish boards, funboards, and more. The choice of surfboard depends on factors such as the surfer’s skill level, wave type, and personal preference.
Surfboards are usually hollow and weigh between 4 and 10 kilograms (9-22 pounds). They are usually constructed of man-made materials such as plastic and fiberglass. Most surfboards have slightly raised edges to help with balance. “Fins” beneath the rear of the board allow surfers greater control over their ride. Surfboards are divided into two models, longboards and shortboards. They are both about 5 centimeters (2 inches) thick and 48 centimeters (19 inches) wide. Their only major difference is length.
A longboard is typically about 3 meters (9 feet) long. The nose, or front part of the surfboard, is rounded. Longboards can be slightly wider and thicker than shortboards, making them more stable and buoyant (able to stay afloat). This stability serves two functions. First, it allows surfers to catch smaller, weaker waves. This makes longboards excellent tools for beginning surfers. Second, stability allows experienced surfers to perform more advanced maneuvers, such as walking to the nose of the board and “hanging ten”—curling all ten toes over the side.
Shortboards are about 2 meters (6 feet) long. They have a more pointed nose and usually have more fins than longboards. Their size and shape make shortboards less buoyant than longboards, which means the waves shortboarders catch must be strong and steep. Shortboards are much easier to maneuver. They are more difficult to ride but are popular because they allow surfers greater control.
Of course, there are as many types of surfboards as there are surfers: “funboards” (about 2.5 meters, or 8 feet long) bridge the gap between longboards and shortboards; “fish” boards have a split tail end; “guns” are teardrop-shaped and are ideal for big-wave surfing.
A surfboard leash, also known as a leg rope, is a cord attached to the surfboard’s tail and worn around the surfer’s ankle or calf. The leash prevents the surfboard from drifting away during wipeouts, allowing the surfer to retrieve it quickly. It enhances safety in the lineup and reduces the risk of colliding with other surfers or losing the board.
Wetsuits provide insulation and protection from cold water and environmental elements. They are typically made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber that traps a thin layer of water against the skin, which is then warmed by body heat, keeping the surfer warm. The thickness of the wetsuit depends on water temperature and personal preference. Surfers may opt for rash guards, board shorts, and surf bikinis instead of wetsuits in warmer conditions.
Surfboard wax is applied to the deck (top) of the surfboard to create traction and prevent the surfer from slipping off the board. It helps the surfer “stick” to the board. Wax comes in various formulas and consistencies, suitable for different water temperatures. Applying a layer of wax helps the surfer maintain grip and stability while maneuvering on the board.
Surfboard fins are attached to the bottom of the surfboard and play a crucial role in stability, maneuverability, and control. Fins help the surfer maintain direction and generate speed. They come in various shapes, sizes, and configurations, such as single fin, twin fin, thruster (three fins), quad fin, or even more exotic setups. Fins can be made from materials like fiberglass, plastic, or composite materials.
6. Traction pad
Also known as a deck grip or tail pad, a traction pad is a textured foam pad applied to the tail area of the surfboard. It provides additional grip and traction for the surfer’s back foot, enhancing control and maneuverability. These are especially useful for high-performance maneuvers and when surfing without wax.
7. Surfboard bag
Surfboard bags, also known as board socks or travel bags, are used to protect surfboards during transportation and storage. They provide padding and protection from dings, scratches, UV rays, and temperature fluctuations. Surfboard bags come in different sizes, from day bags for short trips to travel bags for longer journeys.
8. Surf goggles and gloves
These are special protective accessories for surfing. Goggles protect the eyes from the sun and from seawater, while gloves protect the hands and give them more grip when handling a surfboard.
Surfing Tricks and Moves
Surfing is an exciting action sport with tricks and moves for all experience levels. These tricks and maneuvers make surfers look cool and express their skill, style, and creativity. Here are some common surfing tricks and moves:
1. Bottom Turn
The bottom turn is a foundational maneuver in surfing. It involves a turn at the bottom of the wave to redirect the board back up toward the wave’s face. A well-executed bottom turn generates speed and sets up for more advanced maneuvers.
The cutback is a crucial maneuver in surfing that allows surfers to both reduce speed and change directions on a wave. This handy trick involves shifting your weight onto your back foot as you reach the top of the wave. Simultaneously, lower your left hand and dig the left rail of your surfboard into the wave. To change direction, turn your head and twist your shoulders towards the curl of the wave. By executing a cutback, you can transition from the wave’s shoulder to the steeper section or reposition yourself within the energy zone of the wave’s pocket.
3. Top Turn
The top turn, also known as a snap or off-the-lip, is performed at the top of the wave’s face. It involves a sharp, quick turn that redirects the board back down the face of the wave. Top turns can be combined with bottom turns to create fluid and powerful combinations.
4. Foam Climb
The foam climb is a maneuver that allows surfers to overcome a closed-out section, whitewater, or broken lip and connect the open-face portions of a wave.
The foam climb serves as a means for surfers to navigate through challenging sections of the wave and seamlessly transition between different parts of the wave’s open face. It requires technique, timing, and the ability to harness the energy of the wave to overcome obstacles and maintain flow during the ride.
A floater is a maneuver where the surfer rides up and over the breaking part of the wave instead of going around it. It involves riding along the whitewater or foam section of the wave, maintaining speed and control.
A re-entry is a maneuver where the surfer hits the lip of the wave with force and redirects the board back down toward the face. It is an explosive maneuver that often results in a spray of water.
Inspired by a skateboard ollie, surfers took this move and adapted it to surfing. An air or aerial maneuver involves the surfer launching into the air above the wave. This advanced maneuver requires generating speed, timing, and technique to execute tricks such as grabs, rotations, and flips.
8. Tube Ride/Barrel
This is every surfer’s goal – to ride inside the barrel of the wave. Also known as getting tubed or barreled, it involves positioning oneself deep inside the hollow part of the wave and riding through the tube formed by the breaking wave.
Carving refers to making smooth, arcing turns on the face of the wave. It allows you to change your direction when in the opening of the wave. Surfers use their rails to create flowing and stylish turns, maximizing the wave’s power and generating speed.
Reverse or 360 maneuvers involve rotating the surfboard and the surfer’s body in the air or on the wave face. These tricks showcase advanced aerial skills and require a combination of technique, timing, and control.
Surfing is more than just a sport or a hobby. It’s a way of life, a culture, a connection to nature, and a means of self-expression. It’s about challenging yourself, pushing your limits, and finding freedom in the ocean. Surfing has a rich and diverse history, from ancient Polynesian traditions to the modern-day global phenomenon it has become. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, surfing offers everyone something.