A People’s History of Surfing
From its Hawaiian origins to the postwar surf craze, surfing has been a defiant challenge to the Calvinist work ethic and the commercial pressures of capitalism. But those malign social forces may now finally succeed in extinguishing the spirit of surfing.
For over two centuries, Western industrial capitalism has been waging a war on the soul of surfing. From its origins as an indigenous Hawaiian pastime, through its counterculture heyday, surfing has weathered a series of attacks, but the technological advances of late capitalism and the brutal market logic of neoliberalism may spell the end of surfing as we have known it.
The marketing of surfing as a commodity has a much wider cultural resonance. In the words of Cornel West (a native Californian, but not a surfer as far as we know): “One of the ways in which capitalism reproduces itself is the commodification of everybody and everything.” The history of surfing is a case in point.
It is next to impossible to explain surfing. Only a fool would try to put the experience into words. Writing about surfing requires a knowledge of geography, physics, and poetry.
Surfers ride pulses of energy moving through the ocean. These pulses are created by fierce storms beyond the horizon. As they move through thousands of miles of open ocean (known as “fetch”), they sort themselves into sets of waves. As that energy approaches a coastline, be it a sandy beach, rocky point, or coral reef, the waves fold over themselves or “break.”
Surfers, positioning themselves into a very precise spot, use their physical strength, unconscious muscle memory, and embodied knowledge of place to paddle boards in the direction of the breaking wave in the aim of catching that energy. At that moment, often a few seconds but at some rare locations up to a minute or a touch longer, the wave is rideable. The surfer is propelled forward by the interaction of the wave’s energy with the underwater topographic features.
And then the energy dissipates. The moment is gone. That wave, that singular band of energy, will never exist again and the surfer’s ride is over.
What is that brief ride? A dance? Poetry? A communion with nature and the forces of the universe? It is frivolous, pointless, and often even selfish. Surfing serves no materially useful purpose, beyond tending to the wave rider’s psychological ecology.
The act of riding waves is deeply satisfying in ways that lead one toward metaphysical explanations. Generations of surfers, addicted to such moments of transcendental bliss, have made material sacrifices to be there, in the water, at a specific beach, point, or reef, at the exact moment when the waves will be at their best. Surfing has created communities of outsiders who eschew traditional capitalist motivations and purposefully live on the actual margins of landed society.
Then there are those who see surfing and think it is a sport: a game, a competition with rules and judges to sort out winners from losers. Others see a lifestyle that can be commodified and sold for profit.
Captain Cook and the Kānaka Maoli
Various forms of wave riding go back centuries in what is today Peru and West Africa, but the origins of what most would identify as surfing — lying prone on a board and paddling with one’s arms into a wave — are undeniably Hawaiian. Captain James Cook’s account of his ill-fated “discovery” of the islands (posthumously completed by James King) contains the oldest Western description of surfing:
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.
Women and men of all social classes surfed, but some hold that the best waves were reserved for the ali’i, the Indigenous social elite. Without romanticizing the past, it is not hard to imagine the joy of these precolonial surfers.
While Cook’s mission was a scientific voyage, he was amassing knowledge for the British Empire to facilitate its global economic expansion and opened the floodgates of Western contact with Hawaii. Within a generation, Honolulu and Lahaina became busy ports of call for European and American global whaling fleets.
The consequences were disastrous. At sea, the rapacious hunters slaughtered the planet’s largest mammals for their lucrative oil and bones. On land, haole (strangers or white people) spread a host of diseases amongst the Kānaka Maoli or Indigenous people. Smallpox, tuberculosis, and the common cold took a heavy toll, as did sexually transmitted diseases and fearsome illnesses such as leprosy.
The subsequent demographic collapse threw Hawaiian culture into chaos. The physically and psychologically destabilized communities were prime targets for Protestant missionaries. Arriving in the 1820s, a series of stern New Englanders told the Kānaka Maoli that these plagues were a punishment from God for their sinful ways.
Calvinism and Conquest
As they accrued political influence amongst the ali’i, the Christian arrivals suppressed traditional religion and culture, including hula (dance) and mele (chant or song). Suspicious of human flesh, they forced the wearing of Western-style clothing in the tropical heat. Obviously, the missionaries did not approve of surfing as it was practiced in the nude.
But surfing was also a frivolous waste of time for these North American Calvinists. They despised wave riding and other aspects of the athletic Indigenous lifestyle as heathen sloth and folly. The repression of surfing was part of a larger cultural and economic assault on Hawaiian traditions that culminated in the Great Māhele of 1848: the imposition of private property upon the Hawaiian land.
Suddenly, land became a commodity, rendering the tradition of communal subsistence impossible and forcing the Kānaka Maoli into wage labor on the new haole-owned sugar plantations, harvesting timber, or in the growing port cities. This nineteenth-century Shock Doctrine, wrapped up in Calvinist moralism, was a near-fatal blow to surfing.
However, when King David Kalākaua took the throne in the 1870s, he revived surfing. In a calculated effort to defend Hawaii from rapacious Western imperialists, Kalākaua sought to revitalize his people’s health and spirit by promoting hula and other Indigenous traditions such as wave riding.
In the end, his efforts failed, as American capital found impressive returns in the expanding sugar industry. Haole settlers overthrew the monarchy in 1893 and established a white supremacist settler republic. In 1898, the United States formally — albeit illegally — annexed the archipelago. Politically disenfranchised and economically marginalized, the Kānaka Maoli continued to suffer demographic decline as the haole plantation owners imported laborers from Japan, China, and the Philippines.
It took just over a century for Western capitalism to turn the Indigenous community into an impoverished and disempowered minority. Historian Isaiah Helekunihi Walker argues that many Kānaka Maoli found refuge from this horror in Hawaii’s waves.
As Scott Laderman has shown, ironically, Western capital revived surfing in the early twentieth century. As the sugar-producing islands became an American territory, haole entrepreneurs promoted the archipelago, especially Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, as a tourist destination. Their campaigns recast Hawaiian wave riding as an experiential commodity that wealthy white travelers could purchase, made safe and accessible through the Waikiki Beach Boy services.
When Alexander Hume Ford, a South Carolina businessman from a plantation-owning family, settled in Hawaii in 1907 he was captivated by surfing. Despite having entered middle age and being a malihini (a scornful term for newcomers), he soon became a proficient surfer. In 1908, he founded the Outrigger Canoe Club to promote wave riding and other Hawaiian water sports.
For all its embrace of Indigenous activities, the Outrigger was segregated. The elite private club remained a bastion of white supremacy on Hawaii throughout the twentieth century. Its leadership featured many of the prominent political figures and businessmen who orchestrated the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Ford’s vision of a Hawaii “redeemed from the Oriental, fortified and Americanized as it should be” was manifested in the Outrigger Canoe Club.
Ford used surfing to lure Western investors to the territory. Surfing was a soft-power compliment to his other efforts at boosterism, such as the Pan-Pacific Union, an organization designed to encourage the transoceanic flow of capital, and his Mid-Pacific Magazine.
In a 1909 article in Collier’s, Ford could scarcely control his enthusiasm for surfing, imperialism, and white supremacy:
At the recent surfing carnivals in honor of the visits of the American battleship and later of the cruiser fleets, practically every prize offered for those most expert in Hawaiian water sports were won by white boys and girls, who have only recently mastered the art that was for so long believed to be possible of acquirement only by the native-born, dark-skinned Hawaiian.
At the Christmas contest, for the third time a white boy now fourteen years of age won the medal given to the most expert surfboarder; he came in a hundred yards before a monster roller standing on his head.
The white man and boy are doing much in Hawaii to develop the art of surf-riding. Games and feats never dreamed of by the native are being tried.
Ford promoted surfing as a form of racist, social Darwinian competition, emphasizing who was the best, as opposed to an egalitarian appreciation of communal joy or celebration of wave riding’s metaphysical possibilities:
In Hawaii the Japanese children outnumber the whites and natives combined; the Chinese children are as numerous, and the Portuguese, who are in a class by themselves, more than equal the number of American-born children in Hawaii; yet it is the white children only who have successfully mastered the Hawaiian sports.
I was more than amused when learning to ride the surfboard to notice that the Japanese seemed never able to acquire the difficult knack, while the small white boy very quickly became, more adept than the native himself.
If the Hawaiian tradition of surfing played a central role in Ford’s tireless promotion of Hawaii as a tropical paradise, he presented the “Sport of Kings” as thoroughly colonized and commodified. Visitors to Waikiki Beach, including Jack London, could now pay native Hawaiian “Beach Boys” to teach them to surf.
Southern California real estate developers seized upon Ford’s strategy of using surfing to attract capital. While on vacation in the islands, railway magnate Henry Huntington saw a young George Freeth enjoying the waves at Waikiki. He recruited the hapa haole (mixed-race) Hawaiian-Irish waterman to give daily surfing demonstrations at Huntington’s resort in Redondo Beach. Completing the fetishization of Freeth and of surfing, wealthy visitors could hire Freeth for private surfing lessons. He died in California during the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Along with the subsequent fame of Olympic medal winner Duke Kahanamoku, Freeth’s image popularized surfing on the American mainland. However, the unwieldy handmade wood surfboards (which weighed up to a hundred pounds) of the era and California’s chilly water temperatures ensured that surfing remained a niche sport, practiced by a hardy few and only in a few beach communities.
The Surfing Boom
Surfing’s popularity exploded in the 1960s as the Baby Boomers entered their teenage years. America’s military-industrial complex created new technologies such as polyurethane or polystyrene foam that transformed the material practice of surfing. Foam coated in fiberglass and sealed with polyester resin allowed for lighter, cheaper, and more maneuverable surfboards, significantly lowering the barriers to entry.
Motivated by a desire to spend more time surfing in Northern California’s frigid waters, Jack O’Neill began making and selling neoprene surfing wetsuits in 1952 in his San Francisco garage. Suddenly, two hours in the surf at Santa Cruz or winter conditions in Los Angeles were no longer potentially life-threatening. At the time, few contemplated the irony of using these incredibly toxic petrochemical products, often produced by the likes of Dupont and Dow Chemical Company, to commune with the ocean.
Surf culture fit nicely with the general ethos of youth freedom and rebellion. Many romanticized the image of the surfer as the ultimate drop out. Turning their back on American consumerism, surfers lived in harmony with nature and refused to be tied down to a nine-to-five job. The cheeky Gidget series popularized Southern California beach culture, but it was Bruce Brown’s 1965 breakthrough film, The Endless Summer, that brought this mythology to Middle America.
It became cool to look like a surfer, even if you didn’t know which side of the board to wax. Hollywood continued to cash in on the popularity of surfing via the Gidget sequels and sitcom, as well as the litany of beach blanket surf films of the late ’60s. Suddenly, the small surfing communities saw the power of organized capital commodifying and selling their organic local beach culture.
Countercultural, anti-hero figures such as Malibu’s Miki Dora openly disdained the mass popularity of surfing as novice water sports enthusiasts, often from the despised inland valley communities, overran their beloved beaches. Since the number of rideable waves is a finite resource, growing crowds led to fierce and sometimes violent competition in the water.
In an infamous series of events Dora, known as “Da Cat,” struck surfers who “stole” his wave with his surfboard, made obscene gestures at surf photographers, posed as if he was being crucified on a cross of surfboards, and entered a contest only to expose his naked rear end to the judges. As Dora put it himself:
I ride for pleasure only. Professionalism will be completely destructive to any control an individual has over the sport at present. The organizers will call the shots, collect the profits, while the wave rider does all the labor and receives little. Also, since surfing’s alliance with the decadent big-business interests is designed only as a temporary damper to complete fiscal collapse, the completion of such a partnership will serve only to accelerate the art’s demise. A surfer should think carefully before selling his being to these “people,” since he’s signing his own death warrant as a personal entity.
Da Cat’s statement was a counterattack against capitalism’s war for the soul of surfing.
Counterculture and Commerce
Many of Dora’s tactics were objectionable. While his flirtation with Nazi symbols did reveal some deep-seated racism, we should primarily understand it as testosterone-fueled rage and a provocation of bourgeois social norms. Without dismissing his truly abhorrent acts, we must recognize that Dora hated the commodification of surf culture and thus tried to save it by making it unmarketable.
Yet even Dora was personally implicated in the sellout by acting as a stunt surfer in the first Gidget movie and landing roles in all the major Hollywood surf-sploitation films. Other surfing icons such as Greg Noll and Hap Jacobs more readily accepted the trend, positioning themselves to reap the retail whirlwind of growing market shares.
Horrified by increasing crowds and the commercialization of their lifestyle, privileged American and Australian surfers set out in search of their own endless summer idyll — perfect, empty waves in exotic foreign lands. Mexican, Central American, and Southeast Asian coastal communities were bemused by an influx of young white men risking their lives in clearly dangerous maritime conditions that local fishermen had avoided for generations.
For real surfers, Alby Falzon and David Elfick’s 1972 Morning of the Earth was the apotheosis of surfing as countercultural rebellion. Shot on location in rural Australia, Oahu’s famed North Shore, and exotic Indonesia, the film depicts sun-bronzed and golden-haired hippy guys living an alternative lifestyle on cooperative farms, exploring vegetarianism, and making their own surfboards in barns (while blissfully ignoring the potential health impacts of their equipment). Sequences of impossibly perfect waves breaking beneath the spectacular Hindu temples at Uluwatu in Bali paired with a powerful folk-psychedelic soundtrack to convince an untold number of disillusioned Americans that surf travel could be an enlightening spiritual act.
These surfers traveled on a budget and exploited the relative strength of the American or Australian dollar against the Mexican peso or Indonesian rupiah. Since much of the joy came from discovering waves far from the suffocating crowds of Los Angeles or Queensland, accommodations and transportation proved challenging. In this era, surf explorers often lodged with families, ate local food, and struck deals with skeptical fishmen for rides to remote reefs and beaches.
But indefinite travel without a job will eventually deplete your funds. In Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade, Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter document how some turned to smuggling pot to finance their adventures. Others trafficked more profitable, albeit more dangerous, commodities such as Southeast Asian heroin and Latin American cocaine.
In a surreal moment, one of the stars of The Endless Summer, Mike Hynson, made a cameo in the Jimi Hendrix “documentary” Rainbow Bridge (1971). In the film, he inexplicably showed how he and other traffickers smuggled drugs via secret compartments inside their surfboards. The bizarre and incoherent film raises many questions, but why Hynson would give away such tradecraft remains unanswered.
The surfing/narcotrafficking nexus made the image of surfer-as-rebel seem even cooler. Yet the drug trade’s easy money injected a fatal dose of greed and materialism.
Resistance in Hawaii
Hawaiian surf continued to beckon wave riders. With statehood in 1959, tourism entered an unprecedented boom. Within a decade, a massive building boom transformed Waikiki. However, in the 1970s, the attraction was not the relatively gentle rolling waves of Waikiki but the much larger, challenging, and life-threatening winter surf on the North Shore at Sunset Beach, Banzai Pipeline, and Waimea Bay.
As haoles from California and Australia overwhelmed the sleepy plantation town of Haleiwa, drove up rents in the rural community, and crowded the seven miles of coastline that are home to some of the world’s most iconic waves, the local community became increasingly annoyed and hostile.
The onslaught of neocolonial tourism coincided with a renaissance in Hawaiian nationalism. Many Hawaiians felt left out of the economic boom from the advent of professional surfing competitions with national television coverage and large corporate sponsors like Smirnoff vodka.
In 1975, a group of mostly native Hawaiian surfers founded the Hui He’e O Nalu, a club to protect Hawaii’s surf. Its members were clad in matching black shorts with a red and yellow stripe — colors that culturally signified belonging to the indigenous ali’i ruling classes, which had deemed certain surf spots as kapu, reserved only for themselves, or off-limits to commoners by punishment of death. They engaged in strong-arm tactics against haole surfers who they deemed disrespectful.
Surfing journalist Chas Smith has discussed how Da Hui, as it is known, forced professional surfing to give Hawaiian surfers a piece of the pie. Historian Isaiah Helekunihi Walker frames Da Hui’s work as a form of anti-colonial resistance and a challenge to capitalist commercialization of surfing.
Looking the Part
Professional surfing had rather modest origins in the 1970s. Buzzy Kerbox, a young haole from Hawaii, recalls that when he started to compete internationally, his first sponsor gave him a T-shirt and some bars of wax. As the 1980s wore on, more money flowed in.
Professional surfers made some money off contest winnings, but their real income came from their clothing sponsors. While selling surfing equipment such as boards and accessories was not particularly lucrative, surfing-related clothing brands boomed for some two decades.
Surfing is hard, not everyone can do it well, and most people live too far from the beach to actually have that idealized lifestyle. But looking like a surfer is easy. Anyone can walk into a mall in Honolulu, Los Angeles, or Chicago and buy surf clothes.
The new “surf industry” commodified what was once a subculture. The real job of professional surfers was modeling clothing for big fashion conglomerates that had an increasingly tenuous connection to the sport.
Kelly Slater, a young Floridian with seemingly unnatural talent that has so far led him to eleven world championship titles, was surfing’s first breakout star. Until he went prematurely bald, Slater’s pretty-boy good looks made him an ideal model for the surf-fashion industry. A shrewd businessman, he parlayed his impressive competition record into a role on the television show Baywatch and a series of investment opportunities.
Slater became the ultimate industry insider. Focusing on surfing as competition and his personal financial success, he personified a new generation of fully corporatized professional surfers who had little in common with the counterculture ethos of the Morning of the Earth era.
The influx of capital transformed surf travel. Entrepreneurs established surf camps at isolated breaks in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Initially they were Spartan operations, but by the mid-1990s, destinations like Tavarua in Fiji could offer luxury accommodation, high-end food, and exclusive access to certain surf breaks for those willing to pay thousands of dollars for a week of surfing.
In Indonesia, where surfers had once hired wooden fishing boats and eaten whatever the crew was able to catch, high-end yachts with air conditioning, flat screen televisions, and plentiful supplies of ice-cold beer became the norm. Those who travel to the El Salvador of right-wing president Nayib Bukele today are met at the airport, driven to secure beachfront compounds, and protected by men with shotguns. Wealth shields these surfers for having to worry about the country’s notorious street crime, endemic poverty, or the history of US support for right-wing death squads.
Technology and Transformation
Current technology is transforming surfing at a dizzying pace. The end result may be a soulless hobby with only the most superficial relationship to its Hawaiian roots.
Previously, surf travel was a risky undertaking that required time and patience, as well as local knowledge and luck. As the best waves are generated by unpredictable storms thousands of miles away, the chances of not finding perfect conditions were high. The classic surf trip was a prolonged endeavor, since one needed a large enough window to ensure success. Many surf travelers had an ambiguous commitment to their careers or sought seasonal work in fields like construction, hospitality, or Alaskan fishing.
However, advances in satellite imagery and weather forecasting have changed everything. Currently, one can subscribe to services that predict the arrival of a swell and wind conditions up to a week or more in advance. Sufficiently wealthy surfers can pay premium prices for last-minute tickets, arriving with the surf and leaving when the swell goes flat. Broadband connections in remote Central American villages and on tiny islands in the Indian Ocean allow members of the professional managerial class to maintain their obligations.
Gone are the days of the endless summer, a fantasy of indefinite travel. Now surfers speak of “strike missions” of three or four days with carefully planned itineraries. With such logistics and global connectivity, elite surf travel is no longer a harrowing adventure into the unknown or an enlightening cultural exchange. Rather, it has become a curated experience, booked in advance and cushioned from day-to-day living conditions in the locale.
High-tech surf forecasting has also changed surf culture within the industrial West. Because of the unreliability of the ocean, surfers have traditionally needed to live in close proximity to the coast. Daily morning surf checks were the norm. If there were waves, work would be postponed.
Many contractors learned not to hire surfers or to factor in their flakiness. A life tuned into the cycles of the sea made it difficult for dedicated surfers to conform to traditional white-collar career trajectories, giving beach culture a solidly blue-collar vibe.
For-profit surf forecasting revolutionized the ability of the professional managerial class to surf. Knowing there will be quality waves a week to ten days in advance allows for scheduling around the surf. For white-collar workers living an hour or more from the coast, this was a tremendous development.
It was also a disaster for those who lived on the coast, earning a living in construction, the service industry, or fishing. Forecasting technology allows surfers without a geographic connection to coastal communities to access the best waves without the sacrifices made by members of those communities.
Surfing Against Nature
The technological distortion of surfing is best seen in the advent of the wave pool. In 2015, a video shocked the surfing world. It depicted Kelly Slater riding an impossibly perfect and exceptionally long wave in a man-made lake. Professional surfing’s mega-star revealed the secret project: the Kelly Slater Wave Ranch at Lemoore, California, in the dusty, landlocked San Joaquin valley, a hundred miles from the ocean.
The money involved in this enterprise is staggering. For $50,000 a day, one can rent out the country club–style venue. As developers from Palm Springs, California, to Waco, Texas, scramble to open a host of new wave parks, real estate speculators are driving up local property values.
Artificial waves, as perfect and enticing as they may be, raise serious philosophical questions about the nature of surfing that resonate with Walter Benjamin’s observations in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Can riding a factory-made wave have anything in common with the metaphysical connection with the natural world that so many surfers have described?
What does it mean that a machine can repeatedly produce the exact same wave? What does it mean to ride a wave free of nature’s imperfections? Is that still surfing? What does it mean to sell these waves as specific units of a commodity? What is the market value of a wave?
There are serious environmental implications of being able to “surf” without a healthy ocean. Surfing’s connection with the natural world has been a conduit for an immersive relationship with the oceanic environment. This relationship has led surfers to become stewards of the local ecosystems, protecting the places where they live and play.
But what happens if surf parks become the new surf dream trip — as Indonesia’s remote Mentawai islands were in the 1990s — and the daydream fantasy for upcoming generations of surfers is completely disassociated from nature? Surfers, who have been frontline protesters and protectors of the oceanic environment in the past, may no longer be as invested in the fight to protect the oceans from its rampant desecration in the service of global capitalist exploitation.
The development and operation of these parks are extremely energy- and resource-intensive. Wave machine’s energy consumption rates are closely guarded secrets and public relations firms are green washing the industry, but the number of currently proposed projects around the world is jaw-dropping.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it may be Silicon Valley that completely alienates surfing from its roots. Like many young men in the tech industry, Mark Zuckerberg was drawn to the allure of wave riding but lacked the years of experience it takes to become a competent surfer. But for those with at least $12,000 to spare, there is a shortcut.
Novices can use electric-foil surfboards, known as e-foils, to artificially propel themselves into waves. Zuckerberg is so smitten with the surfing lifestyle that he has purchased a massive ocean front compound on Kaua’i. Echoing Henry Huntington’s use of George Freeth, the Meta tycoon pays some of the world’s most accomplished surfers to tutor him in the ocean.
On the Fourth of July last year, Zuckerberg released evidence of what a wealthy beginner surfer can and cannot buy. The short video shows him e-foiling as he holds a large American flag. While he may be engaging in some form of surfing, it’s clear that style, authenticity, and soul are not for sale.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Zuckerberg has merged his new hobby with his techno-futurist plans for us all. When he unveiled the Metaverse in the fall of 2021, the surreal video promo contained a bizarre sequence of the Meta CEO and surf star Kai Lenny foil surfing in a video game.
As with wave parks, Metaverse “surfing” carries the same threat of disconnecting would-be surfers from an actual ocean. But this prospect is even more disorienting and sinister, as it is easy to imagine a not-too-distant future in which we take Meta vacations to escape the hellscape our climate change–ravaged planet has become.
Zuckerberg’s performances, whether with his paid entourage of sycophants helping him into waves he can’t catch on his own, or in his virtual-reality fantasy world where he can surf as well as Kai Lenny, may signal capitalism’s victory over what was once hailed as the Sport of Kings. The sale of digitized surfing experience resonates with Cornel West’s observation about capitalism’s “commodification of everybody and everything.”
The shift into industrial wave pools and the virtual world signals a potential abandonment of surfing’s traditional geography as a space of transcendental self-realization, self-empowerment, community building, and potential disruption of the existing landed power structures of sociopolitical and capitalistic hierarchies. The waves have always acted as a great equalizer. But if surfing’s future is outside of the ocean, then the two-hundred-year war for the soul of surfing may finally be lost.