The history of surfing: where it all started

When you want to have a surf lesson at Odysseys Surf School in Kuta beach, it is always good to know where surfing started. It all started in 1778, when James Cook was on his third discovery tour in the south pacific. He came to the island Hawaii where he also was killed by the Hawaiians when he attempted to kidnap a high chief to force the return of a stolen boat. Lieutenant James King was given the task to bring Captain Cook’s Journal back to England. James King described two pages in the journal how he saw the Hawaiians surf on wooden planks that are a bit bigger than them and try to ride the waves.


In 1779, riding waves lying down or standing on long, hardwood boards was integral part of the Hawaiian culture. Surfboard riding was layered into society and religion. Surfing is for the Hawaiians like baseball for the United States. Chiefs demonstrated their skills how they mastered to ride the waves. Commoners made themselves famous, or infamous, under the other commoners by the way they handled themselves in the ocean. When Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii, surfing was deeply rooted in many centuries of Hawaiian legend and culture. When the ocean was tamed, the frustrated surfers would go to the priest, who would aid them in surfing prayers to ask the gods for great surf. The priest would also aid the surfers in undertaking a spiritual ceremony of constructing a surfboard. The Hawaiians would carefully select one of the three types of trees that where good to make surfboards. Once they choose the tree, they had to dig it out and put a fish in the hole as an offer to the gods. Selected craftsman were hired to shape the board. There were three different types of boards they made that time: the Olo, Kiko’o and the Alaia. The Olo is thick in the middle and gets thinner towards the tail and the nose. The Kiko’o was a very long board, between 12 and 18 feet. This board needed great skills to ride. The Alaia is like the classic long board. The size is 9 feet and also great skills were needed to ride this kind of board.


So surfing started in Hawaii, a long time ago. Since more and more European came to Hawaii and lived there in the 19th century, the surfing culture slowly died. Surfing was not popular anymore and the surf spots were hundreds of people used to surf, were empty. In the early 20th century that all changed when three ‘haole’ (foreigners) and one native Hawaiian meet each other and brought back the popularity of surfing. Jack London, a famous writer came to Waikiki in 1907 where he was introduced to swimming club. One of those men was Alexander Hume Ford, a journalist and wanderer. He introduced London to surfing and that’s how they met the 23-year-old Waikiki beach boy George Freeth. Together they founded the first Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club, the first modern club dedicated to wave riding. The club offered facilities for dressing and storage for the boards. In a few years the club grew enormously and there were more than 1200 members and with hundreds on the waiting list.


The other pioneer who brought surfing back to life is the Hawaiian beach boy Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. He was already a famous surfer and swimmer. He was the three-time world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle. He won gold at the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympics in 1912 in Stockholm and in 1916 in Antwerp. This made him world famous and he traveled all around the world to give swim exhibitions. Hollywood directors wanted him in movies as Aztec chiefs, Hindu thieves, and Arab princes. This gave him many new friends from Hollywood who introduced to the world of surfing. In 1915, Duke was invited by the New South Wales Swimming Association to give an exhibition at the domain baths in Sydney. Surfing was not really popular in Australia that time. He put Australia singlehandedly on the path to superpower status in the surfing world when he rode his board in Freshwater Beach in Manly.


This is a bit of the history of surfing; how it started and who where important persons to spread the word about surfing. We, at Odysseys Surf School are also an important factor in your surf history. We would love to be the start of your surf Legacy! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment!