Dirt paths that lead to empty waves
© Trevor Moran

What You Need to Know About the History of Surfing

The first in a new Red Bull series, Surfing With Wings, a comprehensive journey of surf discovery on the how, why, where, and what of surf.
By Cam Hassard
4 min readPublished on
Never surfed but felt the pull? Ridden a little but keen to prime the pump or brush up on how to ride better? Whether you’re an amateur, intermediate or sideline hero, we’ve got you covered: this new series offers a totally fresh glance at all the ins and outs of surf and surf culture, with run downs on etiquette, bare necessities, how to choose the right gear, where to get your stoke on, how to choose the right wave (and ride a wave like a pro), as well as a little surf philosophy 101 to nourish the soul. We invite you to strap on for the ride. Lessons will be held twice a month.
But before we paddle too far out, here’s a little overview on the art and culture of surf itself: the beauty, history, and enduring legacy of this one of a kind sport – and why we keep on doing it.
Duke Kahanamoku, el padre del surf

The very beginning of surf, with the Father of Surf

© [unknown]

Roots, Origins; Why We Surf

If in doubt, paddle out.
Nat Young
A long time ago in ancient Polynesia: latter-day Tahiti, perhaps; maybe Samoa or Tonga – or perhaps much further north by the dusky shores of ancient Hawaii – locals gazed at the raging whitewash lapping upon their island sands.
Swimming, until then, had been the main pastime, but now they paddled into the ocean with planks of their finest wood, and with zest and zeal, began to take turns riding fiercely down the barrels of untamed swells and building sets.
Over the centuries, our forebears started to turn the stoke up, mastering the art of riding these planks – the ancient Hawaiians soon turned surfing into a sacred part of their culture, praying to the gods for strength and protection with every heʻe nalu, or ‘wave sliding’ session.
Of course, the ancient world eventually gave way to the modern – and surfing came along for the ride.
We shift the scene here to the late decades of the 19th Century, on Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach: wealthy American tourists, entranced by the sight of locals charging down waves on their self-fashioned boards. Around the same time, a trio of touring Hawaiian princes were showing off their skills to local Californians, equally mystified by their skills. Writers Mark Twain and Jack London caught word of this new sport ‘surfing’; both tried, and failed. But word spread, as surfing began to take root in the Western imagination.
Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

© [unknown]

The 20th Century and beyond

Out of water, I am nothing.
Duke Kahanamoku
If you wanted to catch a wave in 1915, you’d have needed to be in one of three places: California, Hawaii, or Australia. Thanks to the influence of legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, the surf revolution had already taken root Down Under – though a few pioneers had caught wind, it was the Duke who almost single-handedly stoked the local scene into action, displaying his ancestors’ ancient art form via a unique showcase tour.
In the US, and Down Under, the Twentieth Century saw an amazing evolution in the development of surf culture, as more and more innovators took their cue from the Hawaiians and Polynesians to develop new technology, equipment and vision. This catalysed an explosion of fresh styles and expression: boards became short and sleek, more and more breaks were discovered and claimed, as eager new riders from all over the planet found refuge in surfing’s purity and endorphin rush-on-tap.
Training con Laird Hamilton

Training with Laird Hamilton

© GabbyandLaird.com

Why it’s done

We're all equal before a wave.
Laird Hamilton
Egalitarian, wholesome, healthy, intrinsically connected to the natural world, surfing is as much a devoted amateur pastime as it is a ‘pro’ endeavour. A solo trip as much as a group affair, it releases stress, tension and cleanses the soul – and you’re never too old to ride (which is probably why it remains one of the most sought after and unique activities in human history).
There is something primal about it too – that nourishing combo of salt, sand and sun, a difficult one to beat. While some do it for fitness, other seek the relaxation; some ride to get closer to nature, to meditate, commune and connect with their spirituality; others are just out there to get a kickass stoke.
Perhaps the most appealing attribute is its simplicity: all you need is swell, a board, and a little moxie, and you’re good to go.
Of course, that’s just the cliff notes, a brief taster. There’s a heap more to it than this – over the next few sessions, we’ll be going deep, unpacking as much as we can on the gear, the waves, the stoke and beyond.
Get set for the ride, and prepare to enjoy.