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Surfing History by Chris Ahrens

Posted on October 22, 2014

A Short History of Surfing

Surf history is an expansive, cloudy subject that quickly fades from HD video, to dull black and white images into a hazy world of folklore with few definitive statements. The following words are distilled from numerous books and magazines, but mostly they are secondhand stories and firsthand observations from over half a century of surfing.

The oldest surf story known dates back around 500 years and concerns the Maui chiefess Kelea. I never even knew her name until recently, but it was another woman, born centuries later that would ignite my generation as Gidget led me and millions of other boomers to the waves in 1959.

Initially surfing for me was a counterpunch to the overwhelming stimulus of a new sport, a new sound, and a life I never even suspected existed. By the time I entered high school I was obsessed with riding every break in California, and soon expanded my dreams to include the world when Bruce Brown became my travel agent.   I must have been in the sun too long, because I was blind to a history far older and richer than any American sport. To my arrogant mind my peers and I had discovered real surfing, and all who preceded us were essentially kooks. The idea of learning surf history in my youth was about as appealing as learning ancient history from a schoolbook. My world revolved around all the fun I could squeeze from the newly invented foam surfboard.

The Beach Boys may not have all been surfers, and they often seemed to miss the biggest set waves of youth culture, but they were dead right when they sang, “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.” If you’ve ever surfed, you realize they nailed it.
Still, neither they or even the great Dick Dale could point the way out of the barrel, and it would be decades before I realized that surfing was far older than what my father and his surf buddies did on wooden planks at Santa Monica in the 1930s. Even that seemed almost like a different sport to the turns, cutbacks and noserides my generation was practicing. 

When I finally did attempt tracing surfing’s origins everything evaporated into a world beyond film and even written language. Still, in time I came to believe that surfing was as natural as falling off a log and that the first humans probably paddled those logs out to sea and enjoyed the rush of being pushed back to shore by whitewater. If that is so, which it likely is, surfing is actually as old as humanity itself. While this is mere speculation on my part actual proof of surfing’s antiquity exists in 4,000-year-old carvings from Chan chan, Peru, where it is believed people from that country sailed to Tahiti to become the island’s first settlers. It I also fairly certain that the ancestors of these Tahitians found their way to Hawaii and were among the first to ride the perfect waves that would make Hawaiian surfing a natural and national pastime.  While the aforementioned story of Kelea is mythical, many historians believe that men and women surfed in equal numbers in ancient Hawaii. When surfing was revived in the early 1900s, however, it returned as a Western activity, compete with Western ideas of sexism in sports, something that essentially relegated woman to the shore until fairly recently.  Because of this modern surfing was raised by single parent Duke Kahanamoku with no idea of who its mother was. As an Olympic star the Duke was able to spread the word about surfing far beyond his Island home. Thankfully by Duke’s time we had good cameras and sharp pencils to record surfing.

When I finally grew up and became interested surf history I went back about century beyond my time, until I faced a few scant paragraphs penned by non-surfers, empty pages and contradictory facts. My frustration had about peeked until one evening in the early ‘90s. I rose from dinner at a restaurant in Waikiki to admire one of Duke’s wooden boards, wondering about that sturdy vehicle when I was jarred awake by a familiar voice. Turning around I was greeted by Duke’s star pupil, Rabbit Kekai. Rabbit motioned toward Diamond Head while offering a living history lesson that surpassed all the surf books I’d ever read. “This board used to be solid wood and weighed over a hundred pounds,” said Rabbit, rapping it with his knuckles, revealing a hollow sound. After it was hollowed out it only weighed about 75 pounds. That’s when I won the Diamond Head paddle race on it. I can still remember returning to shore with Duke standing right there in the sand, cheering me on.” With that, Kekai walked on to join his dinner companions, never realizing that his few words forever turned a tattered sketch from the past into a 3-D feature film as I visualized a robust and youthful Duke Kahanamoku sliding for over a mile on this very board as a child called Rabbit awaited his turn in the shore break.  It’s possible Rabbit was riding that very board in a 1930s newsreel of him surfing Waikiki, weaving through a pack of stationary riders, frozen on their “logs.” Rabbit, who has surfed for around 90 years, influenced everybody who ever saw him, including all of the kids who rode his wake at his home break, Queen’s. Premier among that ‘50s crew were Donald Takayama, Paul Strauch and Joey Cabell. They in turn influenced the next generation of Queen’s surfers, including noseriding king David Nuuhiwa, Pipe Master Gerry Lopez and power broker, Barry Kaniaupuni. 
Next up were Larry Bertlemann and Montgomery “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, whose low rotational styles proved directly influential to today’s top surfers. Using shorter boards than most anyone in the mid ‘70s, Bert and Buttons pushed their boards deeper onto the rail and further up the face than ever before, launching into previously impossible moves like 360 degree turns.

It was around this time that surfers who had been bred in the relatively isolated outpost of Australia arrived on Oahu’s North Shore to begin a competitive dominance that has yet to wane. The Aussies may not have been superior surfers to the Hawaiians, but they were far more seasoned competitors to surfers who traditionally took a much more relaxed approach to wave riding. Where the surf media sold the mantra “Rip, tear, lacerate,” Hawaiians and to a lesser degree Californians were generally more concerned with the art of soulful flow. And while the newcomers did take away most of the hardware in the ‘70s, one still has to wonder if the results would have varied if the new Hawaiians had been raised in a more competitive environment.

One of the biggest inventions in the surfing world more resembled a toy than a surfboard. The Morey Boogie, which was developed solely by Tom Morey in the early ‘70s featured the first soft materials and zero learning curve. Because of this and it’s low price, the Boogie has probably brought introduced more people to waves than any single device in history. The Boogie also led to the development of the full-sized soft surfboard when Morey and legendary surfer Mike Doyle collaborated on a board that would eventually become the prototype of today’s department store, entry-level surfboard, which now speckles most lineups.

When pro surfing was launched in the mid 1970s California pearled on takeoff, and went from the top of the heap in the ‘60s, to a competitive joke, Except for the women’s divisions initially dominated by Margo Oberg, few U.S. males ranked anywhere near the top. Of course were numerous world-class surfers in the Golden State, but most of them were riding boards in the ‘7’6” range, while the average Australian surf star was riding something a full foot shorter. Also, U.S. surfers generally lacked contest experience in a time and place when competitive surfing was nearly considered counter revolutionary. It got so bad that by the time the Australian backed Stubbies contest was held at Black’s Beach in 1979, anti contest forces had torched the porta potties, and there was a sniper was stationed on the cliff with a 22 caliber rifle, apparently ready to fire some warning shots (I’m giving him he benefit of the doubt here) at contestants before Newport competitor Lenny Foster boldly disarmed him.

Undeterred by the naysayers, surfers came in droves from as far north as Santa Cruz where Richard Schmidt and Vince Collier represented the new wave, and a young Dave Parmenter proved there were hot surfers in the nearly unknown Central Coast town of Cayucos. Surfers from Santa Barbara, Orange, LA and San Diego Counties came together for the first time in ages, as California surfers again proved themselves worthy of center stage. But it would require Australian surfer stars Peter Townend and Ian Cairns to really rev up the competitive machine in the U.S. as they took charge of the National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) and helped train a new crew of future pros, not the least of which was then future multiple World Champion, Santa Barbara’s Tom Curren. Internationally, mid eighties surfing was dominated by Curren in California, while fellow Californian Joey Buran managed to crack the top 16 a few times. Hawaiians Dane Kealoha and Johnny Boy Gomes ruled Backdoor Pipeline while Australia’s Tom Carroll demolished Pipe, until his countryman, Mark Occhilupo, upstaged him. South Africa’s Martin Potter ripped into a world title, and while not as famous as some on the list, his influence would prove profound in Southern California where Matt Archbold, Dino Andino and Christian Fletcher followed him into the sky. Meanwhile, the surfer who many consider the father of aerial surfing, Kevin Reed, was flying above the crowd in wilderness locations north of Santa Cruz.

The nineties were a parade for the ages as longboards returned in force, making smaller waves more accessible. Some of the longboarders from the ‘60s like Nat Young, David Nuuhiwa, Herbie Fletcher and Dale Dobson dusted off their acts while a pre-teen Joel Tudor took notes from ‘60s surf movies, and began a sort of Karaoke of Nuuhiwa at first, until Tudor had eventually polished his act and beaten the old masters at the game they had taught him. It all came down one day at an Oceanside Longboard Club Contest where 13-year-old Joel put his legendary audience on alert with his turns, cutbacks, precocious style and brilliant noseriding. There were others in the mix too, but most of them were riding long tri fins in a progressive fashion. And so it was Joel’s nearly solitary act that gave young surfers permission to sneak back in time and ride boards their parents had stashed in the rafters more than decade earlier.

Perhaps even more surprising than Tudor’s debut, was the East Coast invasion where a place not known for its waves, Florida, would eventually produce the top competitive surfers in the world. Amazingly world champions Frieda Zamba, Lisa Anderson, CJ Hobgood and history’s most dominant competitor and arguably greatest surfer, Kelly Slater, were among them.  But surfing’s family tree was splintering by the Slater era, with Kelly being the newest growth on the performance branch while the longboarding Tudor on a heavy longboard, and then Laird Hamilton on a board with a paddle, went the other way. Stand Up Paddling (SUP) fueled a debate in surfing as hot as the issue of gun control among the general population. There is not enough room here to discuss the conflict, but it could be summed up by saying that opponents see SUPs as offering their riders an unfair wave catching advantage, while proponents see them as an evolutionary inevitability and something offering the freedom to ride whatever they like in the lineup. While this conflict would normally work itself out as experienced SUP riders yielded way to those with an obvious paddle disadvantage, the SUP has proven a feeder pond to inland masses who arrive on the coast without the slightest idea of a millennia of surf etiquette. Now, the buzz of motorized surfboards can be heard as it is every decade or so, something that if they catch on could turn a spark of discontent into a forest fire.

All vehicles have their place in the ocean, but some might be best used beyond already crowded lineups where they can enjoy the vast resources of an ocean big enough to accommodate anyone on anything. Competitively speaking that brings us to the present where Slater remains in the hunt for his 12th World title. But there’s so much more going on than what brilliant Aussie goofyfoot Wayne Lynch once termed “Gaudy Metal and Ego Trips.” Surfing for the average rider has been radically altered by the consistent refinement of wetsuits, the introduction of shaping machines, molded boards and discount stores selling surfboards for a hundred bucks. What were once secrets are now blurted out around the world after being well documented by video cams and wave-hungry explorers. Surf brands appear in department store windows in Omaha. And yet even with all this pressure on a limited resource clued in surfers can still find a few waves alone from time to time.

"Don’t hog all those darned waves."
Duke Kahanamoku

Surfing has never been so popular or so diverse as it is now, with women claiming their rightful place in the lineup, SUPs making their stand, longboards filling in the gaps on small days, tow ins taking Everest sized drops, kids carving harder and blasting higher than ever, and alternative wave craft via the Alaia and the Paipo returning us to our roots while we race forward at the same time, on smaller, lighter surfboards.

These are exciting times in surfing, with great challenges and opportunities. My hope is that we all learn to share our precious, delicate and limited resource, and that artificial waves and artificial reefs open up endless gardens of delights for us, our children, and our children’s children. I further hope that we cease battling each other, and unite against our true enemies, the polluters. Surfing is a gift as old as humanity and as new as John John Florence’s future great, great grandchildren, who will someday discover surfing for themselves and feel like the first ones to be “sittin’ on top of the world.”

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