Bodysurfing, which obviously came before surfing, is the oldest form of catching waves. If you can believe it or not, bodysurfing has likely been around since humans first began swimming in the ocean.
Stand-up surfing is a relatively “new” innovation (in comparison to bodysurfing) that the ancient Polynesians first began playing around with. Still, surfing has actually been around for quite a long time. The act of riding ocean waves with a wooden board first began in Western Polynesia over 3,000 years ago.
Fishermen would catch waves as a super-efficient way to haul their heavy catch into the beach. Back then, surfing was a purely aristocratic pastime: the royal, ruling class had the best boards made from the best trees, and got pick of the best waves at the best beaches. Commoners were forbidden from surfing these beaches, but they could gain favor and prestige in the eyes of the royals with their awesome shredding abilities. It was all about practice!
If a surfer wanted a board, he would have to dig the tree out of the ground himself. Then, selected craftsmen would be hired to do the rest of the board’s preparation. This included shaping and staining.
These Polynesians were most likely the first to bring the stoke of surfing to the islands of Hawaii when they first settled there. In ancient Hawaii, surfing was more than just recreation: it was a way of life. Surfing was used as a way to keep the chiefs in peak physical shape. It was also a form of conflict resolution: the upper classes could test one another’s skills in the surf in competitions for wealth, pride and even love. Called “he’enalu”, which translates to wave sliding, the upper classes were usually the most skilled at surfing. Hawaiians crafted and used four different types of boards to shred with:
The Polynesians typically rode the Alaia (ah-lie-ah) on their stomachs or knees, making it the first known bodyboard. These boards eventually evolved into the modern Paipo board, which were made of wood or fiberglass. In 1971, surfing legend Tom Morey designed the modern bodyboard you see today. Bodyboards can be ridden in a number of ways, including prone (stomach), dropknee, stand-up and even plank position.
Favorite ancient Hawaiian surfing and bodysurfing spots included Kahalu’u Bay and Holualoa Bay, both found on the Kona coast of the big island of Hawaii.
The first historical records of surfing did not appear until the late 1700s, when European explorers first made contact with the Polynesian people on the island nation of Tahiti. It was aboard the HMS Endeavour that the British Captain James Cook detailed, in writing, how a Tahitian native caught waves with his canoe just for the fun of it.
California first caught a glimpse of surfing in 1907 when Hawaiian George Freeth visited to demonstrated surfing and lifeguarding skills for the opening of Henry Huntington’s new railroad (Huntington Beach, anyone?). East Coast surfing started in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1912 when James Matthias Jordan showed off to the locals by riding his massive 110-pound Hawaiian redwood longboard.
Hawaiian Olympic swimmer and water polo player Duke Kahanamoku exposed Australia to the sport during his surfing exhibition in 1914 at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach. Kahanamoku crafted the board he used at the exhibition himself from a piece of pine.
At the start of the 20th century, Hawaiians in Wakiki began reviving the sport of surfing. With the help of Duke Kahanamoku, surfing began to gain worldwide exposure. The innovations in board shape and design that took place during this time helped form surfboards into what they are today. Surf culture films, like Gidget, and beach style surf music, like The Beach Boys, helped rocket surfing to a new popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Much as they did back then, surf documentaries help us track the evolution of the sport, and is still a main way in which surfing grows.
While bodysurfing and stand-up surfing have been around for a few years, handboarding/handplaning is a much newer craze. Some handboard prototypes were being sold as far back as the 1970s, but the sport of handplaning didn’t really take off until about five years ago.