The Invention of Surfing

USA, California, Los Angeles County, Malibu, Surfer at sunset
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He’e Nalu and the Ancient Hawaiians

The question always arises: Who invented surfing? Well, that question is pretty much beyond our knowledge since there is no way to accurately trace the first ridden wave to one person, or as it turns out, one specific culture since the art of riding waves predates writing and recorded history. It seems archeologists have settled on two areas to begin official surfing history: Polynesia and Peru.

He’e nalu, which means “wave surfer” or “wave slider,” was first recorded by early European explorers. Some researchers place the first sighting of surfing in Tahiti in 1767 by the crew of the Dolphin. Others place the moment in the eyes of Joseph Banks, a crew member on James Cook’s HMS Endeavor during its historic initial voyage in 1769 and his “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1779, we see surfing in writing described by Lieutenant James King in the diaries of Capt. Cook. Surfing was also described by early explorers in Samoa and Tonga. Later, many landmark authors would go on to write about this ancient art including Mark Twain and Jack London.

But who invented surfing? We know very little about the early years of surfing since as missionaries took on their task of converting the “savage” natives, they also forbade such frivolities as wave riding, and the art became lost by the start of the 20th century.

We do know that surfing was literally the sport of kings as the royal Ali'i class claimed the most valuable beaches and rode the most beautiful boards. Riding the heavy wooden boards took both strength and skill. Prowess on the waves translated to respect and stature on land.

In fact, the art of surfing was never considered frivolous by the ancient Hawaiians.

Surfers saw it as a ceremonial communion with the ocean. Boards were made from koa, wiliwili, or ‘ulu, and board types included the alaia and the ‘olo. All these boards were finless and flat and difficult to handle due to their immense size.

If we have to pin the invention of “modern” surfing, it might be Irish Hawaiian waterman George Freeth, who became enamored by his family’s surfing roots and began a revival of sorts. He cut down the size of the traditional Hawaiian boards and worked for a time giving surfing exhibitions to tourists to California. So in some ways, George Freeth invented surfing.

Origins of Surfing Peru

Other archeologist and historians point to pre-Inca Peru on the Northern coast. The Moche culture has been attributed with small reed fishing boats called caballitos used for traversing the large ocean swells and then presumably riding them back to shore. If this is true, this would place Peruvian surfing generations before the Polynesians. However, with evidence that the Polynesians and Peruvians did make contact at some point in the pre-colonial era, the question as to who really invented surfing gets very unclear. For non-surfers, this argument may seem pointless, but for surfers who see the art of wave riding as a spiritual and cultural touchstone, laying claim to the invention of surfing is an important one.