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You know how children sometimes fail to understand the concept that their parents were once as young as they are? In a similar way, we tend to think of modern practices and institutions as, well, modern, rather than with the rich history most of them have. This mindset exists especially in the realm of sports.

Some sports you’re accustomed to, have origins in the 18th century. For instance, we actually have records of American golf clubs in the the early-mid 1700s. A similarly long history can be seen in the storied past of surfing across many societies.


Before it became the phenomenon it is today, surfing was part of both being both a hunter and gatherer, and it played a large part in many cultures. But the tides have turned (pun intended), and it’s grown as a tradition in Western cultures all around the world. To follow the journey from surfing’s inception, to its demonization, and finally to its return to fame, we must travel back to — you guessed it — the 18th century.

Surfing Back the Tides of Time

The art of “catching waves” was used by fisherman in Polynesia 3,000 years ago and possibly before that. It then eventually evolved into a sport for entertainment, as recorded by Western voyagers. In 1779, Lieutenant James King of the Discovery journaled two pages of what we would now know as surfing, as observed of the locals from Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island in Hawaii. Surfing for Life shares an excerpt from his reports:


A diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us'd to guide the plank, they wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. [sic]


Sadly, missionaries came to Hawaii and banned the sport within the same century. Their reasoning was based on the inappropriate nature of uncovered men and women surfing together — something Christians were very sensitive to back then. Because of this, there would not be a resurgence of the sport for several centuries.

Making Waves

So, surfing sunk for a few centuries. But on the shore, its return was being prepared, unbeknownst to society at large. Humans were still swimming, building, and utilizing boats, finding their place in relation to the ocean.


The 1900s saw a group of rebellious teens (known as the Beach Boys of Waikiki) bring the sport back, and it’s popularity boomed from there. By 1960, surfing competitions offered cash prizes to those who placed well. By 1976, the International Professional Surfers was founded, and we have never looked back.


This new attention allowed surfing to join the ranks of other water sports in popularity. By the late 19th century, swimming had become a sport in the Olympics, and other water sports were becoming popular, such as water polo in England. Because of this, the types of swimsuits created not only reflected fashion but specific needs for the sports.


This design philosophy continues to this day. If you take a look at any modern surfwear e-commerce page, you’ll find a wide variety of advanced swimwear. This includes booties, full suits, spring suits, jackets, and much more, all designed to help the human body in the middle of cold water and heavy waves. Our technology is better now, but other than that, it bears a lot of similarities to the swimming garments of the 18th century (though most of it was based on the idea of modesty rather than adaptation to cold water).

It’s History Now

Of course, now we fully recognize surfing as a professional sport. It has a place of importance in our culture. It may have taken us a while to get there, but thankfully we did. This is evidenced by surfing competitions covered on ESPN, ‘90s Disney Channel original movies like Johnny Tsunami, or Kelly Slater video games for those old enough to remember them.


On top of the sport’s resurgence are the health benefits of surfing. What was once demonized has now been shown to be good for people. For instance, when one is unable to cope with stress, it can affect one’s immune and reproductive systems. The exercise involved in surfing can help alleviate stress and aid in making a person well again.


In an article for Vice by Tess McClure that was published in 2017, analysts examined studies and interviewed surfers before coming to this conclusion:


Examining the science, there's more than a vague aura of surfer chill to indicate surfing helps your mental health. In 2010, the UK's national health service conducted a six-week trial teaching patients suffering from depression and schizophrenia. They found significant improvements in mood following the program, and particular leaps forward in self-esteem and ability to “have fun.”


So you can see, surfing is much more than something we enjoy; it’s a valid form of expression and exercise. Thankfully, we’ll be hard pressed to see surfing drowned the way it was back in the 18th century, though we’re proud to see history play out the way it did.


About the Author:

Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.