The Sport of the Gods:
The Historical Adventure of Surfing

Michael Cobb

The history of surfing is well documented, and due to commercialization and media in the United States, it has become, world-wide, the most popular water sport and lifestyle.

Surfing is an old sport. Its actual beginning is unknown because it is so old. It is, however, known that it began in Polynesia. Most people are under the impression that surfing originated in Hawaii. The truth is that the Hawaiians were people who, based on the similarities of cultures, are believed to have crossed the ocean in old outrigger canoes to Hawaii from Tahiti and Bora Bora. Since the early Polynesians had no written language it hard to know exactly what their history is. We can only come to our conclusions of their origin by the evidence that we have. (Dixon 20)

Surfing was the Polynesians most popular sport. Long before white men discovered the sport, competitions were held and much gambling was done. In the ancient Hawaiian and Polynesian way of life, nakedness, adultery, sexual freedom and all kinds of sports and games were loved.

Captain James Cook, a British explorer, discovered Hawaii in 1778. He and his crew were the first westerners to witness surfing. In his log, Captain Cook gave a description of the scene. After describing the scene of men an women riding the face of great waves on planks of wood, and the skill in which they did it, Cook wrote, "The boldness and address with which we saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was astonishing and is scarce to be credited." (22)

Cook's discovery lead to the arrival of Christian missionaries to Hawaii. They believed that the Hawaiians way of life was evil and surfing was included. The missionaries traveled all over the islands teaching the Hawaiian people about western ideas and beliefs. They succeeded in the conversion of many Hawaiians.

Probably one of the biggest successes of the missionaries was the conversion of Queen Kaahumanu by Hiram Bingham.

In 1810, Kamehameha I took over all the Hawaiian Islands and declared his kingdom which lasted until 1893 when Queen Liloukalani was dethroned. (Compton's 58-61) King Kamehameha and his wife Kaahumanu were incredible surfers. The king had private beaches. Violation of these beaches was forbidden on pain of death. Kamehameha and his queen ignored the missionaries. After the kings death, Kaahumanu took over as the kingdoms ruler. (Compton's 26)

The new queen came under the influence of a man named Hiram Bingham, who was a missionary. The Queen and Bingham became close friends. She even had a house built for him next to hers. They were seen together often and eventually Kaahumanu was converted to Christianity.

As was mentioned earlier, the cultures and traditions which the Hawaiians held so dearly, including surfing, were considered evil and an abomination to the Christians. As a result of Kaahumanu now holding Christian beliefs, all the Hawaiian cultures and traditions were banned. The hula was done away with, surfing banned, nakedness illegal, and adulterers were banished. Hawaiian hearts were literally broken and many deaths resulted. (27)

Surfing was almost destroyed forever. The young king Kamehameha III made a short attempt at reviving the Hawaiian way of life. He was unsuccessful. ( 28) He did, however, grant a constitution for the kingdom of Hawaii in 1840. (Compton's 91)

Nearly 50 years after Kamehameha III's attempt to revive the Hawaiian culture, the new king, David Kalakaua, succeeded in restoring the hula and then all of the other traditions and cultures of his Hawaiian forefathers. In a short while Kalakaua succeeded in getting rid of all the bans on their culture. Unfortunately, after Kalakaua's death in 1891, his wife, Liliukalani took over the rule of the kingdom. (Dixon 28-30) She tried to abolish the constitution granted by Kamehameha III. In 1893 Liliukalani was dethroned. A new government took over. (Compton's 58-59) Surfing again declined but only for a short while because by this time a few white men had begun to surf. (Dixon) One of these white men was Mr. Jack London.

In 1900, Hawaii was annexed by the United States of America. This was a time when surfing, although renewed, was weakly established. Tom Blake, an American surfer of the 1920's had this to say about surfing at the turn of the century, "Down through the ages surf-riding probably varied in it's degree of popularity. It is most certainly a sport of peace and prosperity and we definitely know that after the invasion of Oahu by Kamehameha I in 1795 the practice of surf-riding declined, so that around 1900 the long board was a lost art." (42 - 43)

The sport of surfing had some real pioneers in the 1920's and through the 1950's. A couple of these 20's pioneers were Tom Blake and Sam Reid. In the 30's, some men like Whitey Harrison, Pete Peterson and Gene "Tarzan" Smith were added to the list of surf pioneers. In the 1940's we got guys like Joe Quigg, Tommy Zahn, Matt Kivlin, Melonhead, Dave Rochlen, Woody Brown and Buzzy Trent. All of these early pioneers are "legendary surfers" today and probably the best known of them are Tom Blake, Woody Brown and Buzzy Trent. (Gault) There was also one more person who used to surf with Woody Brown who although he isn't listed among the "legendary surfers", every surfer knows his story- that was Dickie Cross. Dickie Cross was a young surfer in the 40's who was a good friend of Woody Brown. Dickie was killed by a huge wave, well over 20 feet high, between Sunset and Waimea, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii. His death, or actually the story of it is probably one of the best known surf tales. (Brown, Woody 53 - 87)

The men listed before the legendary surfers are the guys who fathered modern day surfing. These guys liked big waves and they lived at Makaha, Oahu for awhile exploring the island. In the 1930's Whitey Harrison and Tarzan Smith sent a message to the guys at Makaha to get to the North Shore as soon as possible.

The waves at the North Shore were awesome. At the time Makaha was the main big wave surf spot, but that later changed and the North Shore of Oahu became and still is the big wave surfing capital. Here is an old quote by Tom Blake in the 1930's,"The art of the coming back and the future will see contests and surf-riding that will rival any that took place for the old Hawaiian kings." (Gault)

Mr. Blake was right, but although surfing was gaining popularity rapidly on Hawaii, it was in California where surfing did all its major growth as an industry and life style, with a lot of Hawaiian influences mixed in.

George Freeth was a California surfer who had spent a lot of time in Hawaii in the early 1900's before returning to the mainland. He did several demonstrations of surfing in 1907 at Redondo Beach, California and it kind of spread from there. At that time there weren't many surfers. Buzzy Trent and Woody Brown weren't even anybody yet and the California surf population was something like 3.

These were just the beginnings of California surf. The real surf boom in California happened n the 1960's. The boom was due to several things, a few of which were the book, "Gidget", by Fredrick Kohner was written in 1957 and highly popularized the sport, The Beach Boys, a surf rock band from the 50's was huge and putting out the songs on the top of the charts, and also by the people who were attracted by the "hang loose" attitude of the surfer life style.

"Todays surfing is a high gross business activity. Surfing is national magazines, T.V. shows, records, clothes, and a new vocabulary..." wrote Peter L. Dixon, in his 1966 book entitled, "Men and Waves". (Dixon 12)

In January, 1960, John Severson founded Surfer Magazine, the first magazine dedicated to surfing. (Gault) About the same time Gidget was made into a T.V. show, and the motion picture industry was practically swimming in surf films. Probably the most famous 60's surf film was Bruce Brown's "The Endless Summer". On top of magazines and shows, surfers had their own style of clothes, Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals. They even had their own vocabulary, with words like, "dude", "radical", "hang ten", "totally". An expert surfer was a "hot dogger" and a beginner was a "gremmie". The surf music was a new thing with a sound that everybody loved. The "Ventures", "The Sandals", and "The Safari's" were only a few of the popular surf bands of the 60's.

People no longer surfed on heavy wooden boards in the 1960's. Boards were fiberglass and foam boards that were much lighter and easier to maneuver than the old style of board. In the 1960's there were four countries where people were surfing and on both U.S. coasts.

In the early 1960's the first U.S. Championships in Huntington Beach, California, took place. (Gabrielson, Interview) "I surfed in it my first time about '65 or so..." recalled Bruce "Snake" Gabrielson, a high esteemed surfer of the times, in an e-mail to me in March 1999. "The emphasis on contests was way different back then."

By the 1970's things only grew bigger in the world of surfing and some changes occurred too. "It has been a long time, but I think the first big money event in surfing may have been the Smirnoff Pro-Am at Pipeline, I believe around 1970 or 71." (Gabrielson, Interview)

The short board evolution in Southern California was the product or more like the result of a 1960s local beach law in California. During the summer in Huntington Beach there was no surfing allowed after 11:00am. The knee boarders were allowed to be out as long as they stayed in the outer breaks and their boards were shorter than 4 ft. In the spring of that year, David Nuuhiwa and his buddies, Bruce Gabrielson and Chuck Ray were getting sick of watching the waves go to waste to the knee boarders. David took a broken long board and cut to 3'11". He then glassed on a fin to it and hit the waves. The other surfers who were still out of the water, watching, cheered. The lifeguards eventually called David out of the water to get his board measured. The problem with David's board was that the fin was really weak and kept breaking off, so Snake (Bruce) and Chuck shaped a 3'11" board straight from a blank. This was the beginning of the super short board. (Adreena 1) The short board caught on really quick. By the 1970's the short board completely took over.

In the fall of 1966, Bruce Gabrielson, who carries the nickname "Snake" or the "Huntington Snake", and Chuck Linnen attended a meeting in Mission Bay near San Diego, California, as representatives of California State University Long Beach (Long Beach State). Several other California colleges were represented at the meeting as well. The purpose of this meeting was to organize a "competition league for college surfing clubs", in the words of Snake. (Gabrielson, Ch. 1, School Surfing)

"The League was called the Western Inter-Collegiate Surfing Council. Each team was to initially be made up of six competition members. Matches were to consist of 3 heats with four surfers in each. Each school was mandated to establish their teams and have their teams ready to compete as soon as a schedule could be finalized for spring." Explained Snake in his book, "The Complete Surfing Guide for Coaches. The surf league didn't even get official recognition at first, but Snake worked hard and in 1967 surfing was finally recognized, officially, as a school club at Long Beach State. (1 - 2) This was the beginning of college surfing.

In 1971, Bruce helped establish High School surfing. Snake talked with the principal at Edison High School Huntington Beach, California, and got approval to set up the program. In 1973, Bruce moved on and became the varsity surf coach at Huntington Beach High School. That year held he held the first tryouts for the varsity surf team. "This was the first officially recognized and sanctioned high school varsity surfing team in the United States." - Bruce "Snake" Gabrielson. The teams became the first people in the United States to earn a varsity letter in surfing. (3 - 7)

Besides the huge growth in competition that surfing went through, the commercialism of surfing grew too, and continues to grow today. During the 1970's several new surf equipment companies were founded. Some of the major companies were Quicksilver, Rusty, OP (Ocean Pacific), Rip Curl and O'Neill. These companies produced and still produce today, all kids of surf equipment, clothing, accessories and other things like surf boards, shirts with company logos, wetsuits, hats, sunglasses, wallets, watches, and more.

In 1971, Tom Morey invented a new kind of board. The boogie board. (Brown, Bruce) The boogie board is a short foam board on which a person rides along the waves on their stomachs. On the days when the surf isn't great for surf boards, it isn't uncommon to see surfers riding boogie boards as an alternative ride.

Today a person can walk into any shopping mall in America and find at least one store where surf brand clotheslines are advertised and sold. Instead of mentioning the sport of surfing and having the people give a confused look and ask what it is, a person can expect anyone to know what surfing is. In fact if anybody didn't know, they are likely to be asked where they're from, Mars or something. If you walk into a video rental store, it is likely that you can find a whole section set up for surf films. The same goes for book stores and magazine stands. Surfer Magazine still exists along with several other competitors.

One of the main things that makes surfing stand out form other sports is the fact that it is a lifestyle as well as a sport. Most surfers live near the beach, which makes good sense. Surfers wear surf clothes and have a spiritual respect for the art. Unfortunately, it's the spiritual side of surfing has been dulled by commercialism and the media, yet there are those who still respect the art for what it is, just like the early legendary surfers did. Today surfing is enjoyed in over 500 countries, in fact, every place that has a coast line is surfed. (Brown Bruce) The sport has come a long way since the revival at the beginning of the century, when only a few men had the guts to challenge Mother Nature. "Surfing had taken a new least on life. Tourists caught fire at the sight of our demonstrations offshore, and they spread the word everywhere they went" (Gault), said Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer who helped spread surfing in the early years. This quote has more meaning today than it ever did before because they did spread the word and surfing has become a huge American lifestyle and a hugh American industry since the early 1900's, but in the words of Peter L. Dixon, "...Strip away the commercialism of surfing, and it is still the adventure that has drawn people to the sea throughout the centuries. The feeling one gets from riding a ten-foot wave is a great adventure all wrapped up in a seconds brief slide across a moving wall of blue-whitewater." (Dixon 12)

Works Cited

The Endless Summer II. Dir. Bruce Brown. Newline, 1994

Cameron, Adreena, Human Movement Essay. Online.

Brown, Woody, "The Death of Dickie Cross." Surfer October 1993: 53 and cont'd on 87.=20

"Hawaii, " Compton's Encyclopedia. 1987 ed.

Gabrielson, Bruce, The Complete Surfing Guide for Coaches, Chapter 1, How Organized School Surfing Started. Online. Available

Dixon, Peter L. . Men and Waves. New York: Coward - McCann, Inc., 1966

Gabrielson, Dr. Bruce, Surfer and Author, Personal interview. 8 March 1999.

Gault - Williams, Malcolm. Legendary Surfers. Online. Available o6.shtml.1996-98