A surfer on a wave

A surfer on a wave

The origin of surfing is a debated topic. We unpack surfing’s history and explore how it became the global phenomenon it is today.

If you’re hoping to continue surfing in British waters this season, make sure you get sufficiently suited with our range of women’s and men’s winter wetsuits!


The Mystery of Surfing


How exactly surfing came about remains relatively unknown. Watercraft used in both the history of West Africa and Peru resemble activities close to surfing, but Hawaii is the most recognised place for advanced wave riding.


The Journey of Surfing


Our infographic explores the discovery of surfing, and how it became an almost lost tradition!


Wetsuit Centre infographic on A Brief History of Surfing | The Origins

The ‘Caballito de Totora’

The ‘Caballito de Totora’ is a famous watercraft used by Peruvian fishermen over 4,000 years ago!

The ‘Caballito de Totora’ is a small boat woven from reeds. They can catch waves by the rider sitting, kneeling or standing on them. It has led some to conclude that it is enough evidence to suggest that surfing was invented in Peru.

In fact, the winner of the 1965 World Surfing Championships, Felipe Pomar, firmly thinks that Peru was the birthplace of surfing.

Over time, Peru’s involvement in surfing has attracted more interest. In 2013, the Peruvian home of the ‘Caballitos de Totora’, Huanchaco, was awarded a World Surfing Reserve and has developed a reputation as ‘the birthplace of surfing.

A beach in Hawaii

Polynesian Origins


However, surfing is more commonly associated with Polynesian culture and widely recognised to derive from the Polynesian Islands, in particular Hawaii.

Why, you may wonder? Firstly, wave riding in Hawaii is thought to have been the ‘most advanced’. And, secondly, it was better documented when first discovered there. It was also intrinsic to Polynesian culture.

The news of the existence of surfing properly reached across the globe by the end of the 1770s. While exploring the Polynesian islands, Lieutenant James King and Captain James Cook witnessed surfers riding waves in the oceans surrounding Tahiti and Hawaii.

‘Wave sliding’ was believed to be practised by the Polynesian communities for centuries before its initial ‘discovery’ by Captain Cook and his accomplices. William Anderson, who was a surgeon on Captain Cook’s exploration, first described it in his 1777 journal.


Surfing and Polynesian Culture


Surfing was, and is, incredibly significant to Polynesian culture. While being a fun past time, it also holds deep origins within the culture.

Surfing was important and practised by the whole of the community. People would compete against each other to earn social status and respect, which was all dependent on their surfing abilities. All genders, social classes and ages took part in the activity!

Surfers catching a wave in turquoise waters

How Did Surfing Grow?


Duke Kahanamoku was an inspiring surfing icon that promoted the sport as he travelled during the early 20th century. He was an incredible athlete who won many medals for swimming during the Olympics in the early 20th century, as well as being a talented and enthusiastic surfer.

Duke Kahanamoku would demonstrate the sport as he travelled, causing many locations across the world to have a surge of interest in the sport, including California and Australia.

Of course, the explosion of surfing isn’t singularly dependent on Duke Kahanamoku. Even before Kahanamoku came George Fleet. Fleet was a Hawaiian surfer who demonstrated the sport when he visited the west coast in 1907, causing a bit of a sensation! However, Kahanamoku was one of the most influential surfing figures, thanks to his popularity.

It is worth remembering that each country across the world will have its unique history and influential figures that pioneered and popularised surfing in local areas over the 20th century.

Thanks to the British Museum of Surfing, we can learn about the inspiring figures and pivotal moments in history that brought the beloved sport to the UK today.


Globalised Surfing


Since the 1960s, surfing has dominated the coastal scenes in locations across the world.

Professional competitions for international surf competitors were introduced in the 1960s, becoming what we know today as the World Surf League.

Now, many surfing enthusiasts eagerly watch the WSL to see the best professional surfers across the planet compete.

What are your opinions on the origins of surfing? Why not share your thoughts on our social media channels; we would love to know what you think! In the meantime, discover our brief history of female surfers below: