A Brief History of Surfing

surfing in Cabarete

Surfing is a key element in Cabarete culture. The routine of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch some waves is a treasured ritual, here. For some, surfing is a way of life in itself.

Part of the beauty lies in how accessible it is as a sport. Whether you’ve surfed for decades or it’s your first day out in the water, anyone can pick up a board and give it a go. If you can swim. (Please do not try to surf if you can’t swim.)

It’s impossible to imagine Cabarete without surfing. But surfing, just like every sport, had its beginnings.

Let’s dive into the history of surfing.

Hawaiian Royal Surf

You may know surfing has its roots in Hawaii, a long time ago. It is thought to have been brought over by the Polynesians who migrated into Fiji, Tahiti and eventually Hawaii. You may not have heard, however, that it was at first an exclusive royal sport.

That’s right, the top dogs in Hawaiian society ruled the waves. Hawaiian social code dictated that the upper classes had control over all the good beaches and got the best boards. The code even limited the length of the boards commoners could ride, putting them at a severe disadvantage!

Nowadays, the ‘surfer dude’ stereotype is hardly that of a lavish prince. But a thousand years ago, the sport was actually used by royals to oppress the common people. It was only many years later that surfers became recognised for their athletic ability and not their class.

Surfing back then was no jaunty run down the beach, board under arm. You needed a team of men to carry your 200-pound, 20-foot board and help you on your ‘he’e nalu’ journey. Wave-sliding, as they called it, was a poignant part of their culture, not just a hobby.

Surfing had religious significance. The priest was called in to bless the board while it was being carved. Priests would also pray over the water if it was a still day, and beg the gods to send a good swell. Some say they sometimes beat the water with vines to stir up some waves.

European Contact, 1778

In 1778, Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Hawaii. He and his crew were the first Europeans to observe and record surfers. One of Cook’s men, James King, called it a ‘very dangerous diversion’, and marvelled at how the men jumped from their board before being thrown against the rocks. He even said that the men were such good swimmers and surfers that they were almost amphibian!

King’s journal gives us the first written account of the surfers’ joy: ‘They seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives’. Translation: It was going off!

The Dark Age of Surf

American missionaries came to Hawaii in the 1800s, and tried to ‘civilise’ some of the native people’s barbaric practices. One such immoral activity was surfing.

The Christians were not fans of surfing. They linked it to the sins of nakedness and gambling, and said it had to be banished from society. They were a fun bunch.

Surfing went through a bit of a dark age in the 1800s, while Hawaii was being changed by colonial settlers. Traditional culture was suppressed and many Hawaiians were put to work on plantations.

A few wealthy Americans tried surfing in Hawaii, most famously Mark Twain in 1866 and Jack London in the early 1900s. London spread news of the sport with his essay ‘A Royal Sport’ (1907).

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku is hailed as the father of modern surfing. He was a great Hawaiian swimmer who ended up smashing records and winning gold metals at the Olympics. He rocketed to fame, and is widely recognised as the best and most influential Hawaiian athlete.

He also played a big role in popularising surfing in the US and all around the world. And had his own line of aloha shirts. What a guy.

Modern Surf History

The evolution of modern surfing can be traced through advances in board design and its growing place in popular culture. It finally became a professional sport in 1975.

Old school Hawaiian boards were carved out of solid wood, and the 20-footers weighed up to 200 pounds.

1920s: Tom Blake introduced the fin to stabilise the board. He tried to make boards lighter by drilling holes in them, and later developing a hollow board.

1950s: Bob Simmons experimented with different materials to make the board lighter and faster. He settled on a polystyrene core and a mahogany veneer, sealed with fiberglass and resin. A game-changing move in the surfing world.

1960s: The golden age of surfing. By the end of the decade, surfers were shredding on 5-foot boards. Bring on the ‘shortboard revolution’.

Surf culture began to pop up all over the place in music, TV and film. Special mention goes to the music of The Beach Boys and Surfaris, and the 1959 film Gidget, based on the life of surfer chick Kathy Kohner-Zuckerman.

1970s: Growth of the professional surfing world. Twin fin boards emerged.

1980s: ‘Hotdogging’ era, crazy surfers doing crazy stunts. Wave pools started popping up in landlocked areas, promising the perfect wave and threatening the natural purity of surfing.

1990s: Era of epic professional surfing, world tours, celebrity surf icons like Kelly Slater. Being towed to catch waves became popular, again worrying surf purists.

Nowadays, with cheaper mass produced surf gear and international travel, surf vacations have become more accessible.

With remote jobs gaining in popularity, you can now be a globe-trotting surfer without the need to go professional. Many so-called ‘digital nomads’ come to Cabarete for a few months or stay for years because the surfer lifestyle is so desirable.

Join us for a surf in Playa Encuentro and get to know Cabarete’s thriving surfing scene. December to April is the time to come if you’re an expert surfer hunting the biggest waves. If you’re a beginner, there are great waves all year round. And no sharks.

What are you waiting for? Make history.

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