Where Did Surfing Originate? A History of Surfing in Hawaii

Surfing is one of the best things to do in Hawaii, but it’s more than just a sport or pastime for locals. It is one of Hawaii’s most valuable treasures, providing a deep and non-severable connection to ancient culture.

The history of surfing in Hawaii is a long one. However, it is one that all tourists and locals should know before standing on a board. Learning the history of surfing helps you develop a connection to the culture and ensures that you develop a healthy respect for the sport.

Where It Originated

Surfing originated in the region we now call Polynesia but was the most advanced and documented in Hawaii. Originally called wave sliding, this sport was more than just casual fun for both genders. It had a lot of societal and spiritual meaning to the people, making it vastly important to their culture.

Social standing had a huge impact on the sport, deciding who got to use what types of boards and surf certain kinds of waves. For example, only the best (what we would consider simple) waves were saved for the elite or royalty. They also got to use different types of boards.

High-ranking societies used boards called Olo boards. These are similar to today’s longboards, but they were typically long and narrow, reaching lengths of up to 16ft. Commoners were left with the bad (the types of waves surfers want now) waves and the short and thin boards called Alaia boards. In other words, your boards determine your rank in society.

Although surfing was done for fun in many instances, it was also done for competition. Much like today’s gambling, surfing was a great way to bet and barter for goods, services, and of course – bragging rights! Not only did winners win bragging rights and their wagers, but they also gained status in society. It is also rumored that surfing was a way of picking new chiefs!


Surfing was a major aspect of Hawaiian culture for hundreds of years, but then one day, that all changed. In the 1770s Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii and set the islands on a course that they could never have imagined.

After colonization, life for native Hawaiians diminished. They became slaves to the settlers, adopting their ways and religion. They began working on the plantations during the week and attending church on Sundays instead of following their traditional customs. Surfing itself was looked down upon as nasty and vulgar.

To make matters worse, disease also ran rampant on the islands. The common cold, STDs, and even alcohol-related illnesses drastically reduced the number of Hawaiians left by the late 1800s. Then, around 1890, the traditional monarch was officially overthrown, and Hawaii was all but unrecognizable.

It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when Duke Kahanamoku became an Olympic swimmer, that the tides shifted again and brought surfing and the Hawaiian culture back into the light.

The Duke

Duke Kahanamoku, commonly referred to simply as “The Duke,” was born into a working-class family on Hawaii in 1890. He grew up having to help support the family by working, so he didn’t complete his education. However, he was an incredibly intelligent man with a talent for swimming, diving, and surfing. When he had an occasional break from work, he was raised to swim and surf like his ancestors, on traditional boards, and in traditional style.

His swimming endeavors paid off when he participated in and won gold and silver in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912. Afterward, he traveled the world and taught his swimming technique to individuals all over the world. It was on his tours that he also started to introduce surfing to the world.

Today, surfing has come back in full force. It is a fun pastime, a sport, and a deeply personal connection to an ancient Hawaiian culture that was almost lost forever.

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How The Boards Are Made

Making a surfboard has changed a lot over the years. The process has completely changed from the original way of doing things, but today’s boards still hold plenty of similarities to their ancient counterparts, just with a few modifications to help their performance.

How The Boards Used To Be Made

In ancient Hawaiian culture, making a surfboard was a spiritual process. It would start with an offering to the Gods when a surfer found a particular tree they wanted to use for wood. Then, they would go through a long and arduous building process before finally thanking the Gods and praying to them for favorable weather and waves.

How The Boards Are Made Now

After the revival of surfing in the 20th century, the surfboard went through a lot of changes. It started with a modification of their materials. They went from being solid wood to hollow. Then came new materials such as fiberglass, polyurethane, and epoxy. And the invention of the fin and leash. For many decades most surfboards only had one fin, and then two fins came about. Then in the early eighties, Australian surfer/shaper Simon Anderson came up with the concept of the three fins known as the “Thruster.” The thruster was one of the most significant advancements in surfboard design and has become the norm as most surfboards today are three-fin “Thrusters.”

There was also the introduction of the wetsuit, first invented by California Surfer Jack O’Neil; the wetsuit was a major advancement for surfers and divers alike, allowing ocean enthusiasts the ability to spend longer times in cold water and surfing in places on the planet that was unbearable because of frigid water temperatures. And of course, we can’t forget about the invention of the infamous board shorts!

Want to learn more?

Ready to ride the waves and immerse yourself in the captivating history of surfing in Hawaii? Join us at Surf N’ Sea, Oahu’s premier surf rental and lesson shop located right on the beach.

Whether you’re a beginner eager to catch your first wave or an experienced surfer seeking new adventures, our knowledgeable instructors and prime surf spots have got you covered.

Don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to experience the thrill of surfing while embracing the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii. Contact us today to book your unforgettable surf lesson! Give us a call at 800-899-7873 to get started!