Discover the Fascinating World of Surfing: How Was It Invented?

by Joost Nusselder | Last Updated:  08.02.2023
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What is surfing? It’s a sport where you ride a wave on a surfboard. It was invented by the ancient Hawaiians, who called it ‘he’e nalu’ which means ‘to heave a wave’.

So, how was it invented? Well, it all started thousands of years ago in Peru, where the Moche culture used the caballito de totora (little horse of totora), with archaeological evidence showing its use around 200 CE.

So, let’s get into the details of how it all started.

What is surfing

How Did Surfing Become a Global Phenomenon?

The Dark Age of Surfing

Surfing was not always the cool, trendy activity it is today. In fact, during the 19th century, it was heavily discouraged due to the oppression European settlers imposed on the Hawaiians. This time is referred to as the “dark age” in the history of surfing. But, despite the lack of enthusiasm, some brave souls still kept the sport alive.

The Rise of Hawaiian Tourism

The late 1800s saw a rise in Hawaiian tourism, and people from all over the world traveled to the islands to try their hand at surfing. Authors like Jack London and Mark Twain even got in on the action. And, Duke Kahanamoku (the father of modern surfing) helped spread the sport’s reputation in both the US and Australia.

Surfing Goes Professional

By 1960, surfing had become a professional sport. And, as the wave of interest in surfing grew, so did its popularity. The Beach Boys wrote songs about surf, sun, and good vibes, and Americans became even more fascinated with Hawaii. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, tourists flocked to the islands to ride the swells off the Hawaiian coast.

Surfing Today

Surfing has come a long way since its dark age. Now, it’s a global phenomenon, and people can catch a wave anywhere there’s a decent swell. Every year, hundreds of tourists still travel to Hawaii to experience the birthplace of surfing. So, grab your board and get out there!

Surfing Through the Ages

Surfing in Ancient Peru

Way back in the day, around three to five thousand years ago, the folks of ancient Peru had a pretty sweet way of fishing – they’d get into their kayak-like watercraft (mochica) made of reeds and surf them back to shore! These boats were called caballito de totora, and archaeologists have found evidence of their use as early as 200 CE.

Surfing in Polynesia

Surfing was a big deal in Polynesia, and it’s thought to have originated in Hawaii. It’s believed that Polynesians brought their customs with them when they made their way to the Hawaiian Islands from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, and that’s when they started standing and surfing upright on boards.

Various European explorers witnessed surfing in Polynesia, and it’s thought that British explorers saw it in Tahiti as early as 1767. And in 1849, Herman Melville wrote about the “Rare Sport at Ohonoo” in his novel Mardi.

Surfing in California

Surfing made its way to California in 1885 when three Hawaiian princes took a break from their boarding school and came to cool off in Santa Cruz. They surfed the mouth of the San Lorenzo River on custom-shaped redwood boards.

Then, in 1907, Henry E. Huntington brought surfing to the California coast. After seeing Hawaiian boys surfing while on vacation, he hired three Hawaiian boys to teach locals how to surf in Redondo Beach.

One of the boys, George Freeth, is often credited as being the “Father of Modern Surfing”. He’s thought to have been the first modern surfer.

Surfing Today

Today, surfing is a beloved sport and pastime all over the world. Whether you’re catching waves in Hawaii, California, or Peru, you can be sure that you’re part of a long and storied tradition. So grab your board and get out there – you never know, you might just be the next Father of Modern Surfing!

Surfing the Waves: A Beginner’s Guide

What is Swell?

Swell is the name given to the waves created when the wind blows over a large area of open water, known as the wind’s fetch. The size of the swell depends on the strength of the wind, the length of the fetch and how long it lasts. This is why you’ll find bigger and more consistent waves on coasts that are exposed to large areas of ocean that are affected by intense low pressure systems.

Local Wind Conditions

Local wind conditions can have a huge effect on the quality of the waves. For example, if the wind is too strong, it can make the surface of the wave choppy. The ideal conditions for surfing are when there is a light to moderate offshore wind, as this will create a “barrel” or “tube” wave. Waves can be either left-handed or right-handed, depending on the way they break.

Wave Shape

The shape of a wave is determined by the topography of the seabed directly behind and beneath the wave. Every break is different, as each location has its own unique underwater topography. Some of the most common types of breaks are beach breaks, reef breaks and point breaks.

Surf Forecasting

Surf forecasting is made easier with the help of advances in technology. Mathematical modelling is used to show the size and direction of swells around the world. The regularity of swells varies depending on the time of year and the location. During winter, the biggest swells are usually found on the west coast, as the North and South polar fronts move closer to the Equator. During summer, tropical cyclones form over warm seas, so the occurrence of these swells is affected by El Niño & La Niña cycles.

Surf Travel

Surf travel and surf camps offer surfers the chance to visit remote, tropical locations with consistent offshore conditions. Swells usually arrive in pulses, each lasting a couple of days, with a few days in between.

Tube Shape and Speed

The geometry of a tube shape can be represented as a ratio between length and width. A perfectly cylindrical vortex has a ratio of 1:1, while other shapes include square (1:1) and almond (2:1). The speed of the tube is determined by the peel angle and wave celerity. A break that closes out, or breaks all at once along its length, is known as a peel.

Surfing: The Art of Maneuvering

Surfing is an art form, and mastering the maneuvers is the key to becoming a true master of the waves. Whether you’re standup paddling, bodysurfing, boogie-boarding, or using a waveski or kayak, the same principles apply.

Catching the Wave

Catching a wave is no easy feat, especially for beginners. You have to paddle towards shore with enough speed to match the wave, then stand up and ride it. The trick is to position your board just ahead of the whitewash, in the so-called ‘pocket’.

Testing Your Skills

Surfing is all about challenging yourself. You can test your skills by controlling your board in difficult conditions, riding challenging waves, and executing maneuvers like strong turns, cutbacks, and carves. More advanced moves include the floater and off the lip. You can even take it to the next level with an air, where you propel off the wave and land back on it.

The Ultimate Maneuver: The Tube Ride

The tube ride is the ultimate maneuver in surfing. If the conditions are just right, the wave will break in an orderly line from the middle to the shoulder, enabling you to position yourself inside the wave as it breaks. This is known as getting tubed, barrelled, shacked, or pitted. Some of the world’s best spots for tube riding include Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, Teahupoo in Tahiti, and G-Land in Java.

Longboarding Maneuvers

Longboarders have their own set of maneuvers, like hanging ten and hanging five. Hanging ten is when you have both feet on the front end of the board with all your toes off the edge. Hanging five is when you have just one foot near the front, with five toes off the edge.

So if you’re ready to take your surfing skills to the next level, start practicing your maneuvers and get ready to catch some waves!

Surfing Equipment: What You Need to Know


Surfboards are the foundation of any surf session. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, you’ll need a board to get you out in the waves. Surfboards come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from longboards to shortboards to funboards. Longboards are the traditional boards, usually around 12 feet long and weighing up to 150 pounds. Balsa wood boards, first made in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are lighter and more portable than traditional wooden boards. Modern boards are typically made of fiberglass foam (PU) with one or more wooden strips or “stringers,” fiberglass cloth, and polyester resin (PE). Newer designs incorporate materials such as carbon fiber and variable-flex composites in conjunction with fiberglass and epoxy or polyester resins.


No matter what type of board you’re riding, you’ll need a leash to keep it from drifting away after a wipeout and to prevent it from hitting other surfers. Leashes come in a variety of lengths and thicknesses, so make sure you get one that’s right for your board and the waves you’re riding.

Surf Wax

Surf wax is essential for keeping your feet from slipping off the board. It’s available in a variety of temperatures, so make sure you get the right one for the water temperature you’ll be surfing in.

Traction Pads

Traction pads are another way to keep your feet from slipping off the board. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so make sure you get one that fits your board.


Fins, also known as skegs, provide stability and control while surfing. They can either be permanently attached (glassed-on) or interchangeable. Make sure you get the right size and shape for your board and the waves you’re riding.


When you’re surfing, you’ll need the right clothing to keep you warm and comfortable. In warmer climates, swimsuits, surf trunks or boardshorts are worn, and occasionally rash guards. In cold water, wetsuits, boots, hoods, and gloves are essential for protecting you against lower water temperatures. There are also rash vests with a thin layer of titanium to provide maximum warmth without compromising mobility.

Safety Gear

When you’re surfing big waves, you’ll need the right safety gear to keep you safe. Inflatable vests and colored dye packs can help decrease the odds of drowning. Make sure you have the right safety gear before you hit the waves.

The Risks of Surfing

The Dangers of Drowning

Surfing can be a ton of fun, but it also carries the risk of drowning. Even if you have a board to help you stay afloat, it can still get away from you. A leash attached to your ankle or knee can help keep your board from drifting away, but it won’t keep you on the board or above water. In some cases, like with the tragic death of professional surfer Mark Foo, a leash can even be the cause of drowning by snagging on a reef or other object and holding the surfer underwater.

Collisions with Objects

Under the wrong set of conditions, anything you come in contact with can be a hazard. This includes sand bars, rocks, small ice, reefs, surfboards, and other surfers. Collisions with these objects can cause cuts, scrapes, and in rare cases, death. A large number of injuries (up to 66%) are caused by collisions with a surfboard (nose or fins). Fins can cause deep lacerations and cuts, as well as bruising. These injuries can open the skin to infection from the sea, so it’s important to be aware of the water conditions before you go out.

Marine Life

Sea life can also be a danger. Sharks, stingrays, Weever fish, seals, and jellyfish can all be a risk. Warmer-water surfers often do the “stingray shuffle” as they walk out through the shallows, shuffling their feet in the sand to scare away any stingrays that may be resting on the bottom.

Rip Currents

Rip currents are water channels that flow away from the shore. If you’re not careful, they can be dangerous for both experienced and inexperienced surfers. Since a rip current appears to be an area of flat water, tired or inexperienced swimmers or surfers may enter one and be carried out beyond the breaking waves. The flow of water moving out towards the sea in a rip will be stronger than most swimmers, making swimming back to shore difficult. But if you paddle parallel to the shore, you can easily exit a rip current. Some surfers even ride on a rip current because it’s a fast and effortless way to get out beyond the zone of breaking waves.

The Seabed

The seabed can also be a risk for surfers. If you fall while riding a wave, the wave can toss and tumble you around, often in a downwards direction. At reef breaks and beach breaks, surfers have been seriously injured and even killed because of a violent collision with the sea bed. The water above can sometimes be very shallow, especially at beach breaks or reef breaks during low tide. So, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings and the conditions of the water before you go out.

Surfing: A Subculture of Wave-Riding

The History of Surf Culture

Surfing is a culture that has been around for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that it really took off in the United States. It all started with the woodie, the station wagon used to transport surfers and their boards, and the boardshorts, the long swim shorts typically worn while surfing. As the sport gained popularity, it started to appear in movies like Gidget and Beach Party, and the Beach Boys even wrote songs about it.

Surfing Around the World

Surfing is popular all around the world, but it’s especially popular in Hawaii and California, since they offer the best waves. But even if you don’t live near the coast, you can still find waves to ride. Australia’s east coast is a great place to surf, and even in colder climates, you can wear a wetsuit to keep warm.

Surfing as a Multibillion-Dollar Industry

Surfing is now a multibillion-dollar industry, with clothing and fashion markets at the forefront. The International Surfing Association (ISA) was founded in 1964 and is the oldest foundation associated with surfing, and the World Surf League (WSL) was established in 1976 to promote various championship tours. Professional surfers can make a career out of it by receiving sponsorships and performing for photographers and videographers.

Surfing as a Spiritual Experience

Many surfers describe the experience of surfing, both in and out of the water, as a spiritual experience or even a religion. When the waves are flat, they still find ways to stay connected to the sport, like sidewalk surfing (aka skateboarding) and pool skating. It’s even been adapted to the slopes with the invention of the Snurfer, the first snowboard. No matter what, all board sports can trace their heritage back to surfing.


In short, surfing is a sport that involves riding on the back of a moving wave using a surfboard. It’s believed to have originated in Polynesia, and was used as a religious ritual. Today, it’s enjoyed by people all over the world as a way to challenge themselves, get active, be close to the water, and experience the thrill of riding on waves.  So, if you’re looking for a way to challenge yourself, get active, be close to the water, and experience the thrill of riding on waves, why not give surfing a try?

Joost Nusselder, the founder of Kauai Surf Report is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new sports with everything surfing at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2019 to help loyal readers with surfing and water sporting tips.