The first references to surfing come from the pre-Incan culture in Peru, which built a special boat known as the caballito de totora. However, the Hawaiians are generally considered the culture that has contributed the most to surfing’s history.
In the ancient Hawaiian culture, surfing was considered an art, and referred to as he e’ nalu, or “wave sliding.” Surfing was prefaced with prayer first for strength to challenge the ocean, and then, if necessary, kahunas (priests) would pray for killer waves. The priests also played a part in constructing the surfboards. Surfers would choose from the koa, ulu, or wiliwili trees, digging out their choice and “placing fish in the hole as an offering to the gods.” (Wikipedia) Craftsman then shaped the boards into one of three shapes the thick ‘olo which narrowed toward the edges, the lengthy, 12-18 foot kiko’o, and the 9-foot-long alaia. These early surfers would test their skills in some of the same sites that modern athletes still ride, including Kahalu’u Bay and Holualoa Bay.
Surfing in Hawaii and the Polynesian islands diminished in the 19th century when missionaries discouraged the practice. However, the art obviously survived. Public opinion started shifting in 1907 when George Freeth was brought from Hawaii to California to demonstrate surfing at a railroad opening. In 1912, James Matthias Jordan, Jr. surfed along the coast of Virginia Beach, which now hosts the East Coast Surfing Championships. Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii was largely responsible for surfing’s international acclaim, including introducing it to Australia.
The 1960s saw a boom in surfing popularity, thanks to the novel Gidget and adaptations, surf music by bands like the Beach Boys and the Surfaris, and the popularity of California culture in films like the classic Beach Party series. Surfers were cliché characters by the 1980s, as evidenced by Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jeff Spicoli in 1982′s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. During the 1990s, professional surfing became a popular and financially successful enterprise, and today surfers enjoy a popularity akin to that of athletes in many other sports.