The spiritual importance of the ocean traces back to the origins of surfing. Riding prone on short, wooden, curved-nose boards, is 3,000 to 4,000 years old. It appeared independently along the coastlines of West Africa and around the Pacific from New Guinea to Easter Island. In Peru, depictions on pottery of reed fishing canoes being surfed standing up date back to 1,000BC. Wave-riding became embedded in the Polynesian cultures of New Zealand, Tahiti and Marquesas. When the ocean-roaming Polynesians settled Hawaii in 400AD, stand-up surfing developed into a complex cultural practice. Expert surfboard-makers searched forests for suitable trees, felled them, carefully worked them with coral sanding blocks, polished them with stones and stained them with vegetable dyes and glossed them with nut oil. The board – to the educated eye – could be seen ‘in’ the tree before felling. Boards were blessed before ridden to celebrate the spirit of place. Contemporary Hawaiian surfer and builder and rider of traditional olo, alaia and paipo boards Tom Phaku Stone, recounts this blessing: “Greetings from our ancestors. Greetings from our guardians, the many Gods of this island, of the ocean. Thank you for the spirit of this tree.” Entering the soul – the heartwood – of the tree is a shamanic journey, to ask the tree to ‘give away’ or offer its soul for human use. Like every animal that is hunted, every tree felled this way must have its apology.
The board became a spirited family member. But surfing was ‘the sport of kings and queens’ - 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. The Hawaiians wrote love stories around surfing. Surfing was feminised - the ancient break Kekaiomamala (The Sea of Mamala) was named after a woman champion. The board was her status symbol. One Hawaiian legend tells of a good-looking local enticed by a gorgeous chieftess to ride alongside her at a Waikiki break reserved for royalty. He was nearly executed by the ruling chief, saving himself only after he was able to skewer 400 rats with a single shot. The democratising of surfing is one of the great success stories of post-war America, where, in California in the 1950s, surfing gained an identity as a sport where ‘all can be kings and queens’.
Sadly, the missionary zeal of colonising Europeans interpreted Polynesia surfing rituals as pagan sins. But thankfully Hawaiian surfers were able to re-connect with their ancestral surf culture through the development of tourism in the early 1900s, as surfing became a symbol for American tourists to consume, as a mark of a healthy lifestyle. Now annexed territory of the USA, the Hawaiian economy switched from sugar to tourism. Hawaiian arts were promoted, including hula, a living theatre that accompanied an oral tradition of poetry and was often danced for Pele the fire goddess. Tourism presented a market for beach lifeguarding, surf lessons and professional hula troupes, entertaining locals and visitors at luaus (outdoor parties). Hawaiian music used intricate drumming templates, split bamboo sticks, gourd rattles, castanet pebbles and hardwood sticks. Famously, imported guitars and ukuleles had their strings ‘slackened’ to suit traditional Hawaiian songs. The slack key guitar and its tones echoed the laconic style of traditional Hawaiian surfing, where grace was held above aggression as the main virtue of surfers. Even the wipeout must be graceful. The surfer pops up, not in an angry lather but thankful that the gods have spared him or her. And now, in the long shadow of Polynesian royalty, there was a divide between the ocean-savvy (and tourist-savvy) Waikiki ‘Beachboys’ working for the tourism trade and the surfers riding for non-commercial gain.
The island’s best local surfers, swimmers, paddlers and canoe-racers, including George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, founded the Hui Nalu (Club of Waves) in 1908. “I see the sharks all the time,” said Duke, who swam well out to sea in daily practice. “I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me.” Duke earned a place in the American swimming team for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. He won gold in the 100 metres freestyle, and successfully defended his title in 1920 in Antwerp (there were no Games in 1916), winning silver in 1924 in Paris (the Chariots of Fire Olympics), where his brother Samuel won bronze. Invited to give swimming exhibitions around the world, Duke travelled with a 10 feet wooden alaia board. He was recognised internationally as the emissary of surfing, solidifying a reputation of expert Hawaiian watermen and women. His wave riding was intimately bound with tourism and promoting surfing as a future Olympic sport. But surfing was still too small to divide opinion about ‘soul’ versus ‘sell-out’.
In Sydney in 1915 Duke surfed at Freshwater Beach and picked out sixteen years old Isabella Letham from a large crowd to have a go: Australia’s first stand-up wonder. With thousands of miles of coastline, and an already established beach lifesaving culture, surfing was a natural step for the bronzed Aussies. In 1920 even England’s extrovert Prince Edward was pictured having surf lessons from Duke at Waikiki: “He was especially delighted with surfing … frightfully keen about it,” the royal entourage reported. A ‘surfing’ entry made the 1929 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica picturing Waikiki, and “Hawaiians gliding shoreward standing on boards, as if gods, propelled by the waves.” The next decade Prince Edward became King, but abdicated to the Bahamas, apparently bitten by the beach life.
Surfing spread and grew thanks to trailblazers such as George Freeth and Tom Blake, however, in the 1930s and ‘40s, surfboards were heavy and cumbersome. In order to really popularise and democratise surfing, boards needed to be lighter and more readily transported. This would also encourage women, children, older people and those with disabilities to participate - making surfing inclusive. The developments of plastics in the 1950s (ultimately to the detriment of the surfing environment), harnessed from the aeronautics industry, would allow surfboards to become lighter and stronger. Fibreglass (invented in Germany during the First World War) was praised for its ‘magical’ surfboard properties - flexibility combined with durability. In California, a unique combination of technology, middle class kids with time on their hands, cultural context, coastal environments and marketing from Hollywood helped surfing boom. In America more widely gender and racial inequalities were being questioned and addressed, and more bohemian lifestyles were tolerated. The arts enjoyed an explosion of innovation. Post-war attitudes towards participation in sports allowed inclusion. California was seen as a spearhead of liberation in terms of social values.
The alchemy of eccentric surfboard designers and easy to ride waves allowed a particular kind of expressive surfing – walking the board, drop-knee turns and hanging ten, signalling the emergence of style in surfing. Rolling all ten toes over the tip of the board was hugely significant - it would become the ultimate (but elusive) manoeuvre in surfing at the time. Riding the nose seemed to motion what America valued culturally in the aftermath of the Second World War - light, effervescent balance meets risk. Soda consumption, the race for the conquest of space, upward mobility and the boom in light entertainment was rooted in facing the unknown (not to mention the geological instability of living on the San Andreas fault line). So-called ‘extreme sports’ were born in this ferment, putting adrenaline, style and risk in an alchemical mix. Ambition demanded that you get on the tip and balance there, against nature, against gravity.
The crashing ocean, with its ozone-filled spray, became the playground for the young. Surfing became associated with the Californian love of leisure and health, the wide, open lung of the Pacific breathing life into a post-war generation. But surfers were also outsiders, agitators, who would develop instinctive understanding of meteorology, coastal geomorphology and oceanography, and openly call themselves a new ‘surfing royalty’, following what was preserved for kings and queens in Polynesia and democratising this. The Californian revolution was complete and its new flag was that of peace and transparency based on a chemical revolution.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) was published in the same year as Frederick Kohner’s Gidget (1957), relaying the story of his daughter (Kathy ‘Gidget’ Kohner) learning to surf in summertime Malibu. Putman Books sold the film rights for Gidget to Columbia Pictures. The first Gidget movie (1959) featured Sandra Dee and James Darren, with images that advertised a sensual freedom, especially for young women, and the explosive bikini (named after the Pacific atoll testing ground of the atomic bomb). Hollywood produced its own version of the soul surfer in Gidget. Kahuna (played by Cliff Robertson) was the local rebel who wore Wayfarer shades, played pranks, lived on a beach in a hut and never missed a beat. But Kahuna was based on Malibu beach resident Terry ‘Tubesteak’ Tracy, the personification of the anti-authoritarian surf subculture that emerged in the late ‘50s. Further, Gidget captured the emerging ‘us’ and ‘them’ (often from inland, or the ‘valley’) mentality in Californian surfing. The phenomenon of the ‘ho-dad’ arose - those who adopt surfing culture’s artefacts but don’t surf.
The development of simple, light roof racks and availability of cheap automobiles and smooth asphalt highways meant that inland (‘valley’) surfers could hit the coast, perhaps in a Ford ‘Woodie’. So began the need for wave forecasting, an intuitive surf science of meteorology and expert coastal geology. Locals might say ‘You should have been here yesterday’. One Malibu surfer was so light-footed that he was nicknamed ‘Da Cat’ – but you’d better not get on the end of those claws! Micki Dora possessed an irascible temper and was famous for getting into scrapes. As crowds grew, aggressive territorial ‘localism’ was born and the biggest insult was to be labelled a ‘kook’ (a beginner). In its wake came language (‘dude’, ‘rad’), ‘shaka’ signs, reverberating electric guitar and drum based surf music (again, Dick Dale, the Surfaris), clothes (Hawaiian print boardshort baggies, heavy cotton crew neck T-shirts with screen printed logos on the back), bleached hair, skateboarding shoes (Vans), hoodies before hip-hop, magazines (with in-your-face photography and cutting-edge graphics) and films – whetting appetites for discovery.
While the beats smoked marijuana, studied Buddhism and developed stream of consciousness writing, Phil Edwards was voted ‘the best surfer in the world’ in a 1960 reader poll in Californian based Surfer magazine, and arguably the first ‘soul surfing’ hero (because he didn’t participate in any competitions). Edwards modelled the longboarding repertoire in a pioneering 1959 surf film by Bud Browne called Cat on a Hot Foam Board, a take on Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). While Sal and Dean were dancing ‘mambo jambo’ in Mexico in Kerouac’s On the Road, Californian surfers were also heading to Mexico, described as ‘loose’, ‘relaxed’, ‘open toed’ and ‘cool’ in Bruce Browne’s Barefoot Adventure (1960) and Surfing Hollow Days (1961). This surf-inscribed beach culture lifestyle was echoed in the early pop music of The Beach Boys - a paradoxical translation as only one of the band’s members had ever surfed (whereas most surfers were probably listening to Ray Charles' call and response soul sizzler What'd I Say)....