A Brief History of Surfing’s Origins and Evolution

While surfing has exploded globally as an action sport in recent decades, its roots stretch back thousands of years in Polynesian culture. Here’s a look at surfing from its beginnings to modern times.

Ancient Hawaiian Origins (1000-1700 AD)

Polynesians settling in the Hawaiian Islands likely developed surfing recreationally soon after arrival. Wooden planks called “alae” were the earliest known surf craft.

Established as an Important Part of Oceanic Culture

Surfing held religious/competitive importance with kings and chiefs partaking.

Captain Cook’s Arrival in 1778

The British explorer provided first written European account of native Hawaiians riding waves for fun on long wooden boards alongside canoes.

Surfing Introduced to the Western World

Though it did not catch on immediately outside of Hawaii at this point.

Whalers, Missionaries and 19th Century Royalty (1800s)

During whaling/missionary boom, some foreigners tried surfing. King Kalākaua helped popularize sport among Hawaiian elite on shorter plank boards.

Surfer Subculture Gains Steam in Hawaiian Society

Though still very much culturally tied to island lifestyle.

Duke Kahanamoku’s Legacy (1900s)

As the first surf champion and Olympic swimmer, he taught surfing around the world, inspiring the modern era. “The Father of International Surfing.”

Spread Aloha Spirit and Surfing to Masses

Pierced seeds of today’s multibillion dollar industry.

Balsa Wood Boards and Waikiki (1910s)

Lighter redwood/balsa boards under 7ft emerged. Muscle Beach crowds in Waikiki grew sport’s California beach popularity.

Beginnings of Modern Board Design & Continental Surf Culture

Pioneered by George Freeth and others.

Tom Blake, Hot Curl & Woodies (1920s)

Innovator crafted redwood hollow balsa boards enabling younger generation in SoCal and Hawaii to ride waves standing up.

Key Transition to Modern Stance and Technique

Popularised modern shortboarding essentials like “hot curl.”

Surf Clubs, Contests and Films (1930s-60s)

Early clubs, mags and films aidedocore following. Tom Wolfe won first documented contest in Plymouth, MA.

Underground Culture and Ethics Established

Pre-commercial “soul era” cemented sport’s roots.

The Modern Surfing Era (1960s-present)

Innovation of balsa/fiberglass boards by Hobie, Rycraft and others spurred explosion. Sport democratized and took off worldwide as recognized multibillion dollar industry and lifestyle.

Frequently Asked Questions

What materials were original surfboards made of?

Wood, usually redwood or cedar, sometimes with balsa strips for lighter weight.

When did surf brands like Quiksilver emerge?

Quiksilver started in 1959 but most big brands didn’t boom until the 70s/80s with increased pro surfing circuits.

When was surfing added to the Olympics?

It debuted at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with competitions in longboarding and shortboarding.


With roots thousands of years old in Polynesian culture and constant evolution driven by pioneers and shapers, surfing has grown into a global sensation while maintaining ties to its spiritual beginnings. Innovation and community keep its ancient soul thriving for generations to come.

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