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Surfing—standing upright on a board and guiding it across the face of a breaking wave—exists today as a leisure pursuit with its own distinct culture and as a professional sport. While modern surfing is an international pastime, the roots of its technical form and cultural content lie in Hawaii and California.


Historians trace the origins of surfing to premodern Hawaii. Hawaiians of both sexes and from all social strata surfed, and early European explorers and travelers praised their skills. American missionaries, however, disapproved of the "constant intermingling, without any restraint" of men and women and banned the pastime in the mid-nineteenth century (Dibble, p. 101).

Surfing underwent a revival concomitant with the development of Hawaii as a tourist destination in the early twentieth century. American writer Jack London and Hawaiian surfers George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku assisted the subsequent diffusion of the pastime around the Pacific. London published several accounts of surfing in popular American magazines after a visit to Waikiki. Henry Huntington hired Freeth as "the man who walks on water" to help promote his new railway line to Redondo Beach in California. An Olympic swimmer, Kahanamoku gave surfing exhibitions in Los Angeles, California; Sydney, Australia; and Wellington and Christchurch, New Zealand, while on swimming tours.

Surfboard Technology

Primitive technology hindered the popularization of surfing. Kahanamoku's generation rode solid wood boards. They were large (eight to twelve feet long, twenty-four inches wide, three inches thick) and heavy (weighing approximately 100 pounds). Tom Blake attached plywood over crossbeams to produce a lighter (sixty- to seventy-pound) "hollow" board in the 1930s. He also added a single fin under the tail, enabling riders to better steer their craft. In the early 1950s, Joe Quigg began making lighter (twenty- to thirty-pound) malibu boards (named after the California beach where they first became popular) from balsa wood wrapped in fiberglass. Toward the end of that decade, polyurethane replaced balsa. Polyurethane and improved catalysts (to harden fiberglass resin) facilitated mass production of malibus. The so-called shortboard revolution occurred in the mid-1960s. Literally overnight, boards dropped from ten feet to eight feet long, and surfers experimented with new shapes. A major influence on shortboard design was George Greenough, a kneeboard rider from California. Still made from polyurethane and fiberglass, contemporary boards have three fins, are around six feet long, eighteen inches wide, and 1.5 inches thick, and weigh about fifteen pounds. Rails (edges), noses, and tails are shaped by hand to meet specific (usually local) wave types.

Surf Riding Style

Board technology was a major influence on riding styles. Early boards had no fins, thus limiting surfers' ability to maneuver their craft; riders simply pointed the boards shoreward. A relaxed, upright stance was the essence of good style. Malibus revolutionized surfing. They enabled riders to "trim" (travel at the same speed as the breaking wave), "stall" (slow the board to allow the breaking wave to "catch up"), and change direction. Regional variations in style followed the malibu, reflecting distinct philosophies of the ocean and waves. Hawaiians sought to flow in rhythm with the breaking wave. They saw "the wave and the performer as a coordinated unit; the surfer dances with the wave, letting it lead him along its natural direction." Hawaiian style derived from an "innate respect for the waves" (Lopez, pp. 101, 104). Californians turned surfing into "an original American dance, a delightful mixture of ancient Polynesian sport, bullfighting, skiing and sailing." Unlike Hawaiians, who flowed with waves under nature's guidance, Californians sought "to enhance the beauty of a breaking wave" (Parmenter, pp. 117-118). Tinged with notions of cultural superiority, Californians believed that surfers aesthetically enhanced waves. A third, overtly aggressive style of riding emerged in Australia, where surfers sought to "dance on the wave, attacking it from all angles and reducing it to shreds" (Lopez, p. 103). This style emanated from within the Surf Lifesaving Association. A paramilitary-type body that gained hegemonic control of Australia's beaches, the association nurtured the idea that properly trained individuals could conquer waves.

By the mid-1980s, aggressive riding had become the dominant style, facilitated by short, finely tuned boards that freed surfers to move across, around, inside, and over waves at will. Urban development and intense competition for waves, particularly at the epicenters of surfing—North Shore (Oahu, Hawaii), southern California, and east coast Australia—reinforced aggressive surfing. Instead of escaping into nature, contemporary surfers immerse themselves in greasy, foul-smelling waters that assault and jolt their senses, and frequently give them ear, eye, and throat infections. Dulled by toxic wastes and detergents, the oceans now merge with ashen skies, waste-strewn sands, and pallid concrete highways and housing estates. Rather than a place for reflection, contemplation, and relaxation, the beach is another industrial urban site where surfers release aggression and express profanity, nihilism, and general dissatisfaction.

Surfing Culture

Malibus popularized surfing and precipitated a unique American youth culture that combined the relaxed, casual hedonism of Hawaii and the free-spirited beatnik philosophy of the mainland. Surfers communicated through their own language ("like wow," "daddy-o," "strictly squaresville"), humor, rituals, dress (T-shirts, striped Pendleton shirts, narrow white Levi's jeans, Ray-Ban sunglasses), and hair styles (bleached-blond hair and goatee beards). At the heart of surfing culture was the "surfari"—a wanderlust trip in search of perfect waves. Surfing rapidly penetrated the consciousness of baby boomers on the back of Hollywood surf films (romantic beach musicals and comedies: Gidget [1959], Ride the Wild Surf [1964]), surf music (a thundering guitar-based sound played as single-note riffs: Dick Dale's "Miserlou" [1962], the Chantays' "Pipeline" [1962], the Astronauts' "Baja" [1963]), "pure" surf films ("travelogues," with footage of surfers riding waves: Trek to Makaha [1956], The Big Surf [1957], Spinning Boards [1961]), and specialized surfing magazines (Surfer, Surfing).

Public commentators frowned upon the nonconformism of surfing culture. They condemned surfers' antisocial behavior (exemplified by the "brown eye"—exposing the anus to public view from a passing vehicle) and branded them itinerants, nomads, and wanderers. Surfing was seen as an indolent, wasteful, and selfish pastime that lacked an institutional anchor.

A sporting element within surfing organized competitions to counter negative images and win the activity social respectability. In 1953, the Waikiki Surf Club hosted the first International Surfing Championships for men and women at Makaha, Hawaii. Makaha marked the official birth of the sport of surfing. Most surfers rejected competition, unable to reconcile it with their quests for autonomy and freedom. Indeed, during the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s surfing competitions virtually collapsed under the belief that they symbolized excessive materialism. Surfers preferred the creativity and self-expression of "soul-surfing"—riding waves purely for the benefit of communing with nature.

Ironically, the counterculture contributed to the development of professional surfing. The "work-is-play" philosophy of the counterculture encouraged a group of perspicacious (predominantly Hawaiian and Australian) surfers to establish the Association of Surfing Professionals in 1976 to coordinate competitions and financially support the best riders. To attract corporate sponsors, the ASP had to portray surfing as a mainstream sport comprising disciplined athletes. But this strategy merely fueled tensions between professional and ordinary surfers. "We [should] encourage surfing to be publicly damned," railed one surfer recently: "People don't have to fear us—they just have to not want to be us, not want to identify with a label that spells sick, perverted deviant" (Stedman, p. 81).

See also: Beaches, Snowboarding, Swimming


Booth, Douglas. Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand, and Surf. London: Frank Cass, 2001.

Dibble, Sheldon. A History of the Sandwich Islands. Honolulu, Hawaii: Thomas G. Thrum, 1909.

Finney, Ben, and James Houston. Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport. San Francisco: Pomegrante Artbooks, 1996.

Kampion, Drew. Stoked: A History of Surf Culture. Los Angeles: General Publishing, 1997.

Lopez, Gerry. "Attitude Dancing." Surfer (June–July 1976): 101–104.

Parmenter, Dave. "Epoch-alypse Now: Postmodern Surfing in the Age of Reason." The Surfer's Journal (Winter 1995): 112–125.

Stedman, Leanne. "From Gidget to Gonad Man: Surfers, Feminists, and Postmodernization." Australia New Zealand Journal of Sociology 33 (1997): 75–90.

Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Sydney, Australia: Palm Beach Press, 1983.

Douglas Booth

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Surfing is a sport whose origins may be traced to the ancient Polynesian cultures of the Pacific Ocean. In 1788, Captain James Cook, the English explorer, observed the indigenous people of both Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands using long wooden boards to move through the waves near shore. American author Mark Twain described his own adventures with Hawaiian surfing in his book Roughing It published in 1871. California, the place most often associated with surfing, first became a hotbed of the sport in the 1920s and 1930s. The California surfing community helped propel the sport into the cultural mainstream in the late 1950s; surfer expressions such as "stoked," "hot dogging," and "wipeout" became a part of modern speech.

Surfing has attained a worldwide appeal due in large part to its utter simplicity. A surfer paddles out into the ocean on a surfboard, and awaits a suitable sized breaking wave on which to ride back to the shore using the wave's energy for propulsion. The more ambitious and talented the surfer, the larger the wave or the greater number of tricks the surfer can execute as the wave travels towards the shore. Although surfing pre-dates the popularity of extreme sports, surfing's inherent physical dangers and its potential for high levels of personal satisfaction, as opposed to achieving a competitive result, warrant its inclusion in the extreme sports category.

The modern surfboard has undergone many changes since the days of the Polynesians. Early surfboards were often as long as 16 ft (5 m), weighing over 100 1b (45 kg), and each was built to support the surfer. Modern surfboards are constructed from synthetic materials such as epoxy, fiberglass, and carbon fiber composites and the boards are usually a shorter length, designed to suit the style of the surfer but also intended to be highly maneuverable in the water. An inexperienced surfer is often directed to a wider and longer board, as the greater the surface area in contact with the water, the greater the stability of the board.

In colder weather or water temperatures below 68°F (20°C), surfers will often wear a wetsuit to protect themselves from the combined effects of cold water and cold air.

Surfing is unique among sports in that the ride on a surfboard is powered by water and the resultant force of gravity alone. The physical object of surfing is to slide down the surface of the wave at the same speed at which the water is moving upwards. If the surfer moves took quickly along the wave surface, the surfer proceed to the bottom of the wave and end the ride as the surfer will no longer be affected by the wave motion. If the surfer moves slower than the wave, the wave will out run the surfer, creating a wipeout. It is for this reason that a surfer can maintain a stable position while riding below the crest of a mammoth ocean wave.

The surfer and the surfboard are balanced on the water surface when the force of gravity acting downwards upon the surfer is precisely equal to the hydrostatic effect, or buoyancy, directed upwards. The center of mass of the board is its balance point; when the surfer moves towards the front or the rear of the board, the board will become oriented accordingly, with the nose or back moved upwards or down to reflect to shift in position by the surfer. A surfer executes a turn on the board by shifting body position to the rear of the board, a movement that creates torque (twisting effect in the motion of the board). The forces of gravity and buoyancy are now directly under the surfer, permitting the turn to be executed. When the surfer pushes downwards on the board, the force of the push is greater than the force of gravity, causing the turn to occur more quickly.

As the surfer moves through the water on the board, the surfer maintains a low, bent leg position, to maximize balance on the board and to respond to any forces directed against the board with subtle changes of position.

A shorter surfboard provides the surfer with greater maneuverability, as the shorter the board, the shorter the axis upon which the surfer is required to turn. A longer surf board possesses an inherently greater moment of inertia, the time period within which an object resists the forces directing it to turn. Conversely, a longer surfboard will tend to travel faster across the surface of the water, due to the relationship between drag and the volume of water displaced by the board. The fins attached to the rear of the surfboard, known as the "skeg" act in a similar fashion to that of a keel on a sail boat, as the fins extending downwards into the water aid in preventing the surfboard from being pushed too far sideways by the force of the moving water.

The International Surfing Association (ISA) is the world governing body of surfing; surfing is also a member of the International Olympic Committee, although surfing is not an Olympic sport. There are also various professional surfing events held in various parts of the world on an annual basis sanctioned by the ISA. Competitive surfing is a subjectively judged and the variability of wave height and speed may impact upon the competitive result.

see also Sailing; Sailing physics; Windsurfing.

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SURFING. Riding a surfboard across the face of a breaking wave was once the preserve of ancient Polynesian islanders, but in the twentieth century it became something enjoyed by millions of people the world over. Modern surfing has spread well beyond its more recent Hawaiian, American, and Australian origins, becoming a global phenomenon of such magnitude that every minute of every day will find somebody, somewhere, trying to catch a wave. The talented and photogenic few are paid to surf by a multibillion dollar surfing industry. For the rest, it is an obsessive hobby, a statement of identity, and even a spiritual pursuit.

Surfing originated sometime between 1500 b.c. and a.d. 400 among the oceanic island cultures of Polynesia. From there, it spread to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands,

where it was witnessed by the British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. The missionaries that followed in Cook's wake discouraged the practice to such an extent that it had practically vanished by the end of the nineteenth century. It was revived early in the 1900s by young Hawaiians and promoted by the local tourist industry and Alexander Hume Ford, who founded the Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe Club in 1908 in Honolulu. The Hawaiian surfers Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth traveled to America and Australia to take part in exhibitions that helped spread surfing beyond Hawaii's shores.

The accessibility of the sport was limited by the athletic demands of the heavy redwood boards that were the Hawaiian norm. Only with the invention of lighter board materials in the 1940s and 1950s did surfing become more appealing to the general public. Surfing subcultures appeared in Hawaii, California, and Australia, developing a distinctive language, fashion, attitude, and lifestyle that gradually filtered into mainstream popular culture. The 1960s saw the emergence of glossy surfing magazines, surf music, and surf clothing and equipment companies, along with the release of numerous surf-related movies, all of which led to a huge increase in the surfing population. New inventions such as wetsuits, leashes, and more maneuverable short boards only added to surfing's worldwide popularity. Large national organizations were created to organize the sport and to hold competitions, leading eventually to a professional circuit that is funded, principally, by the surf industry and media sponsorship. The original extreme sport, surfing continues to push its boundaries. The development of tow-in surfing technology allows big-wave surfers to ride offshore waves that are more than sixty feet high.


Finney, Ben, and James Houston. Surfing: The History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport. San Francisco: Pomegranate Books, 1996.

Kampion, Drew. Stoked: A History of Surf Culture. Santa Monica, Calif.: General Publishing, 1997.

Young, Nat. The History of Surfing. Angourie, Australia: Palm Beach Press, 1998.


See alsoHonolulu ; Sports .

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surfing Informal Dipping into the information available from the services on a large network, especially the Internet, with no definite objective in mind. Surfing is closely allied to browsing.

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surfing Water sport in which a person lies or stands on a specially designed wooden or fibreglass board, usually 1.22–1.83m (4–6ft) long, and is propelled by the crest of a wave towards the shore.