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How Did Surfing Arrive in Southern California?

by
Apr 7th, 2021

Surf culture makes up a large part of Southern California's identity. Sitting on the sandy beaches guarantees at least a few sightings of eager surfers gripping their boards tight while eyeing the ocean swells, waiting for the perfect moment to venture out into the Pacific for a chance to ride a wave back to land.

Surfing is a popular sport around any coastline with strong waves, but there’s nowhere in the continental United States with a stronger surf culture than right here in Southern California. After all, this is right where the 1960’s surf culture that spread through the nation first began! 

Although there’s no way we can NOT associate SoCal with surfing, this is by no means the origin of the sport itself. Rather, the practice of riding the waves only arrived in the West Coast in the early 20th century. What we see as a fun summertime sport today has deep roots in spirituality and ritualism that has defined cultures and lands for centuries.

(Let this play in the background while you read on!)

The origins of surfing

Surfing as we know it today is the product of thousands of years’ worth of humans interacting with the ocean. Bodysurfing was no doubt the earliest form of riding waves, and there is no hard evidence of which culture first started that practice. However, we can trace the earliest forms of surfing to island cultures living in the Pacific Ocean

Some of the earliest evidence of surfing waves with a man-made device is from the pre-Inca cultures of ancient Peru, where fishermen used small reed boats called caballitos de totora (meaning “little horse” in Spanish) for fishing on the ocean for nearly 4,000 years.

The fishermen would paddle out into the water to lay their nets and traps before riding the vessels back to shore, catching waves as they went.. These small reed boats, which were lightweight and measured no more than 12 feet long, are thought to be the earliest surfboards in the world. 

Surfing on caballitos de totora is still a popular practice in Peru today, especially in the coastal town of Huanchaco where the sport originated. 

Surfing on boards, however, is believed to have its earliest origins in the Polynesian islands. The first recorded observation of this watery phenomenon occurred when the European voyager James Cook and his ship, the HMS Endeavor, stopped in Tahiti during his first voyage in 1769. 

Surfing was an important rite of passage in Polynesian culture, and the hierarchy of some communities centered around which man could best ride the waves. Making the surfboards was an intricate, spiritual process that involved much prayer, ritual and symbolism, and the art of surfing was integral in the lives of children, commoners, royalty and warriors alike. 

The Polynesians who settled Hawaii brought surfing with them, cementing the practice and art deep into the Hawaiian culture. Here, tree choice was extremely important in the making of surfboards, and special ceremonies surrounded every part of the process in order to please the gods. Spiritual chants and prayers were offered up for large waves, and prayers of thanks were made for safe returns and healthy recoveries after wiping out on the massive waves. 

Surfing in Hawaii was an enormous part of the culture, so much so that one’s social standing could be greatly impacted by how good (or bad) of a surfer one was.

With colonialism, though, surfing took a hit as native Hawaiian culture was greatly affected. It was only in the early 20th century that surfing began to take off again, as Waikiki became a popular tourist destination for European and U.S. travelers. 

How surfing arrived in Southern California

When looking at just how ancient the art of surfing is, Southern California’s meager century’s worth of surfing history seems miniscule in comparison. However, Southern California has absolutely shaped the surfing culture of today, thanks to Hawaiian surfers who brought the sport to these sandy mainland beaches. 

Surfing really took off as a worldwide sport after Hawaiian surfers started traveling up and down the West Coast in the early 1900s, introducing onlookers to the sport. One of the first and most popular surfing epicenters in the United States was Malibu, where the waves were consistent and the surf was great. This was around the same time that Hollywood was really starting to boom and the iconic Southern California culture was developing as part of an exotic, new and exciting locale.

When the Beach Boys entered the scene in the 1960s, surf culture absolutely exploded both nationally and internationally. Southern California was a hotspot for the relaxed, sunny, fun atmosphere that surfers thrived in. 

The art and music around surf culture reflected the equally laid-back and free-spirited hippie culture that was growing in Southern California at the same time. Music steeped in R&B, rock and pop imitated the rhythms of crashing waves, and the clothing and designs reflected the Polynesian-inspired tiki culture spreading through the region. 

Soon, surfing became so popular that Los Angeles surfers invented skateboarding, just so they could surf on dry land!

So, there you have it! Surfing is an ancient tradition that has been practiced by coast-dwellers for millennia, but modern surfing has Hawaii and Southern California to thank for spreading to all corners of the globe! If you live here in our Southern California apartments, then you live right in the heart of surfing culture, U.S.A.! 

Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Free-Photos

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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