Last Updated on March 24, 2020
A Quick History of Surfing, America’s Favorite Summer Sport
Summer is nearly upon us, meaning the perpetual quest for the perfect beach body is now officially underway. Even that phrase “the perfect beach body” immediately conjures up visions of white sands, sun-drenched days and most potently, surfers. One of the most iconic American summer sports, surfing might just be the key we were looking for to keep our spirits up and our bodies fit all year long.
Here’s a quick overview of the health benefits of surfing, and its rise in popularity over the years in beaches across the U.S.
Surfing is an intense mixture of cardio exercise and outdoor time. This makes the sport beneficial for cardiovascular health, deeper sleep, improving moods with plentiful doses of vitamin D and head-to-toe muscular toning. It’s one of the few sports where just getting to the point where you can participate and potentially catch a wave is still quite the workout. Surfing is partially so iconic because it lends itself to an entire lifestyle as a deeply social sport imbuing its practitioners with respect for nature and the ocean.
The earliest surfers
Surfing is lauded as being “a blend of total athleticism and the comprehension of the beauty and power of nature.” What began with Western Polynesian fisherman taking proactive measures to go out into the ocean to haul larger catches three thousand years ago evolved into the sport of Hawaiian kings. Hawaii’s bountiful taro fields and fishing made it possible for its citizens to take a full three months out of the year to surf, allowing the sport to be prioritized and perfected. However, the sport that would come to define coastal American culture eventually migrated to the US in 1909 at Virginia Beach with Burke Haywood Bridger’s colony of surfers. This enthusiastic group spread their passion all along the East Coast, officially planting the seeds of American surfing.
The golden era of surfing
Surfing survived long enough to skyrocket into American pop culture in the 1960’s thanks to master athlete Duke Kahanamoku. Widely considered the father of modern-day surfing, Kahanomoku devoted his life to introducing newcomers to the sport. During that era, The Beach Boys made a living singing about surfing and inspired a wide-spread fixation on the culture surrounding the sport. Big-wave surfing soon exceeded what had ever been thought possible in Hawaii, thanks to technological developments in California. A sports-wide obsession with big-wave surfing, or riding atop waves higher than six feet, fueled the drama of the sport while adding to the risk factor.
Research performed at Caltech resulted in the wetsuits that allowed for surfing in colder climates and the work of Gerard Vultee, co-designer of Amelia Earhardt’s Lockheed Vega, inspired the first hollow surfboard.
Another historical factor contributed to surfing’s popularity: the rise of women in surfing. It was the influence of Title IX, endorsed by Hawaiian Congresswoman Patsy Mink, that opened up the veritable playing field. With this larger potential audience for surfing now involved, the sport grew to resemble its modern-day counterpart as it blossomed commercially into the early ‘70s.
Media became involved in seminal films like “The Endless Summer,” which spread the romantic notion across the nation of a stress-free life tied to the ocean. Companies like Billabong, Quiksilver and Rip Curl were all founded during that decade, bringing with them big money and big-time surfing competitions. Australians, in particular, led the charge and dominated these early contests, cementing surfing’s position as an international phenomenon.
Despite surfing’s firm presence in pop culture for decades now, the sport’s participation rates are still booming. Entire families will compete together in various age and gender groups of competitions. Between 2004 and 2016 the number of surfers exploded by a whopping 40%, growing from 1.8 million to 2.5 million. The growing number was helped by the masses of women who discovered their love for the sport. And that number will not doubt continue to grow if the sport gains even greater momentum through confirmation as an Olympic Sport for 2020.
There’s power in numbers. And as the number of surfers grows across the U.S., the group is taking a more active role in the political sphere. Coastal conservation groups, for instance, work hard to ensure that the coast remains untouched by government or private interest groups.
No matter politics, a changing landscape or even the latest technology, surfing’s draw is as intense and strong for many as it was thousands of years ago. It’s a past time that conjures such romantic imagery that it may have even inspired the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.”