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A brief history of surfing – Part 1: The Polynesian Islands

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A brief history of surfing – Part 1: The Polynesian Islands


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This article is part of a series of four articles describing the history of surfing. In this article, you will read about how historic surfing was practiced in the distant past of ancient Polynesia. The second article describes the spread of surfing from (mainly) Hawaii to other parts of the world. The third article describes the transition from historic surfing to modern surfing. The final article in the series looks at the formation of global surf culture and the moments that have made surfing so popular.


The Polynesian islands

Bodyboarding has probably been around for as long as people have been able too swim. What we know nowadays as surfing, where people actually stand on a board, is a somewhat younger development that originated on the Polynesian islands. Here surfing was recognized as an important part of the local culture (and of course still is). This sport was already practiced by the Polynesians long before contact came with European seafarers.
These days surfing holidays are very popular.

Sri Lanka Beach

Surfing was a central part of the power relationship on these islands. For example, the tribe with the highest rank had the best beaches and the best “boards”. In addition, the chiefs of the tribes were the best surfers in the clan, who therefore were allowed to have the best boards made of the best wood. The “normal” people were not allowed on the beaches of the tribal chiefs. They had to surf on their own, lesser beaches. Surfing was therefore literally a royal sport on these islands.

On the islands of Tahiti and Samoa, surfing was an important part of training warriors. According to early European seafarers, these warriors spent hours in the water training their arm and back muscles by paddling. They alternated between paddling, kayaking, surfing and fishing.

Historic Hawaii

For the historical inhabitants of Hawaii, surfing wasn’t just a sport as it is seen today. Surfing was a very important part of Hawaiian culture, where surfing was seen as one of the highest forms of art. This art began before the surfers even went into the water, praying to the gods for “strength and protection”. At the times when the ocean did not bring enough waves, priests were asked to ask the gods to deliver excellent waves. These priests also had a very important role in the spiritual ceremony in which the surfboard was made.

With great care, the selected wood to produce a surfboard. One of the following three trees was selected: the Koa, the Ulu or the Wiliwili. When the right tree was selected, the tree was carefully excavated. The remaining hole was then filled with fish as a sacrifice for the gods. The next step was to select the right shaper to build the board exactly to the way you like it.


Resurrection of Surfing in Hawaii.

Kauai, Hawaii, USA

Globalization caused many traditional Hawaiian customs to be slowly but surely driven to the background. The locals moved westerly, and with it certain habits and traditions were lost. However, around the beginning of the 20th century, residents of the Waikiki area began to reinvent the sport. New technologies led to better materials, allowing the sport of surfing to experience a renewed popularity among the Hawaiian population.

Because Hawaii was seen as an interesting holiday destination, the local government saw the appeal of surfing, and the sport was used as a marketing tool to boost tourism. The face of the resurrection of surfing was “Duke Kahanamoku”, or “the Duke,””, an Olympic medaillist in the pool and a legendary surfer. The Duke had a very important role in the spread of surfing from Hawaii to other parts of the world. In a subsequent article you can read about the spread of surf sport to other parts of the world.

To read about the next stage of surfings journey to the Olympics, check out this article about… The spread of surfing.

Hans van Mourik

Co-founder SurfaWhile, ♥️ tech, travel, sports & outdoors.

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