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Milestones in Surf History Part One

Milestones in Surf History Part One (#01 - #04)

by Sam Bleakley

Current estimates for the global surfing population from the International Surfing Association range from 20 to 30 million. This growing culture is widespread and diverse, exhibiting a significant shift in demographics, including a broadening age range, increasing participation of women, multi-ethnic and multi-ability backgrounds and all members of society. Our vibrant surfing world has been shaped, stylised and re-shaped through time by key characters and influential people, events, cultural practices, innovations, and technological and social developments. The past, present and future of surfing is best enjoyed when we re-explore the roots. Coming up over the next few weeks are some key moments to celebrate. By no means is it comprehensive, but it’s chronological and hopefully interesting… This picture is of Linda Benson taken in 1963 by Ron Church.


#01 : 3000-1000 BCE Caballitos de Totora: Peruvian fishermen build and ride "caballitos de totora" to transport their nets and collect fish. In a 1988 issue of Surfer magazine, Peruvian surfing legend Felipe Pomar wrote an article about Peru’s surfing history, affirming that based on local knowledge and recent archeological finds, ancient Peruvians have been surfing for thousands of years in Huanchaco on the northern coast, where the pre-Incan indigenous cultures of the Mochica and Chimú thrived. These ocean-based peoples were known to have cultivated their region of the Pacific Ocean into one of the largest fisheries in the world. Archeological evidence derived from the nearby Huaca de la Luna (“Temple of the Moon”) and Chan Chan excavation in the Moche Valley reveals images that show a reverence for the ocean and all its associated deities. Ceremonial pottery depicts a man riding a small one-man vessel known as a “totora.” Observing the local inhabitants riding these small boat-like craft in the surf, the Spanish conquistadors called them “caballitos de totora,” or “little reed ponies,” referring to the material the vessels were made from. The totora de caballitos, with their distinctive upturned noses and width about the same as today’s surfboards, were outfitted for fishing. They were designed to charge their way through oncoming whitewater and to be able to ride waves gracefully onto the shore. The “surfer” utilised a paddle and could ride the totora either sitting down or standing up (similar to today’s standup paddleboards). Today Huanchaco is a mecca for surfing in South America, and the totora de caballitos are still in use. In 2013 Huanchaco was formally recognised as a World Surfing Reserve. World Surfing Reserve (WSR) noted that “the strong ocean culture of Huanchaco is credited with being the birthplace of Peru’s ‘caballito de totora’ – one of humanity’s earliest known surf crafts used to ply the waves for both work and pleasure. Caballitos de totora are still an integral part of the local community, both for fishing and recreation.”


Chimú vessel representing a fisherman on a caballito de totora (1100–1400 BCE).




#02 : 400-900 CE: Ocean-roaming Polynesians settle in Owhyhee (the ‘Homeland’ of ‘Hawaii’) and develop stand-up surfing as a complex cultural practice. Bellyboard surfing, riding prone on short, wooden, curved-nose boards, is three to four thousand years old. It appeared independently along the coastlines of West Africa and all around the Pacific from New Guinea to Easter Island. Wave-riding became embedded in the Polynesian cultures of New Zealand, Tahiti and Marquesas. When these ancient Polynesians settled in Hawaii, the environment was ideal for deep-water swells to break suddenly on shallow water reefs, creating steep, powerful waves. A plethora of board designs (including the Olo and the Alaia), larger and more fine-tuned than the short bellyboards, allowed expert riders to manoeuvre on the slope of the wave face. Photo : ancient Hawaiian petroglyph depicting a surfer.


#02 : 400-900 CE: Ocean-roaming Polynesians settle in Owhyhee (the ‘Homeland’ of ‘Hawaii’) and develop stand-up surfing as a complex cultural practice. Big, bruising Olo boards (reserved for Hawaiian royalty) were between 18 and 20 ft in length. Surfing was the sport of Polynesian kings and queens because only royalty were allowed to ride these Olo boards. Surfing was hierarchical, not even a meritocracy (where the best riders could claim the best boards) and certainly not a democracy as it is today, where any level of surfer can own any kind of board. Photo : Tom Stone charges on an Olo replica, with traditional ‘boardshorts’ to match in 2008, photographed by David Pu'u.


#02 : 400-900 CE: Ocean-roaming Polynesians settle in Owhyhee (the ‘Homeland’ of ‘Hawaii’) and develop stand-up surfing as a complex cultural practice. Most maka’ainana (common) Hawaiians rode prone on short Paipo boards, or standing on 8 ft Alaias. They were made from the koa (acacia) or ulu (breadfruit) tree, less buoyant than the prized wiliwili wood (used for the Olo). Expert boardmakers searched the forests for sound trees, felled them and shaped them on the spot with stone and bone tools. Boards were customized for the rider, carefully worked with adzes and coral sanding blocks. They were polished with stones and stained with vegetable dyes such as the ti plant, banana buds or burnt pandanus leaves. Finally they were glossed with kukui nut oil and then blessed and ridden. After the surf, the board was dried in the sun and rubbed with coconut oil to preserve the wood, wrapped in tapa cloth and suspended inside the house to prevent sun and insect damage. The board became a prized family member. Photo : Alison Teal gracefully duck dives an Alaia, photographed by Sarah Lee.


#03 : 1600s-1800s West African coastal culture : Canoes, swimming and surf-riding in West Africa : One of the earliest European reports from West Africa by Dutchman Johann von Lubelfing in 1600 describes locals in Sao Tome who were able to “swim below the water like a fish.” Another Dutchman, Pieter de Marees, describes the fishermen of Guinea in 1602 as excellent swimmers (girls and boys, men and women), “easily outdoing people of our nation in swimming and diving.” In 1620, German Samuel Brun describes the West African locals using “a little raft of three or four pieces of wood (on which)…they travel from the land out to sea, where there are such big waves that it is remarkable how these people can come through them.” At Cape Corso, Wilhelm Johann Muller notes in 1669 that children are taught to swim at an early age and observes “an enormous crowd in their daily ritual of bathing in the harbour, accompanied with considerable youthful mischief.” Clearly waveriding, either prone or on canoes, would have been instinct for these ocean savvy West African cultures. Photo : radical modern day surf exploration of West Africa by John Callahan with SurfEXPLORE in Mayumba, Gabon in 2010.


#03 : 1600s-1800s West African coastal culture : Canoes, swimming and surf-riding in West Africa : A 1712 report from the Gold Coast of West Africa by Frenchman Jean Barbot predates the first European accounts of Polynesian surfriding by fifty years. Barbot wrote “the young have no other occupation than to play in the sea, thousands playing on the large waves of the surf on the coast, carried on little boards, until the sea casts them ashore on the sand of its beaches.” Further, “the swimmers also use small bundles of rushes, fastened under their stomachs.” In 1812, Englishman Henry Meredith again describes Gold Coast locals on canoes returning to the beach and positioning “the canoe on the summit of the sea (and keeping) as straight a course as possible (heading to the) shore with surprising velocity.” For Europeans, this West African style of riding waves on canoes was greeted with enthusiastic descriptions, recorded by Paul B Du Chaillu (1867), Hugh Dyer (1876), John Whitford (1877), and illustrated in London's ‘The Graphic’ in 1891 and French publications, including this one pictured here of a canoe wipeout on a large right in Senegal or Nigeria in 1850 (courtesy of the Herve Manificat archives).


#03 : 1600s-1800s West African coastal culture : Canoes, swimming and surf-riding in West Africa : In the most detailed account of early African surfriding in 1823, Englishman John Adams describes kids along the coast of modern day Ghana playing in the ocean (using terms similar to many reports from Polynesia) on “pieces of broken canoes, which they launch, and paddle outside of the surf, when, watching a proper opportunity, they place their frail barks (boards) on the tops of high waves, which, in their progress to the shore, carry them along with great velocity.” Broken canoes, most likely splitting longitudinally with the grain, would have been readily recycled, and one possible option was as a surfboard. Adams identifies the essential skill in a successful ride following the takeoff; maintaining the board's position in curl: “…the principal art of these young canoe men consists in preserving their seats while thus hurried along, and which they can only do by steering the planks with such precision, as to prevent them broaching to; for when that occurs, they are washed off, and have to swim to regain them.” Similar to Polynesian accounts, the children, “not more than six or seven years of age” swim expertly, and surfriding is a community event, the best rides receiving “the plaudits of the spectators, who are assembled on the beach to witness their dexterity.” After arriving by local canoe through “two or three lines of heavy rollers” at Accra in modern day Ghana in 1835, James Alexander also describes surfboard riding: “boys swimming into the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf (wave); and then came rolling in like a cloud on the top of it.” One agile member of Ghana’s new wave of local surfers is pictured here, thanks to Brett Davies at Mr Brights Surf Shop/ Surf School, Ghana.


#03 : 1600s-1800s West African coastal culture : Canoes, swimming and surf-riding in West Africa : At Batanga (Cameroon) in 1861 Thomas J Hutchinson describes the local fisherman riding in their canoes where the swell breaks on an extensive reef. He notes a group of the four or six riders in small lightweight one-man canoes, describing the paddle out, takeoff, steering with a trailing paddle at speed, the wipeout, and the local crew being “capital swimmers – indeed, like the majority of the coastal (communities in West Africa), they may be reckoned amphibious.” In the second of two books of her travels to West Africa, a photograph by Mary H Kingsley in 1899 shows six Batanga men and their canoes, possibly identical to those observed by Hutchinson forty years earlier. Later in 1895 C S Smith detailed the light cork wood single canoes, further describing a narrow “saddle” laid across the gunwales, used as a seat, and with very light paddles, as they “scud over the roughest sea without danger and with almost incredible velocity.” While employed to lay undersea cables, in the book 'On a Surf-bound Coast' (1887), Archer P Crouch describes taking swimming instructions in the art of bodysurfing from the local stars. Photo by Mary H Kingsley of Batanga canoes in West Africa, 1899.


#04 : 1769 Botanist Joseph Banks writes the first description of Polynesian wave riding at Matavai Bay, Tahiti : Joseph Banks was a member of James Cook's first Pacific expedition, documenting prone surfing on the west coast of Tahiti in 1769 (a decade before Cook’s visits to Hawaii in 1778 and 1779 on his third and final Pacific voyage. While the anthropological connection between Tahiti and the Hawaii is subject to conflicting theories, it is likely that regular contact had ceased between these Polynesian cultural giants by the end of the thirteenth century). The Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in April, preparing to observe the transit of Venus over the next two months, studied by a group of scientists and artists funded by Banks. On the 28th of May, Banks and Cook left The Endeavour and travelled to the west coast by boat and then on foot, stayed overnight, then the following morning on their return to Matavai Bay, Banks records the setting for surfing in his journal: “In our return to the boat we saw the (Tahitians) amuse or exercise themselves in a manner truly surprising. It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usually the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore, a more dreadful one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no European who had by any means got into could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was covered with pebbles and large stones…” Photo: Matavai Bay is the sight of surf break Venus Point, close to Teahupoo, pictured in the striking context of the local landscape here by Tim McKenna.


#04 : 1769 Botanist Joseph Banks writes the first description of Polynesian wave riding at Matavai Bay, Tahiti : Having described the location adjacent to a break in the reef allowing “high” wave size, Banks writes: “In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 (Tahitians) were swimming (and) whenever a surf broke near them dived under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generally the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case (they) dived and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towed out again and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this very wonderful scene for (a) full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors attempted to come ashore but all seemed most highly entertained with their strange diversion.” Photo : modern-day Tahitian surf legend Manoa Drollet has been raised with this view, captured by Warren Bolster.


#04 : 1769 Botanist Joseph Banks writes the first description of Polynesian wave riding at Matavai Bay, Tahiti : Initially identifying a dozen bodysurfers, diving under the waves, Banks then describes the activities of those ‘surfing’ using “the stern of an old canoe.” Banks' report details four of the basic elements of wave-riding: the paddle-out, the takeoff, the ride-in and the pull-out. The takeoff is at “the outermost breach”, the green wave face and not merely in the whitewater. Banks' phrase “with incredible swiftness” may indicate trim, the rider apparently travelling faster than the wave speed. When the wave “broke over them” the ride ended (the pull-out) by the rider diving down and forcing the board under the water to emerge behind the wave and paddle back out. Photo : Manoa Drollet’s younger brother Matahi is pictured here by Chris Bryan, catapulting at full speed trim across the wall of a Teahupoo cave.


#04 : 1769 Botanist Joseph Banks writes the first description of Polynesian wave riding at Matavai Bay, Tahiti : The surfing account appears six weeks into the visit, long enough to have some familiarity with the culture and language but well short of the knowledge detailed in Bank's comprehensive notes on Tahitian canoes compiled ten weeks later as The Endeavour sailed south from the Society Islands. Analysis of Banks' description of the Tahitian surfcraft as “the stern of an old canoe” is confusing. One possible scenario is that the description was suggested to Banks in conversation with a Tahitian, subject to inaccuracies in translation. James Cook's policy of establishing cordial relations for trade and avoiding potential violent conflicts depended upon effective communication. Therefore, Banks' description might have referred not to the stern, but to the bow (stem or head) of a canoe. Thirty years later, missionary James Wilson would use exactly such a description when describing surfing in Tahiti: “a small board…like the fore part of a canoe.” British explorers documented in 1767 that there were three different designs go Tahitian canoe: the all-purpose single log canoe with outrigger, a large double canoe suitable for inter-island voyages, and a large double canoe with a covered superstructure for royal or ceremonial use. The largest of the double-hull design was the fighting canoe with elongated sterns (often elaborately decorated with carvings and banners denoting rank or status) up to 18 feet above the waterline. As Banks notes: “the form of these canoes is better to be expressed by a drawing than by any description.” There are a numerous works by visiting European artists illustrating the various designs of Tahitian canoes. This painting of war canoes is from 1774.

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