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Posted by Rick Civelli | 04.25.2012 | WB Surf Camp News

Surfing: The Hawaiian Tradition

Watching someone glide on a thin piece of fiberglass or wood while perched on the crest of a wave incites awe! It also poses questions like how do you do that and who came up with this crazy, exhilarating sport?



Today, surfing is a way of life for millions, but actually began thousands of years ago. The earliest recorded history of this ancient sport, originally known as He’e nalu, was written in 1778 by a British Naval captain, James Cook. While the exact date of surfing’s emergence is unknown, ancient Hawaiians left evidence of it through petroglyphs. These lava-rock carvings depict surfers and date all the way back to 1500 A.D.!


It is believed that Polynesians first experienced wave riding almost three thousand years ago, in route between islands. While fishing, their wooden boat clung to the tip of the ocean’s swell while the wave’s energy allowed them to slide across the surface. At this moment, the passion for wave riding was born. From there, ancient islanders observed how different shapes and thicknesses of wood glided on the waves and craftsman began designing what we now know as a surfboard.

Ancient Hawaiian’s lived, breathed, and cherished the resources of the ocean as their livelihood and primary food source. This relationship helped surfing to become deeply rooted in cultural traditions and their societal structure known as the “Kapu” system of laws. Skilled surfers were typically from the upper class, including chiefs, warriors, and kings. A surfer’s skills in mastering the powerful waves helped them gain respect and rank within their society. In fact, Hawaiian Chiefs used surfing competitions to maintain their strength, agility and command over their people. The Kapu system also determined how, why and with what materials surfboards could be made. Indeed, the type of wood used in making a board depended on the future rider’s status in society.

Ancient Hawaiians continued surfing until missionaries from New England settled in Hawaii in the mid 1800’s. The missionaries believed surfing to be savage and self indulgent. They adamantly preached against the sport and by 1890, surfing was nearly extinct. If not for the dedication of a few Hawaiian kings, surfing may not have survived and become the global phenomenon that it is today. The limits of this ancient sport continue to be challenged, as people surf waves that were once deemed impossible to ride.

At WB Surf Camp, we cherish and respect the rich history of the sport that makes us who we are. In fact, it was in honor of surfing’s roots that we developed our Hawaii Teen Surf & Adventure Camp over eight years ago. For just two weeks each summer, we travel to Oahu where we glide across the waves the ancients first surfed and walk the same sands they did. We are very proud to continue the tradition and share the culture that created this special sport thousands of years ago.