July 22, 2002
-- The sport of surfing has been part of our popular culture for nearly half a century. In the 1950s and 60s, surf movies like Gidget
and Ride the Wild Surf
introduced surfing to a whole new generation -- boosting the sport from an underground cult to an overnight sensation.
Today, surfing is an international, multi-billion-dollar industry, with an estimated four million surfers hitting the beach every year in the United States alone. Like many other sports, technology has radically changed the playing field. In the last century alone, surfboards have evolved from traditional solid-wood planks -- almost identical to boards used for centuries in Hawaii -- to high-tech, hydrodynamically tested boards that allow surfers to do things 1950s "hotdoggers" couldn't dream of.
The sport has come a long way from its ancient roots on the island of Hawaii, but in many ways the "beach boy" culture surrounding surfing hasn't changed a bit. For the latest installment of Present at the Creation
, NPR's Tom Goldman
reports on the roots of surfing and the boards that helped to define a sport and a lifestyle.
Historians believe Polynesians began riding waves as far back as 2000 B.C. Hardy pioneers on outrigger sailboats brought the sport with them when they migrated to the Hawaiian islands about 400 A.D., and surfing became both a sport and a way of life connected to Hawaiian religious beliefs.
"Our traditional beliefs are that we were created from and came from the ocean, not only from a spiritual sense, but from a physical sense," says Hawaiian minister Butch Helemano. "So… going into the ocean, into the kai
, as we call it, is basically a spiritual experience for native Hawaiians." And surfing was such a popular sport, he tells Goldman, that when European explorers first arrived and found villages deserted, they feared disease had wiped out the villagers. "In fact, the waves were up, and the whole village was down surfing at their nearest favorite spot," Helemano says.
Central to this lifestyle was the surfboard itself. The biggest boards, called olo
, were reserved for Hawaiian royalty. Cut from native Hawaiian trees, trimmed to shape, polished with coral and finished with nut oil, an olo
board sometimes measured 24 feet long and weighed up to 200 pounds. Randy Rarick, a respected surfboard shaper living on Oahu's North Shore, says the boards were so heavy the surfers were often towed into a wave with the help of a five-man canoe.
With the arrival of European missionaries and a crackdown on "immoral" Hawaiian traditions, the sport of surfing almost died out in the 1800s. But at the beginning of the 20th century, an Olympic swimming champion and Hawaiian native re- introduced surfing to the world. Duke Kahanamoku, already a surfing legend on Oahu and the prototypical "beach boy," traveled to California and Australia to demonstrate the ancient art on local beaches.
Kahanamoku, revered by surfers as the father of modern surfing, also showed how to build the boards -- sparking an wave of innovation as new surfers began to experiment with surfboard shapes and materials. Those experiments would change the sport forever. Instead of standing tall and aiming straight along the face of the wave -- the traditional surfing stance -- the smaller, lighter boards, built on polyurethane foam cores wrapped in fiberglass, allowed surfers to change directions with ease and move on the water in ways the ancient Hawaiians never could.
But surfing remained a little-known underground obsession until an unlikely ambassador changed the sport forever. Her nickname was Gidget. The movie and television series based on 15-year-old Kathy Kohner's real-life obsession with surfing helped turn surfing into a national craze. Surf culture exploded, and "surf" guitar bands like Dick Dale and the Surfaris provided the soundtrack.
Board design mirrored the times. In the 1960s and 70s, surfers took to ever-shorter, one- and two-finned boards and adopted a mellow, organic groove in the water. In the early 1980s, a three-fin design pioneered by Australian surfer Simon Anderson allowed riders to make more aggressive moves. The next generation of surfboards, made from composite materials, promises to be even lighter, stronger and faster. Computer-aided shaping tools are becoming more common, and surfboard contours are becoming more sophisticated.
While surfboards have changed so much since ancient times, and a professional international circuit has made a few talented and lucky surfers quite rich, much about surfing hasn't changed. The ancient Hawaiians would drop everything to ride good waves -- and for some surfers, that attitude continues.
In 1957 a 15-year-old girl named Kathy Kohner got caught up in the surfing craze at the beach in Malibu, California. Surfers named her Gidget -- short for "girl midget." She told her father about her new hobby, and he turned it into a book. Soon would follow a movie and a TV series. NPR's Liane Hansen talks to Kathy Kohner Zuckerman about the Gidget mystique and surfing then and now
, from Weekend Edition Sunday
, Aug. 5, 2001.
Search for more NPR stories about surfing and beach culture
Surfboard shaper Al Merrick, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., builds boards for many of the top professional surfers. The Web site for Channel Islands Surfboards
has examples of modern surfboard shapes and computer-aided construction techniques
manufactures the core "blanks" for about 90 percent of the surfboards made in the United States, and is a huge influence on modern surfboard design.
pioneered the technique of wrapping polyurethane foam "blanks" in resin-coated fiberglass, the basis of all modern surfboards. He also created the popular Hobie Cat
line of catamarans.
features biographies and photos of many famous surfers, including Duke Kahanamoku and Mickey Munoz, and an overview of the history of surfing.
A profile of Randy Rarick
available at Surfline.com
was first published in 1960 and was the first periodical to chronicle surfing culture.