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History of Surfing

Updated on May 27, 2010

Surf riding was a favorite pastime of the ancient Polynesians who inhabited the islands in the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Tahiti and who are believed to have brought the sport to Hawaii. The English explorer Capt. James Cook witnessed the sport when he discovered the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands in 1778. He wrote in the ship's log that as the surf broke in Kealakekua Bay, native persons on boards "place themselves on the summit of the largest surge by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity toward the shore."

With the arrival in 1820 of New England missionaries, who frowned on the nakedness of surfers and on the gambling that frequently accompanied surfing contests, the sport died out. Its renaissance began in 1908, when Alexander Hume Ford founded the outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu to foster surfing and canoe riding. Tourist interest, plus the efforts of Duke Kahana-moku, a champion surfer, helped to spread the sport to the West. Surfing developed slowly, however, the major drawback being the long (14-18 feet or 4.25-5.5 meters) and heavy (about 150 pounds or 56 kg) redwood boards that few surfers could handle. With the introduction in the 1940's of light balsa boards and, in the mid-1950's, of polyurethane foam boards, which are easily carried and are more maneuverable in the water, interest in the sport grew rapidly throughout the world. Hawaii remains the center of surfing and offers the most challenging waves. A high spot in the career of any surfer is to travel to the North Shore of Oahu during the winter and early spring and contest the heavy swells that roll down on Hawaii from the North Pacific.

The sport of surfing is governed in the United States by the Western, Eastern, and Hawaiian surfing associations. These organizations conduct a series of United States competitions on the East and West coasts and in Hawaii, and winners participate in a biennial world contest. Surfers in competitive runs are judged mostly on form and skill. Officials award points for takeoff, turns, length of ride, and difficulty of wave selected. Judging is done from the beach. Other countries with nationwide programs include Peru, Australia, France, Ireland, Mexico, Britain, and South Africa. The first world competitions were held in Manly, Australia, in 1962.

In body surfing, the swimmer strokes hard down the face of the wave just as the wave begins to break. With one arm and body fully extended or with both arms at his sides, he slides down or across the face of the wave much the same as a board surfer.

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