In Tahiti, writing in his journal after having watched surfing for the first time, Capt. James Cook “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” Other newcomers to Polynesia in the 18th and 19th century — explorers, traders, missionaries — also noted the powerful effect surfing had on natives, particularly in Hawaii: entire villages stood empty during a good run of surf, island priests tried to conjure up better waves by thrashing the water with vines and chanting invocations, and the local mythology included tales of surfing-based romance, conquest and treachery.
Western-borne disease and missionary edicts nearly wiped the sport out, but in Waikiki during the early 1900s it again flourished. Until World War II, the surfer was generally thought of as dashing and heroic: the Olympic gold medal swimmer Duke Kahanamoku was quickly enshrined as the noble-visaged Father of Surfing, while in California and Australia the sport was closely associated with lifeguards. Most surfers rode a heavy solid wood “plank,” although the lighter “cigar-box” hollow board was also popular. Turning wasn’t possible, so the performance standard had a lot to do with striking manly poses, although experts were able to ride on a diagonal across the wave.
Surfing’s gravitational center moved after the war from Hawaii to Southern California, where the sport had a makeover that included new materials (fiberglass, polyurethane foam), new design features (nose lift, the stabilizing fin) and new riding techniques (bottom turns, cutbacks, nose-riding). The beginnings of a surf industry took shape: do-it-yourself surf movies toured up and down the coast, surf shops opened, surf magazines debuted, and wetsuits and surfwear were introduced.
In 1957, a Viennese-born émigré named Frederick Kohner wrote “Gidget,” a lightly fictionalized account of his teenaged daughter’s recent summer on the beach at Malibu. The book made the best-seller lists, and the 1959 like-titled movie was an even bigger hit, which in turn helped launch the surf boom of the early and mid-60s.
The surfing population during this time skyrocketed from a few thousand to an estimated half-million, and the sport earned — or endured, depending on your point of view — a long embrace from the culture at large, with surf music hits by Dick Dale, the Ventures and the Beach Boys; the rise of department-store-stocked surf wear brands like Hang Ten; and a long string of frothy Hollywood-made “Beach Party”-style movies (along with the far more authentic “Endless Summer”).
No longer associated with Olympic champions and brave lifeguards, surfers in general were now often viewed as a minor societal threat — closer to bikers and hot-rodders — and while some in the sport fought the image, plenty of others enjoyed being thought of as rebels. The Los Angeles surfer Mickey Dora, recognized as much for humor-laced invective as his smooth riding style, became the sport’s first and most enduring antihero.
As the late-60s “shortboard revolution” introduced small, lighter, more maneuverable surf-craft, the sport dove headlong into the counterculture. Overcrowding at the better-known breaks led to a period of surf exploration, with Indonesia soon revealed as the world’s richest source of perfect waves, and also gave rise to localism, with surfers at a given break doing their best to chase off outsiders, usually by verbal intimidation, but occasionally through vandalism and violence. Localism would fade in years to come, but never go away entirely.
Surf competition, hugely popular during the boom years, was renounced as antithetical to what many were now calling the “art form” of surfing, then was somewhat rehabilitated in the mid-70s with the creation of a world professional circuit, which in turn encouraged an Aussie-inspired, zigzagging, high-point-scoring, “rip and tear” riding style.
That said, the tube ride — a difficult but non-acrobatic linear move where the surfer places himself in the hollow formed between the wave face and the descending curl — was now the sport’s holy grail. Gerry Lopez of Hawaii became a tube-riding icon for his 70s performances at the Pipeline, on the North Shore of Oahu. Meanwhile, the short, soft, Morey Boogie bodyboard, introduced at the beginning of the decade and sold mostly to wave-riding newcomers, became the most popular — and most derided — form of surfing.
Quiksilver, Gotcha and Billabong were among the surfwear companies that led the sport into a fluorescent-hued second boom, lasting from 1986 to 1990, imploding just about the time The Wall Street Journal announced surfing had become a billion-dollar-a-year industry. The sport’s do-it-yourself ethic was meanwhile fading: 1-800 toll-call phone services proving wave reports and forecasts were an instant hit, as were surf resorts and tours. The easy-paddling, smooth-riding longboard, thrown on the surf-world scrapheap during the shortboard revolution, made an tremendous comeback, and would soon account for half of all new board sales. For being as graceful and flowing as he was aggressive, the California shortboard surfer and three-time world champion Tom Curren was the era’s standout performer.
Big-wave riding moved to the fore in the early and mid-90s, as surfers broke into the “unridden realm” — waves higher than 35 feet, long thought to be the size limit for conventional paddle-powered surfing — by inventing the Jet Ski-powered “tow-in” method. Sixty-five-foot waves were being ridden by the end of the decade.
Professional surfing continued to grow, and by the mid-00s world tour events were being broadcast live on the Internet. As of 2008, Kelly Slater of Florida was by far the world’s most successful pro, with eight world titles to his credit. Layne Beachley of Australia was the most successful woman, with seven championships.
A third boom began in the mid-90s, again led by surfwear manufacturers; America’s aggregate surf industry sales in 2006 were just under $7.5 billion. Women’s surfing took off during this period, although the sport’s decades-old legacy of sexism wouldn’t fall easily. Women accounted for an estimated 3 to 5 percent of the surfing population in 1990; a decade later the figure was thought to be between 10 and 15 percent. Guesswork always plays a big part in surfing demographics, but the global surfing population as of 2008 — including bodyboarders and other “alternative craft” surfers — is thought to be about five million. The surfer’s average age has meanwhile moved up to somewhere in the upper 20s.
The sport again become an object of interest to the culture at large: the big-wave documentary “Riding Giants” opened the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, surf-themed couture has been seen on Milan runways, and surfers have starred in at least three surf-based TV reality shows, and been featured in national ad campaigns for toothpaste, breakfast cereal, coffee, life insurance, S.U.V.s, software, whiskey and perfume