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colorful surfboards While surfing has been around since the 1800s, it wasn't until movies like the Endless Summer and the Beach Boys' song "Surfin USA" that the surfing culture — and personality — was born.

Surfing traces its roots to Hawaii, where Captain Cook's 18th century expedition discovered the natives surfing on oval planks of wood.  Lieutenant James King, an officer on this voyage, wrote the first known account of these Hawaiian surfers in the ship's log.

A century later, in 1885, surfing came to America when three Hawaiian princes attending St. Matthew's Military School in San Mateo, California, came up with a creative use of their free time.  Using surfboards made of local redwood, they rode waves off Santa Cruz's San Lorenzo River.

After the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898, surfing received quite a bit of press.  It was covered in several magazines, newspapers, and travel guides, and the first clubs that recognized the sport were formed.  In 1907, an Irish-Hawaiian surfer named George Freeth showed his stuff on Redondo Beach to a crowd of delighted onlookers as part of a publicity stunt that introduced a new train line.

Surfing was brought to the United States' East Coast by Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku.  After winning two medals in Stockholm, he surfed for the crowds in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  It was on a victory tour for the 1920 Olympics that he met Wisconsin resident Tom Blake.

ocean surfing in Kauai, Hawaii
Ocean surfing on a blue wave
Kauai, Hawaii
Inspired by Kahanamoku, Blake headed to Hawaii where he spent all of his time paddling, swimming, and surfing.  On a trip to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, he discovered some ancient surfboards and made replicas of them.  Today, these hollow paddleboards are best known for saving lives.  In fact, it was Blake's innovation that saved the lives of eight people in the 1920s, and further raised people's awareness about surfing.  During the 1930s, more surf clubs were formed, and Blake patented and produced another hollow surfboard design.  The first mass production surfboards were also made during this time, by Meyers Butte at his family's Ready Cut Homes factory in Los Angeles.

World War II more or less put a stop to surfing, with relatively few surfers enjoying the waves during this period.  However, material developments made during this period helped spawn the evolution of the modern surfboard, when Bob Simmons created the first surfboard layered with balsa, foam, and fiberglass.  Initially built for his girlfriend, this new type of surfboard was much more maneuverable than those of older designs.

The first surf shop was opened in Manhattan Beach, California, in the early 1950s.  Others soon jumped on the bandwagon, including Hobie Alter and Dave Sweet, who eventually designed surfboards of fiberglass and foam; and Jack O'Neill, Bev Morgan, and Bobby Meistrell, who were the first to design wetsuits specific to surfers.

In 1959, the first West Coast Surfing Championship was held at Huntington Beach.  Just a year later, the sport was so popular it warranted its own magazine, and The Surfer was founded.  The United States Surfing Association was founded in 1961, and soon signature clothing and apparel lines were springing up specifically for surfers.  By the end of the 1960s surfing was a business, and those who used to just surf in their spare time were suddenly making money doing it through prize money and product endorsements.

In 1967 and 1968 surfing evolved yet again when surfers decided to cut two feet from the front of their boards, giving birth to what is known today as the shortboard.  In 1976 the International Professional Surfers were formed, allowing those that surfed an easier venue to enjoy surfing while getting paid.  The first nine men to win the title of World Champion hailed from the Southern Hemisphere, but the first American, Santa Barbara's Tom Curren, took the title in 1985.  American women, on the other hand, took the first 12 world titles.

By the 1980s, a surfboard design called the "thruster" was popular.  This surfboard was short, lightweight, and wide-tailed, and had a pointed nose that lifted upward and three fins.  The three fins allowed surfers even more maneuverability, as well as better trajectory.

While surfing had traditionally been portrayed in the media as a male sport even though many women participated, that changed in the 1990s with Florida's Lisa Andersen.  Andersen not only won four women's titles in a row, she also made women's surfing more commercial and respected.

Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, at the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse Today, the sport of surfing continues to evolve as surfers find bigger and more remote areas to surf.  In 2001, a group of surfers tested the boundaries of the sport by surfing 50-foot waves in the middle of the ocean, out of sight of land.

Surfing Historical Exhibitions

  • The Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, located in the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse, traces more than 100 years of surfing history in the Santa Cruz, California area.
  • The California Surf Museum, in Oceanside, California, highlights the history of surfing in San Diego County and documents the art, culture, and history of surfing as a lifestyle sport.
  • The East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of surfing on the eastern seacoast of the United States.

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History of Surfing