A brief history of surfing – Part 3: Modernization of surfing

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A brief history of surfing – Part 3: Modernization of surfing


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This article is part three of a series of four articles describing the history of surfing. In the first part, ‘The Polynesian Islands’, read about how surfing began and was practiced in the distant past in Polynesia. In the second part,  ‘The spread of surfing‘ , you read about how the sport of surfing spread from Hawaii to the other parts of the world. This article describes the transition from historic surfing to modern surfing. In our final article we will look at the formation of global ‘surf culture’.


Rebirth of surfing

Due to emerging globalization, many of the traditional customs of Hawaiian culture had disappeared by the end of the 20th century. The population of the island group was slowly but surely “westernizing”. Yet at the beginning of the 20th century there was a group of surfers who started surfing on the famous Waikiki beach.

Around the same period, Hawaii decided to put more energy into attracting tourists. The local government recognized the value of surfing and decided to make surfing an important pillar in the marketing campaigns that should boost tourism. The legendary Duke Kahanamoku, or popularly called “the Duke”, played a major role in this.

Due to the industrial revolution, surfing had developed considerably since the 1920s. On the one hand there were technological developments with which the surfboard had become modernized. On the other hand, developments in the media ensured that surfing got an ever-wider audience.

Innovations in surfing

Sri Lanka Surf Beach
Sri Lanka Surf Beach

These days learning to surf is easier than it has ever been, check out these great surfing holidays to pick up some new surfing skills.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the present day, there have been a number of developments that have had a major impact on the modernization of surfing. Below we have highlighted three important innovations that have had a major impact on the development of surfing.

1. Wetsuit

One of the most important, and perhaps also one of the most underrated, developments in surfing was the invention of the wetsuit. You can find more information about the wetsuit in our wetsuit guide . Several developments together led to the invention of the wetsuit, but once the first functioning wetsuit was on the market, then surfing suddenly transformed from a summer sport into a sport that could be practiced (almost) throughout the year.

2. Fin

It took a while for the fin to break through completely, but once it had, it turned out to be an outright hit. The fin provides much more stability on the surfboard. Also, the right fin makes it possible to turn corners while surfing, make a big progress! Nowadays there is at least one fun under each surfboard, but it used to be very different. The fin was invented around 1930, but it was avoided for years by surfers, because they feared it would be too dangerous.

3. Shortboard

Sri Lanka Surf Boards
Sri Lanka Surf Boards

In the late 1960s, the development of the short board began. This completely changed the style of surfing. Surfing evolved from the graceful but rather slow long boarding style, to fast and more aggressive short boarding. The short board revolution came about on Australia’s Pacific coast. Until then, Australian surfers had been mainly concerned with copying the surf styles and culture of Americans, and they were ready for something new, their own characteristic. A group of influential surfers around Nat Young decided to surf shorter boards, the shortboard revolution was born!

4. Surf Forecasting

In the past, prayers were the only way to hope for good waves. During this the era of forecasts, a van was loaded with surfboards on Saturday morning, driving along the coast in the hope that there would be good waves somewhere. Thanks to the arrival of the forecasts, we can plan exactly where, when and with what material we take too the water.

In the last article in this series we will be looking at the role of surf culture in the 80’s and how surfing transformed into the global phenomenon we know today.

Hans van Mourik

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

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