Surfing—Why Its Booming Popularity?
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN HAWAII
POWERFUL waves sweeping in and breaking along the shore have long fascinated men. In recent years riding the breaking face of these waves on a surfboard has become an exciting international sport. Surfers by the hundreds of thousands crowd beaches around the world. Surfboard makers net millions of dollars from sales annually.
Reflecting surfing’s booming popularity is the creation of wave-making machines for the pleasure of surfers far from beaches. At the Surf·A·Torim, in the largest astrodome in the world near Tokyo, Japan, three-foot, machine-made waves carry surfers from one end of a 195-foot-long pool to a simulated beach at the other end. A much larger wave-maker is found on the Arizona desert in the United States. It produces waves of 50,000 gallons of water that surge forward at over 10 m.p.h., carrying surfers toward the sandy beach at the other end of the 300- by 400-foot “ocean.”
The Excitement of the Ride
It is difficult to describe the exhilaration that surfers feel when ‘the surf is up.’ Paddling out to where the waves begin to break, the surfer, kneeling or lying prone on his board, waits for the wave he wants. When it rears up, he begins to paddle vigorously with it, and if he times his speed and the hump of the wave, his board is caught and he “takes off,” being carried rapidly forward. He immediately stands up and maneuvers his board with his body weight and by footwork.
The experienced surfer will angle his board to the right or the left after “takeoff,” turning away from the breaking white water and across the face of the yet unbroken green wave. Before him is the long rushing slope of the wave, and behind is the thunder of collapsing water as the wave breaks. An expert surfer will swoop up and down the unbroken face of a large wave, reaching speeds of more than thirty miles an hour, and traveling hundreds of yards on some waves.
While speeding along the base of the wave, the top of it may begin to break or curl over the surfer. However, by crouching low he may maintain his balance and travel through the “tunnel” or “tube” of the wave, and eventually shoot out its end, still riding the wave. Said one surfer: “You get locked so deep in the tube that nobody on the beach can see you . . . You are so far back inside the wave that it breaks over your head and around your body. And when you come out in the end, why, you aren’t even wet.”
The excitement and exhilaration of riding a wave is undoubtedly the major reason for surfing’s booming popularity. But such popularity is not new.
Origins and Early Popularity
Some persons believe that it was in the southern Pacific islands near Tahiti that surfing had its origin. Later, migrants from that area settled in the Hawaiian Islands, where surfing became a highly developed and respected skill. Hawaiian royalty especially became expert in the sport; in fact, training in the art of surfing was part of a young chief’s upbringing.
In 1778, when the British ship under Captain James Cook first spied out these islands, natives were seen riding huge waves on surfboards. Their maneuverability amazed the newcomers. One eyewitness said: “The boldness and address with which I saw them perform these difficult and dangerous maneuvers was altogether astonishing and is scarcely to be believed.”
Early Hawaiians used small light boards that could be easily turned and ridden at an angle across the face of the unbroken wave, much as modern surfers do. But larger, less maneuverable boards were also used, particularly by Hawaiian royalty. On display at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu is the board used in the 1830’s by the Hawaiian chief Paki. It is nearly sixteen feet long and weighs about 160 pounds.
Surfing was a part of early Hawaiian life. Observers called it their “national pastime” and “favorite amusement.” However, this all soon changed after the arrival of Calvinist missionaries in the early part of the nineteenth century. The missionaries discouraged the traditional ways and habits of the natives, including surfing. Surfing became practically a lost art.
Duke Kahanamoku, the 1912 Olympic winner in the 100-meter freestyle swim, had much to do with the revival of surfing. He showed the versatility of the surfboard by performing a dramatic sea rescue of eight persons in 1925 when heavy seas overturned a yacht off Newport Beach, California. He made three trips from the shore on his surfboard through the churning seas to the survivors bobbing in the water. His sixteen-foot surfboard is preserved on display at the Hawaiian Wax Museum in Honolulu.
Duke Kahanamoku visited Australia in 1915 and at Freshwater Beach, Sydney, put on a dramatic exhibition of surfboard riding that gave surfing a start there. A few years earlier, before World War I, surfing was introduced to California shores. The Pacific Electric Railroad, in an effort to increase ticket sales, hired George Freeth, an Irish-Hawaiian, to demonstrate surfing at Redondo Beach. This drew thousands of spectators to California beaches, which helped the ticket sales and at the same time gave surfing its start in that part of the world.
For a long time surfing was concentrated around beaches of Hawaii, California and Australia, but recently it has spread around the globe, to practically everywhere that there are surfable beaches. However, Hawaii remains the surfers’ mecca.
Factors in Modern Popularity
It was not until after World War II, and particularly in the last fifteen years or so, that surfing gained real popularity. A principal reason for this is improved surf-board design.
Up until the 1950’s surfboards were big and heavy, weighing over a hundred pounds. Besides requiring a physically strong person to carry them, little maneuverability was possible in the water. In fact, the whole object of surfing was to stand on the board and ride the wave straight to the beach, into the sand. It was not until the development of lighter boards in the 1950’s that the difficult and astonishing surfing feats mastered by the early Hawaiians were duplicated. Since then surfboards have become progressively lighter; fiber-glass ones today weigh only eight to fifteen pounds.
Another factor undoubtedly contributing to surfing’s popularity is modern affluence and the increased leisure time many people have. This, coupled with the publicity given to surfing contests and exhibitions by television and movies, has influenced thousands to take up the sport.
Learning to Surf
Riding a surfboard, when watched from the beach by the nonsurfer, appears effortless and easy. But this is deceptive. Surfing involves not only muscle power, but timing, balance and rhythm. Experts spend many hours practicing to acquire their astonishing skill.
But not everyone should attempt to learn to surf. Surfing is only for persons who are fine swimmers and who are in good physical condition. It has been recommended that parents require their children to swim three hundred yards without stopping before granting them permission to use a surfboard. Also, it is advisable that a person first learn how to body-surf, so that he knows how to take care of himself in the waves.
A body-surfer uses no artificial aids except perhaps feet fins that enable him to gain greater speed to catch a breaking wave. Timing is the essence in this sport. The idea is to start swimming just before the wave arrives so that, as it catches up to the surfer, he will be going at roughly its same speed. The wave will then carry him forward toward shore.
Besides learning to body-surf, another good way to get the feel of the waves is to ride them on a surf mat—an inflated rubber square or oblong between three and four feet long—or on a small belly board. This is good preparation for trying to ride a regular surfboard.
The first step in learning to ride a surfboard is to practice lying on it and paddling it along with one’s hands. This is usually not easy for the novice to do and, at the same time, keep his balance. A learner should expect to fall off a number of times. It is good to practice paddling in calm water, away from any waves, until you have learned well.
Next try paddling in the surf. Allow the wave to break so that the white water catches the board and carries you toward shore. Do not attempt to stand up until you get the feel of riding in the prone position. Then try standing! Many times you will find yourself falling off the board. But with much practice you will learn balance.
Now you may be ready to paddle out through the rushing surf to a point beyond where the waves are breaking. Paddling out can be very difficult. Balance your body so that the nose of the board is slightly above the water’s surface. Once you are beyond the breakers, you are ready to select a wave and to try to catch a ride on it.
Need for Caution
As with practically every sport, there are dangers involved. The greatest is from the board, usually someone else’s. A wave-driven board can inflict serious, even fatal, injury. So never try to grab a loose board that is coming at you. Dive under it and later retrieve it.
Also remember: Never surf alone, for you may sometime need another’s help. Be courteous. Stay out of the way of other surfers. Know your physical limitations and abilities; do not attempt to surf in waves that are so large that you endanger your life. Also, familiarize yourself with the hazards of the area you are in.
For example, in some places there are rip currents caused by massive amounts of water moving toward shallow areas. Avoid them by observing where they are before entering the water. They are recognizable by a triangle of lighter colored water or foam pointing out to sea. If caught in one never fight against it, but try to swim across to its edge, allowing it to carry you out until it loses its strength. Above all, do not panic; if you are a good swimmer, it will not carry you out so far that you cannot swim back.
Another caution: Keep a balanced view of surfing. It can be a really enjoyable pastime, but pursuit of it to the exclusion of all else can warp the mind. Many surfers have become pleasure-seekers who turn to such things as drugs, as Surfer Magazine of November 1969 observes:
“The unfortunate truth is that dope, starting with that innocent drag of a marijuana cigarette, has taken its dreadful toll on many once great names in surfing.
“A finalist in the heralded Duke Contest of two years ago was unable to compete this year. He was even unable to communicate intelligently because dope had ‘blown his mind.’ . . . A fantastic surfer who ‘skyrocketed’ to fame a few years ago, lived part of this last winter like an animal in a tree on the North Shore. Another once great big-wave rider’s brain is like a dried prune because of dope. He now lives an unproductive existence on the slopes of Haleakala. . . .
“. . . drugs seem to be in vogue with a great number of ‘in’ surfers today.”
There is no question that surfing can be an enjoyable sport that brings real pleasure. But there is need for caution. Many surfers have ruined their lives or have been killed because of failing to exercise good judgment. Do not let this happen to you or your loved ones.