How Surfing Conquered The World

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Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing. Bishop Museum Archives, via LA Times

The ocean has always been a curiosity and inspiration, even to those who have been around it their whole lives. Its crystalline waves give, take and give back in a way that still holds as much mystery now as it did centuries ago. The world over, hundreds of thousands of people everyday enjoy the swirling playground the water provides, but no activity is more iconic or storied than surfing. While perceptions of surfing are often limited, with many seeing it simply as an extreme water sport, the art of surfing dates back centuries. Though documentation is limited, oral histories from dozens of cultures along the Pacific Ocean detail the sport’s long history. 

The earliest written documentation of surfing comes from a journal from English botanist Joseph Banks, who was aboard HMS Endeavour. On April 13, 1796, Banks penned the first anthropological exploration into the natives of “Otaheite,” the island now known as Tahiti. Banks’ account is reflective of its time; it’s colored by an attitude of European imperialism and littered with grammar and syntax errors. Despite this, Banks’ journal helped to shed some light on a culture that held a unique reverence for the ocean. On May 29th, 1769, Banks and his companions came to a beach with high waves, pebbled sand and huge outcroppings of sharp rocks. It was here that he first noted surfing:

“In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their cheif amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness.”

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While a European explorer made the first known account of surfing, the sport’s modern popularity is owed to the islands of Hawaii. For Hawaiians, the practice was not simply a fun activity, but a spiritual practice. From the construction of the board to the break of the wave, every aspect is considered to be an exploration of the primal connection all people born on the island share with the ocean. For these reasons it should not be any surprise that it was a native Hawaiian who took this isolated practice and transformed it into the sport it is today.


Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) is considered by many to be the father of modern surfing, the original “Big Kahuna.” Kahanamoku was a Hawaiian native and Olympic swimmer who conducted surfing exhibitions after his Olympic career. In 1925 Kahanamoku, while working as a lifeguard in Newport Beach, CA, saved the lives of 8 fishermen. He used his surfboard to swiftly ride in and out of the waves and ferry the men to safety. It was then that surfing gained more fame. Kahanamoku’s exhibitions, business connections, and savvy networking created the first modern surfing practices and laid the groundwork for modern competitions. 

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The earliest known photo of a surfer, 1890. BNPS, via Daily Mail

Today, of course, it’s not hard to find a surfer fine-tuning their craft along any coastline. LA-based surfer Kari Dahlgren approaches surfing as both an exercise and as a way to relax. The relaxation, of course, doesn’t come until you’re comfortable in the ocean. “When you’re learning, it’s very scary to get picked up by bigger waves, and if you doubt yourself for a second, you’ll fall hard. So learning to trust yourself [is] a difficult step that gets [easier] with practice.” As for why she got into surfing, Dahlgren said it was “because the ocean has always been my first love.” Noting the sport’s restorative properties, she adds “It’s very healing to me … it has provided me so much emotional support and I don’t know what I would do without it.”

Today, surfing has attained worldwide recognition, with competitions spanning the globe and casual surfers wherever there’s a shore. This is because surfing, while difficult, is very simple. All the essential elements are a board to ride on, waves to break, and determination. It is this fundamental fact that pushes surfers to ride more and more dangerous waves such as Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, California, The Banzai Pipeline of Oahu, and the Silver Dragon on the Qiantang River in Eastern China. Such places serve to make the sport more challenging, yet at its core surfing is simply an ongoing dialogue between humanity and the water. Wherever there are waves, there will be surfers there to ride them. 


Article by Kai King-Blow