Surfing is one of the most popular water sports in the world, with surfers from all over hitting the waves either for fun or competitively. Surfing has grown massively in popularity since its invention, influencing everything from tourism in coastal towns to entire sub-cultures stemming from its tenets.
But just who invented surfing? That’s actually a hard question to answer for several reasons. But don’t worry – this article will take you through everything you need to know about the history of surfing, from the sport’s origins to the inventors of its modern-day iterations.
So let’s get started, shall we?
The Origins Of Surfing
We don’t know the exact date that surfing was invented. This is because the sport started long before proper records even began.
The first evidence of people surfing comes from ancient Polynesia, and more specifically from Hawaii. Ancient Polynesian cave paintings depict people riding waves, and surfing as we know it today dates back to around 400 CE Hawaii.
In Polynesian cultures, surfing holds more significance than just a sport. Surfing also held a lot of religious and spiritual significance in Hawaiian culture. Crafting a surfboard in particular was seen as a spiritual process, and talented surfers were held in high regard by their communities.
Surfing started to spread around the world in the mid-1700s, where British explorers visiting Polynesia witnessed local inhabitants riding surfboards.
And as the rise of international travel made it easier for people and cultures to expand, surfing also began to extend its reach around the world.
So Who Invented Surfing?
Because of how surfing has evolved since its origins, it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly to credit with inventing it.
While the concept of surfing first began in ancient Polynesia, the form of surfing we know today has changed a lot since then.
As surfing spread outside of Polynesia, it changed and evolved. When surfing began to gain popularity in California at the turn of the 19th century, it brought with it some changes to how surfing was viewed and done.
So if surfing wasn’t invented by ancient Polynesians, who came up with it? That’s where the confusing part comes in. If we’re looking at surfing from modern standards, there are several people who could be credited with its invention.
Modern surfing came into being in the late 1800s to early 1900s, where Hawaiian surfers brought the art to the US.
California was introduced to surfing towards the end of the 19th century. Early records of surfing in the US point towards a group of Hawaiian princes studying at a California boarding school as some of the first surfers in the US.
David Kawananakoa, Jonah Kalaniana’ole, and Edward Keli’iahonui surfed on hand-made surfboards, catching the attention of onlookers who had never seen surfing before.
Kawananakoa and Kalaniana’ole are also thought to have brought surfing to the UK, where they taught their professor John Wrightson how to surf while at Downton Agricultural College.
George Freeth is often regarded as the ‘Father of Modern Surfing’, as well as the creator of the original longboard. Freeth surfed in front of audiences to bring more visitors to Redondo Beach in Los Angeles, helping to popularize the sport in the US.
At the same time, legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku was also introducing surfing to the beaches of California. Kahanamoku was an Olympic swimmer as well as a surfer, and he traveled around the world giving swimming and surfing exhibitions.
This helped to make surfing popular globally, and started the mainstream growth of surfing outside of Hawaii.
There are also other ancient cultures who also surfed along the surface of water, although in a different way and for other reasons.
For example, ancient cultures in modern-day Peru also used surfboards made out of reeds as far back as 200 CE. However, this form of ‘surfing’ was primarily used for fishing, and riders would sit on the rafts instead of standing.
So as you can tell, it’s difficult to come up with an answer for who first invented surfing. Because surfing has changed so much, both in terms of its cultural significance and the way it’s performed, there isn’t really one set answer as to who created surfing.
Surfing In The Modern Day
The sport of surfing today is very different from how it first started. That said, a lot of surfing’s history is still present in the modern day.
Surfing, both recreational and competitive, is a massively popular sport in many parts of the world. Warmer coastal regions in countries such as Australia, California, and Morocco are famous for their great waves and large surfing competitions.
In the US, ‘Surfer culture’, a subculture defined by a passion for surfing and a laid-back lifestyle, has steadily grown with the sport’s popularity. While surfer culture originated and is still most predominantly in California and Hawaii, it has since become more common in the rest of the US and beyond.
Although surfing has lost much of its spiritual significance as it spread throughout the world, many of the core aspects of surfing still exist within the sport.
The same reverence and respect for the waves are present in modern surfing, while not necessarily for the same religious reasons as early surfers. Surfing can be dangerous, and respect and love for the ocean are important when going onto the water.
Surfers also still compete to demonstrate their skills, and surfing competitions are some of the most popular aspects of the sport.
The legacy of early influential surfers still lives on, too. One of the biggest surfing competitions in the world is The Eddie Big Wave Invitational (nicknamed ‘The Eddie), named after legendary Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau.
Other famous surfers such as Duke Kahanamoku are also commemorated by surfing competitions named in their honor.
Surfing is a sport with a rich and fascinating history. While there isn’t one specific person we can credit with inventing this iconic sport, we can still see how surfing has evolved since its origins.
From the first surfers in ancient Polynesia to the Hawaiians who popularized the sport worldwide, there are plenty of people to thank for bringing this amazing art to the world.