Arts in Perspective

Amanda Morton

The people of Hawaii introduced Western society to surfing when Captain Cook sailed into Kealakekua Bay in 1778. Since this discovery western society has thought of surfing as an interesting pastime/hobby, a sport, and an alternative lifestyle and has developed surfing into a multi-million dollar industry. Due to these developments surfing has become an accepted subculture in today's society as Peter Dixon states "Today's surfing is a high gross business activity. Surfing is national magazines, TV shows, records, clothes and a new vocabulary," (1966). This paper will discuss how the surfing subculture has developed by looking at the language, clothing, music, and lifestyle and how several subcultures have developed in the surfing culture itself such as longboard riders, short board riders and the admittance of women into this culture. Finally this paper will look at the perceptions society has of surfing culture.

Duke Kahanamoku (right) introduced surfing to Australia in 1915, however the surfing culture did not take off until the early 1960's when surfboards were being mass-produced from polyurethane blanks and surf music such as "The Beach Boys" "The Venturers", "The Sandals", "The Safari's", Little Patty and Col Joy became popular. As well as surf movies such as "The Endless Summer" and TV shows such as "Gidget" which was adapted from the book written by Fredrick Kohner were being released (Cobb, 1999). Thus making the surfing lifestyle not only appealing to Australian youth but accessible.

The surfing culture has developed it's own form of language which has meaning only to the members of the surfing community, thus successfully excluding itself and it's members from the wider society. Though the majority of the surfing vocabulary is universal such as floater, re-entry, close out and beach break, many other terms have relevance to surfers of a particular country, state or beach. An example of this would be a surfer from the south coast of N.S.W. saying he/she was going to surf the boneyard, which is a surf spot at Jones Beach in Kiama N.S.W. This term however has a totally different meaning to a surfer from California U.S.A. where this term boneyard means the area directly in front of a closeout (Surf Culture Orange County).

A surfer's language can also determine his position in this culture and the competence level that he/she has achieved. It is easy for other members of the surfing culture to recognise whether or not the person with whom they are speaking, to be an experienced surfer or beginner by the language he/she uses during their conversation. This is shown in the example of an experienced surfer's description of surf spot:

"Elands starts as a big peak when it's working properly at medium tide. Although you wouldn't feel bad riding Elands from three to ten feet either Glassy or with strong offshores, six feet is perfect and a slight offshore is a bit more comfortable. As the peak moves over the outside shelf and starts to feather, hand in unless there are eight foot sneakers, because the peak holds and holds until, nearly vertical, it hits the inside reef."

"Then, with one or two strokes you are suddenly on the peak along with the Wall swinging in from left field to surprise you before you notice the Transition. Plenty of time to go high or stall on the peak, even turns and Cutbacks possible here, whoops-not too low, plenty-kelp, it will cut you like a Scythe if you go real low. Quickly, now as the wall begins to act like a wall, all peak, characteristics are suddenly forgotten as it begins to peel and you start to move, hollow but mellow and sooo long you just cannot believe it. Go ahead, get behind it, even if you are a regular this wave is so perfect and God-like that it forgives you, nay it allows you to be an idiot, kook, a fool, and still not get hurt. If you know what you are doing."

"Eland's can be the highlight of your life. It is so clean, so perfect you feel it's over too quickly. Then you begin the long paddle back out, past the perfect little right peak that no one surfs if Elands is on, past the inside lineup where you thought you'd eat it but didn't, past the inside takeoff point where you can get into the wall faster, all the way out to where the big peak and the wall meet and create a left so pure that surfing it is an honour."
(French, 1976, p 73-74)

A surfer can be identified easily by the way in which they are dressed. Over the years the surfing culture has developed an individual dress code or uniform of it's own. This uniform is usually boardshorts, surf T-shirts, Hawaiian shirts, Batik shirts, jeans and particular brands and styles of shoes. Boardshorts were initially designed to be worn while surfing but have now evolved into an essential component of not only the surfers casual everyday wardrobe but of the wider society as well. The surf T-shirt was developed originally as an advertisement for surfboard manufacturers and as a way for surfers to show their affiliation to a particular manufacturer. Today's surf shirts are not only used as advertisements, they are often art works in themselves, depicting the perfect wave, the latest surf competition, or board riders club (Gabrielson, 1991). Hawaiian and batik shirts are often worn by surfers on account of them being associated with the two places on earth where the majority of surfers aspire to surf, those being Hawaii and Bali.

The surfer's uniform has lead to the development of a multi-million dollar surf clothing industry with companies such as Quicksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong leading the way. As in other areas of fashion the surf clothing is always changing and evolving. These surf-clothing companies have made the surf culture accessible to all areas of society even if they don't surf. By donning the uniform a person in Mt Isa can feel they are a part of the surfing culture. It is now possible to walk into any shopping centre in the majority of countries around the world and be able to find a shop which advertises and sells surf brand clothing (Cobb, 1999).

Even though the manufacturers of surf clothing need to sell their products to the general public as well as surfers to be profitable, these companies try and remain detached from society. As is often displayed in their advertising and motto's such as Billabong stating on all their products that "only a surfer knows the feeling".

The development of the new short board in the late 1960's created a sub-culture within the culture of surfing. This change however did not happen overnight, there were many surfers who rejected this new style of surfboard, as they believed the short board was not as effective in poor quality surf and harder to paddle (Cameron, 1998). Eventually two groups of surfers were formed, those who surfed using the original longboard and those who surfed with the new lighter short board.

These two groups are still evident in today's surfing culture but the situation is in reverse with the majority of surfers using the short board and the minority using the longboard. These two groups often are very competitive and often have beaches where they surf as an unwritten lore of the surf culture. The surfers must be aware of local surf lore for them to be accepted into the surf culture of the area (Hull, 1976).

The development of the shorter board also made the sport of surfing available to women due to the fact that the new short boards were lighter and less cumbersome than the original long boards. Also because boards were lighter, boards were more maneuverable in the surf.

The entrance of women to the surfing culture dismissed the view that surfing was a male-only domain (Cameron, 1998). Though the usual gender issues that arise with the inclusion of women to a male dominated sport were not as apparent in surfing as they have been in other sports. The reasons behind this is that the women surfers are generally well respected for their surfing ability by their male counterparts (Jenkins, 1997). As was stated by Kylie Webb, a internationally ranked woman surfer "Once you hit the water, it doesn't matter whether you are male or female" (Parry, 1994).

Society has generalised perceptions of the surfer and the surfing culture, as was made apparent to the author when discussing perceptions of the surfing culture with family and friends. Some common negative perceptions were youths, blond hair, unemployed, drop outs, suntan, and finally drugs, while the positives were professionals, sport, healthy lifestyle and recreational satisfaction.

Many of these negative perceptions in the past have been perpetuated by the mass media, with it's depiction of the surfer being an uneducated, unemployed, drug taking, blond haired youth. Where in reality some surfers do use alcohol and marijuana but rarely do surfers use the harder drugs such as heroin as it would most definitely effect their ability to perform in the surf. This would make the individual less inclined to surf, resulting in the exclusion from their surfing group (Hull, 1976). Though in reality many people who surf are middle aged professional people who have never used drugs.

The mass media in recent times have begun to give coverage to surfing as a sport ever since the early 1970's when professional surfing first began. The public perception of surfing began to change when they were able to see and appreciate both the skills and lifestyle of the surfing culture. Media coverage enabled the society at large to see that world surfing champions such as Mark Richards and Kelly Slater were not the stereotypical uneducated, unemployed, drug taking, blond haired youths that society perceived surfers to be. Thus giving the surfing culture an acceptable identity in today's society.

The evolution of the surfing culture from the stereotypical surfer to the respected athletes of today has occurred due to society's accepting and embracing the language, clothing, music and lifestyle of this culture. As is shown by every child in recent times shouting "cowabunga", or the fact that the majority of us in society have in our wardrobe's a pair of board shorts or surf shirt. We in society are able to acknowledge and understand many of the signs of what a surfer is: i.e. roof racks on a car lead us to the assumption that the owner of this car could be a surfer (Hull, 1976). Surfing has lead to the development of other sports and subcultures in today's society such as skateboarding, snowboarding, wind surfing, and body boarding. As Mike Doyle states "Surfing is more of a lifestyle and if you're really serious you build a lifestyle compatible with your loves and ambitions".


Cameron, A 1998, Human Movement Essay,

Cobb, M 1999, The Sport of the Gods: The Historical Adventure of Surfing, http://molasar,

Dixon, P 1966, Men and Waves, Coward McMann Inc, New York

Doyle, M, Surfing - A Lifestyle,

Gabrielson, B 1991, History of Huntington Beach Surf Clubs, http://Molasar.BlackMagic.Com/ses/book/his-b.html

Hull, W 1976, A Sociological Study of Surfing Subculture in the Santa Cruz Area,

Jenkins, M 1996, SurfGirl Magazine, March 1997, Volume 2, Issue 3

Perry, G 1994, Stoked! Real Life, Real Surf, Allen and Unwin, N.S.W.

Surf Culture Orange County