Top 5 Most Influential Surfers of All Time

Okay, this was tough. To boil down a century of influential wave riders into some tiny little super list is impossible. It became a massively incomplete judgment shaped by my narrow experience. Once I made my list, I realized first that I left out Australian surfers completely. Nat Young Nat Young or Michael Peterson were on my longer list in terms of their influence and performance during their eras.
Also, I failed to include any women. Phyllis O'donnell and Lisa Anderson were also on the longer list. Let’s face it. I probably left off your top choice. Phil Edwards? Christian Fletcher ? If so, let me know. If you disagree, explain to me who should instead be included on this list? Or is it heinously ridiculous to even attempt such a list?

Regardless, here is my criteria:

I chose these top 5 surfers based on their influence on the overall sport and culture of surfing, not just during each surfer’s particular time period but rather on surfing as a whole. For example, Tom Carroll was/is an incredible surfer and 2-time world champ, but he did not change the sport. He did not change style, culture, or push performance (although a case can be made for his approach to Pipeline).

#1. The Duke

Born August 24th, 1894 in Honolulu, Duke Kahanamoku went on to become the undisputed father of modern surfing.
Although Hawaiians had been riding waves since before the arrival of Captain Cook, Duke exposed the sport to the rest of the world. After winning a gold and silver medal in swimming at the Stockholm Olympics, he traveled the world and subsequently introduced surfing to the East Coast, Australia, and New Zealand, demonstrating his talent and spreading Aloha to scores of enthralled spectators.

Duke went on to win another Olympic gold and silver medal and solidified his waterman status by rescuing eight fishermen at Newport Harbor, riding one of the longest waves in history (reportedly a mile long) in Waikiki, and being inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame and Surfing Hall of Fame.

Duke fraternized with dignitaries, royalty, movie stars, and, of course, some of early surfing's greatest athletes and craftsmen.Greg Noll called Duke "...a hero to your hero's heroes," and Surfer magazine named him Surfer of the Century. Surfing as we know it today began in the spirit and beneath the feet of Duke Kahanamoku.

#2. Kelly Slater

It’s amazing how one athlete can redefine the boundaries of a sport. Tiger, Jordan, and Tony Hawk have set standards others can only dream of reaching. In this dramatic fashion, Slater closed the book on the old school, and wrote a new chapter only he could conceive. Just before annihilating the status quo, Slater snaked and slid to victory at Trestles with such speed and precision the world was aghast. Then on the pro tour, he rose through the ranks and disposed of the veterans with ease. Some responded with anger and fear while others realized the inevitable was upon them.

Building on Curren and Potter, Slater combined contest strategy, fitness, and super natural talent to inspire three successive generations and garner 11 world titles. He has acted on Baywatch, cut a studio CD, dated a Hollywood sex kitten, and won every major surfing event on the planet.

Kelly has redefined the limits of performance, career, age, and has influenced style, maneuvers, and design.

#3. Tom Blake

Born in Milwaukee in 1902, Tom Blake went on to become famous and eventually change the face of surfing forever. While life guarding in 1924, Blake took up surfing after proving himself as a talented swimmer and all-around waterman, even competing against the Duke. Once surfing was injected into his blood, seasonal trips to Hawaii were the norm.

Besides his contributions through surfing performance, it was surfboard design that cemented his place in the history of surfing. The solid redwood surfboards during Blake's time were extremely cumbersome (long and heavy), but Tom experimented with hollow boards that might lighten the surfing load. He built the first hollow board in 1926, lightening the standard board a whopping 60 pounds.

This led to a spike in surfing performance and helped the surfboard become basic equipment for lifeguards.

Tom Blake further added to his legacy by winning the initial Pacific Coast Surfriding Championships in California in 1928 and even took part in creating the first waterproof camera in 1930, and if that weren't enough, Tom Blake later became the first to attach a fin to a surfboard.

#4. Tom Curren

On his road to his first two world championships, Curren's clashes with young, upstart Mark Occhilupo became legendary. To this day, any surfer form the 80's will remember these shattering moments that were plastered across magazine pages and immortalized in videos.

Competitive greatness was not Curren's swansong. Instead, he fashioned a path that would lay the groundwork for many of today's pro careers.

He grabbed his guitar and embarked on boat trips to unsurfed wonderlands and let Sonny Miller film them and package them as The Search series, a beautifully filmed journey spiced with jazz and rock tunes(some of which were performed by Curren himself). Tom Curren carved the hop and pop contest routine of the 80's into a stylish journey of talent and class.

In 1990, Tom Curren roared back to competition, laying claim to the first event of the year at the Coldwater Classic to make a red hot Gary Elkerton look shaky and rusty in comparison. He surfed through the trials of every event that year to convincingly win a third world title.

Curren’s style was emulated by an entire generation (most notably by a tween-age Kelly slater) and his approach to surfing and music as a career changed the sport of surfing itself, opening new avenues and options for professional surfers.

#5. Laird Hamilton

Laird Hamilton has changed many aspects of surfing as we know it. Not only is he a phenomenally talented big wave rider who in the 90’s redefined what was possible in the 30-plus range, but with his work and innovations in tow-surfing gave surfers the option to ride waves that were up to that point unthinkable. He launched the SUP movement and thus created an entire sub-genre of wave riding. He pioneered Maui’s premiere big wave spot: Jaws, and he re-imagined the path of a professional surfer by choosing big corporate sponsorship like Honda and American Express over surfing’s resident companies like Billabong and Quiksilver.

Hamilton’s performances at Jaws and Teahupo are historic. His design innovations have changed the way was ride waves in a profound way.