There are over 20 million surfers in the world, with some estimates putting that figure at over 35 million. But who invented the sport; to whom do those millions owe their favorite pastime?
Early History of Surfing
The sea is a devastating force. It has destroyed both real and fictional civilizations and has killed many explorers, adventurers, and even entire armies. Humans have always been wary of its power, but we’re also drawn to it.
If not for their key location in the Mediterranean, the Minoans, Myceneans, and eventually the Athenians wouldn’t have been as powerful or influential. For our ancestors, it was unpredictable and destructive, but it was also an essential source of food and trade.
It seems natural to suggest that our close association with the sea, along with the mastery possessed by civilizations in Greece, North Africa, Italy, and Polynesia, means we’ve been surfing for thousands of years.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that pre-Incan cultures used single-person watercrafts similar to what we now know as surfboards.
The Greeks and Romans didn’t have much to say about the practice, but there’s a good chance that other civilizations adopted similar habits. After all, if they didn’t write about it or depict the activity in engravings and drawings, we don’t have any way of knowing. Most crafts would have been made of wood, and wood decomposes after just a few hundred years.
Of course, early humans didn’t use these crafts for sport. If anything, they would have been used as simple fishing boats, ones that were easy to build and allowed the user to straddle the board and fish with a spear. They may also have been used to cross small stretches of water, as they would have been much cheaper and more convenient than large rowboats.
First True Surfers
The first record of actual surfing, as we know it today, was documented during the travels of James Cook. In the 1760s, when Cook’s ship the HMS Endeavour was docked in Tahiti, one of the crew wrote that the locals would “[swim] out as far as the outermost beach” with the stem of an old canoe, climb into it, and then face-off against the breaking wave before being “hurried in with incredible swiftness”.
The practice was also observed in Samoa and Hawaii, with the latter more closely associated with surfing.
The Hawaiians are believed to have referred to the tradition as an art form or even a spiritual practice, one they called “He’e Nalu” or “Wave Sliding”.
We don’t know a great deal about the early history of surfing in Hawaii, but there’s a good chance that they were doing it for many years before Europeans landed on their shores. After the arrival of Europeans, the practice remained popular in the region, but it took over 100 years before the sport made its way to the United States.
Surfing in the United States of America
There are reports of three Hawaiian princes surfing in California as far back as 1885. They used custom-cut boards to surf the San Lorenzo River and may have been the first surfers in the country.
Over 2 decades later, George Freeth demonstrated the sport as part of a publicity stunt at Huntington Beach Pier, and likely played a massive role in introducing it to the American public.
Freeth was an American of Hawaiian descent and was actually born in Oahu, making him the perfect spokesman for surfing. Unfortunately, he died just 12 years later aged 35—one of the many casualties of the Spanish Flu pandemic.
In 1909, Burke Haywood Bridgers was one of the men to introduce surfing to the East Coast of the United States while Duke Kahanamoku became one of its biggest advocates.
Kahanamoku was a Hawaiian swimmer who won gold medals at the 1912 and 1920 Summer Olympics, before turning his hand to surfing. He toured the world giving surfing exhibitions and was instrumental in taking this sport global.
Surfing gained popularity as an international sport during the first quarter of the 20th century. Advocates campaigned for it to appear at the 1920 Olympics but they were ultimately unsuccessful. In fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that surfing was finally slated to appear at the Summer Olympics, although the pandemic ultimately put a stop to that.
Summary: Who Invented Surfing?
As you can see, there was no point at which surfing was officially “invented”. The person who first decided to ride the waves has been lost to time, but we do know that Hawaiians played the biggest role in bringing this sport to the United States and then the world.
We also know that George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, Burke Haywood Bridgers, and three Hawaiian princes (Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana'ole, David Kawananakoa, and Edward Keliʻiahonui) all helped to take surfing global.