Surf History: How Surfing Came to Hawaii

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As cool and hip and cutting-edge as surfing is today, the sport has actually been around a long time

It's commonly accepted that the Polynesians first rode the waves of the Pacific Ocean for the sheer pleasure of it 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The Polynesians are referred to as "watermen" because of their expertise in swimming, boating and all things related to the sea. It's believed that surfing evolved when they parlayed their skills handling outrigger and double-hulled canoes into catching and riding the coastal waves using a single slab of wood, first body-boarding then standing.

Surfing in clear blue waters near the coast of Hawaii

Chairmen (and Women) of the Boards

Historians say the Polynesians brought the sport of surfing with them when they emigrated to the Hawaiian Islands around A.D. 400. Stand-up surfing was documented as far back as the 15th century in Hawaiian chants, called mele, which were sung by elders and passed on to succeeding generations as an oral history of their culture.

In the late 18th century, when British explorer Capt. James Cook landed in the Hawaiian Islands, along with Western missionaries, surfing seemed to disappear for a while. Some historians believe this happened because gambling was outlawed at the time and Polynesians had been fond of betting on the size of waves and the length of a ride.

Pop Passion

Of course, surfing wasn't suppressed for long. It reemerged and was introduced to America, Australia and Europe in the early 1900s, when the revered Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion, local surfing legend and all-around waterman Duke Kahanamoku toured the world. Another Hawaiian, George Freeth, the world's first professional surfer, promoted the sport by conducting surfing demos at California's Redondo Beach in 1907.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the surfing lifestyle of Hawaii, California and Australia was immortalized in popular culture in movies like Gidget and Ride the Wild Surf. In the 1980s, surfers looked to skateboarding and snowboarding to feed their passion when the surf wasn't up, substituting the street and the snow for waves, according to Tom Lochtefeld, founder of the California-based Wave Loch, Inc., and creator of the FlowRider® surf simulator. The sports have fed off each other, and all three claim millions of devotees.

Today surfing is more popular than ever, though ultra high-tech boards made from polyurethane and fiberglass long ago replaced the rigid, heavy wooden planks used by the sport's pioneers.

No matter how much the sport has evolved and changed, the point of it all is the same as it ever was: riding the waves for all you're worth.

Learn how to surf



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