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History of surfing

Surf culture

The first known occurrences of surfing are connected to the ancient Hawaiian tradition of "he'e nalu", meaning "wave-sliding". For this ancient Hawaiian culture, the sea had an attached persona, which could reflect emotions. A good day of surfing required the proper waves, and in order to convince the sea to provide these waves, Ancient Hawaiians relied on Kahunas (priests) to pray for good surf. Kahunas would engage in ritual chants and dances, with the intention of pleasing the sea to provide the people with surfable waves.

Surfing was not merely a pastime for the leaders of old. This sport served as a training exercise meant to keep chiefs in top physical condition. Furthermore, surfing served as a system of conflict resolution. Members of the affluent class would test their skills in fierce competitions, during which wealth, pride, and even romance were at stake.

All this tradition changed though upon the arrival of the white man, or what the Hawaiian's would call 'haole'. The entire Hawaiian culture was dismantled by the arrival of Captain Cook in the late Eighteenth Century. Increasing numbers of foreigners visited Hawaii after hearing accounts of Cook's adventures. Initially these intruders were explorers and traders looking for profit, yet soon missionaries and settlers came, looking to destroy the Hawaiian culture and take the land for themselves.

These people brought no respect for the ancient traditions of the culture they invaded, and soon it would be nearly lost. The introduction of western religion stripped the supernatural elements from surfing. Forced to adapt to a new lifestyle, the natives lost touch with their ancient ways, and surfing soon went into a major decline.

As the Nineteenth Century approached, surfing was nearly an extinct pastime. Yet, surfing was not down for the count. Unlike many traditional sports, surfing had not been completely obliterated. As the Twentieth Century opened, the stage was set for a great revival.

With the onset of the 1900's came a renewed interest in surfing. Revived at first in Hawaii by a group of resistant teens known as the 'Beach Boys of Waikiki'.

Previously, Caucasians had believed that only native Hawaiians possessed the capacity to surf. This all changed though when a Hawaiian native of Irish-Hawaiian descent named George Freeth moved to California and earned acclaim as California's first lifeguard, and the world's first promotional surfer promoting a local railway company.

It was not long before surfing in America began to spread along the Californian coast. A few years later in 1915, internationally, Duke Kahanamoku (one of the greatest and most important men in surf history!) had introduced surfing to Australia, where it would catch on very quickly.

From this point onwards, many advances in technology along with the rapidly growing widespread interest in surfing took the sport further. The 'roaring twenties' were an important time for surfing. Advances in surfboard design around the 1920's were making the sport far more accessible to the public. The first ever major surf competition was in 1928. The invention of the automobile… using cars, surfers were able to easily venture along the Californian coast in search of the best waves. This led to the days of Surf Safaris (or Surfari's), during which the dedicated surfers of California would spend entire weekends travelling up and down the coast, partying as hard as they surfed.

The number of surfers was still not very large, because of the difficulty of the sport. The introduction of fins on surfboards made the sport easier to learn, and because these fins enabled more elaborate and exciting tricks, the sport quickly picked up a broader fan base.

Changes through the years in the materials used in making surfboards, have made surfboards progressively lighter and easier to manoeuvre. Initially redwood, and later balsa and plywood. The technological advancements brought on by World War Two made new materials available, enabling the modern styrofoam and fibreglass boards.

Perhaps one of the most important innovations in surfing history, and often over shadowed by the progression of the surfboard, is the wetsuit! The first wetsuit was designed in the early 1950's in California, when Jack O'Neill stitched together pieces of neoprene in the form of vests. The wetsuit was so important, because for the first time surfers could surf all year round, not to say that no one ever braved the cold water, because they did, but the wetsuit enabled the surfer to stay in the water longer, practice more, which along with progressions in surfboard design, opened the door to new and radical surfing manoeuvres being explored.

Advertising would be the next major boost for surfing. A man named Dale Velzy is credited for the popularisation of surfing. Velzy was surfing's first sponsor, giving boards to local surfers in exchange for endorsements. Velzy was also the first major surfboard manufacturer to utilize a wide-scale advertising campaign. Velzy made surfing visible to the American public.

Next would come 'the surf movie'. Starting with the movie Gidget and later The Endless Summer. These surf movies ignited an explosion of interest. These movies truly opened America's eyes to surfing as a pastime. As a result the nation was hooked.

Through these movies began a surf culture, which would sweep America. Music, fashion, and the English language were all impacted.

As the surf craze continued the most profound change could be found in the boards, which by the end of the 1960's had reduced in size form 10 feet to 6 feet. This would become known as the 'shortboard revolution', and was one of the first innovations brought about by the Aussie's. Shorter boards accompanied a commercialisation of surfing, which went from an underground obsession to a mainstream cultural influence.

Surf culture sprouted clothing brands and an entire subsection of the media. This began with John Severson's book of photos, 'The Surfer'. Slowly his garage-built book developed into a full-scale magazine called 'Surfer'. This would be the first of many surf publications throughout the world.

By the late 1970's surfing had a new centre, Australia. Aussie surfers brought a brash and bold attitude to the sport. The colourful style of Australian surfing found its way into new surf-based companies.

Going on in time, surfing has now become a lucrative profession… big money and many fans. Surf culture has invaded all aspects of life. Surfing is no longer only a sport or a lifestyle; it has developed into an industry, and a staple of our culture.

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