Surfing History Timeline

Surfing Timeline:

2000 B.C.: A predecessor of surfing may have begun at this time in Polynesia, before people arrived in Hawaiʻi. Ancestors of Pacific Islanders may have started to ride ocean waves, and they eventually migrated from Southeast Asia to the Pacific Islands.

Approximately 400 A.D.: Hawaiʻi’s first inhabitants came from the Marquesas Islands and probably brought along surfing.

c. 1580-1600
Liloa, the dominant chief of Hawai`i Island, ensures a reign marked by peace.

Umi made his first imperial tour around the island shortly after his accession to power. This journey, however, was stained by an act of cruelty which even those rough times felt as such and recorded. When Umi had fled from his brother Hakau’s court, and was living at Waipunalei, in the Hilo district, unknown and in disguise, he and his friend, Koi, attended a surf-swimming match at Laupahoehoe. A petty chief of the district, named Paiea, invited Umi to a match, and offered a trifling bet, which Umi refused. Paiea then offered to bet four double canoes, and Umi, at the request, and being backed up by his friends, accepted the bet Umi won the bet, but in coming in over the surf, by accident or design, Paiea’s surf-board struck the shoulder of Umi and scratched off the skin. Umi said nothing then, but when he had attained to power and was making his first tour around the island, on arriving at Laupahoehoe he caused Paiea to be killed and taken up to the Heiau at Waipunalei to be sacrificed to his god.

c. 1600: Pi’ilani rules Maui. His daughter Pi`ikea marries `Umi of Hawai’i Island. 

The 1600’s: The oldest known papa he’e nalu, or surfboard, dates to the 1600s and comes from Princess Kaneamuna’s burial cave in Ho’okena on the Big Island.

1768: Queen Ka‘ahumanu was born in Hana, Maui.

1777: European explorer James Cook and his crew witnessed the Native Hawaiians surfing in the beach. In a 1777 journal entry in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean by Resolution surgeon William Anderson (the entry was long thought to be written by Cook until recently), he wrote: “He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He then sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach.”

Captain James Cook

He‘e nalu has been practiced by Polynesians for centuries and has reached high cultural refinement in Hawai‘i (Finney, 1959: 327). It was discovered by the West in 1778, when Captain Cook and his crew anchored in Waimea, Kaua‘i. As a native practice, he‘e nalu was integrated into the political and religious taboo (kapu) system which stratified Hawaiian society. Permissions and bans from the kapu system applied to surfing, where commoners (maka‘āinana) were prohibited from surfing with chiefs (ali‘i) and from riding some surf breaks, like Kapuni in Waikīkī (Clark, 2011: 447 ; Ellis, 1827: 280 ; He Kaao no Pikoiakaalala!, 1865 ; Kamakau, 1991: 44). Nevertheless, he‘e nalu was popular and indulged in by children, women and men, commoners and chiefs (Malo, 1903: 293).

By 1779 “Riding the waves” on long hardwood surfboards had become a daily part of Hawaiian culture. Many Ancient Hawaiian chants tell of Christening surfboards. The history of surfing in Hawaii tells of chants to the Gods to make big waves for surfing and chants to give courage to the men who rode these waves. Hawaii was ruled by many different Kapu (taboos). These kapu regulated everything from where and what to eat to learning how to build a good surfboard and how to convince the Gods to make the surf good. Hawaiian society was very distinct in separating the Ali’i (Royalty) from the commoner. There were certain beaches that the ali’i would surf on boards up to 24 feet long, while commoners would surf at different beaches and ride boards up to 12 feet long. Several of Hawaii’s most famous Chiefs including Kaumali’I the ruler of Kauai and Kamehameha I were renowned for their surfing ability, and their surfboards were among their prized possessions.

Detail of a surfer in “A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee,” an etching made by an artist accompanying the Cook expedition. (Smithsonian Cullman Library)

About 1790: Queen Ka‘ahumanu was born 1768, she loved to paddle in canoes, swim and surf, and fly kites. A powerful chiefess of Maui, and was the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I, she later died at the age of 65 in 1832

1796: Hilo was capital of the kingdom for the six years between 1796 and 1802.

In 1797 Ke¯op¯uolani gave birth to a son, Liholiho. Later Liholiho became Kamehameha II.

1803: Kamehameha I moved from Hilo to Lahaina in 1803. There he lived for a year in the red stone house built for Kaʻahumanu, his favorite wife. John Young was the governor of Hawaiʻi between 1802 and 1812 while Kamehameha was away from the island.

1810: Kamehameha I unites the Hawaiian Islands. 

In 1810, when Kamehameha I became the Hawaiian Islands’ first king, he united the islands into one royal kingdom. Not only was Kamehameha a great warrior, diplomat, and a surfer. And the sport of kings was the sport of queens, as well. One of Kamehameha’s wives, Ka‘ahumanu, was a surfer, too. The couple surfed Kooka, a break located at Pua`a, in North Kona, often riding lele wa`a, or canoe leaping. In, lele wa’a, surfers jump from an outrigger canoe, with their surfboard, and then ride the wave to shore. Not an easy maneuver, lele wa’a further illustrated the ali’i’s strength and prowess over the commoners.

1812: In 1812 Kamehameha returned to Hawaiʻi to live in Kailua-Kona. Two more children were born to Kamehameha and Keōpūolani. A second son, Kauikeaouli, was born about 1814. Later this son became Kamehameha III. A daughter, Nāhiʻenaʻena, was born in 1815.

1818: Prime Minister Kalanimoku engraving showing his Olo board, the largest of the Hawaiian wood surfboards. Reserved for royalty, they ranged in size from 1.8 to 8 meters.

1819:  Liholiho, son of Kamehameha, defies the tradition of men and women eating separately during a feast, which leads to the abolishment of the kapu (taboo) system. 

1820-1845:  Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Kamehameha III was the third king of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1825 to 1854. His full Hawaiian name was Keaweaweʻula Kīwalaʻō Kauikeaouli Kaleiopapa, Kauikeauoli (Kamehameha III) was also a great athlete and surfer who, along with his sister Nahienaena, often surfed the breaks at Keauhou near their birthplace on Hawai`i island.

1823: Another early observer ( Ellis 1831:IV:371 ), writing about Lahaina, Maui, also in 1823, noted that the surfboard “. . . forms an article of personal property among all the chiefs, male and female, and among many of the common people.”

In 1851, the Reverend Henry T. Cheever observed surfing at Lahaina, Maui and wrote about it in his book, Life in the Hawaiian Islands, The Heart of the Pacific As it Was and Is.

1855: Bathing scene, Lahaina, Maui. Water colour. 1855. James Gay Sawkins. A very rare image that illustrates both canoe and board surf-riding, with several sailing canoes in the background. Although the riders positioning is unfortunate, this is typical of many images of this period. The activity is communal, with small prone boards on a small left-hand break close to shore. 

In 1872, upon the death of King Kamehameha V, King Kalakaua came to power and immediately reinstated the sport of surfing.

Summer 1885: Introducing surfing to California, Hawaiian princes Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, David Kawānanakoa, and Edward Keliʻiahonui made their surfboards out of the local redwood and surfed at the San Lorenzo River mouth in Santa Cruz, California. During the 1880s, they attended Saint Matthew’s School, a military school in San Mateo, California.

Approx 1890: Princess Kaiulani 1875-1899, Loved Riding horses and Surfing, Her surfboard is now in the Bishop Museum.

1890: One of the First Known Photographs of a Surfer with his Board, c. 1890. Courtesy Bishop Museum Archive

Surfer with surfboard, circa 1890, Bishop Museum.

About 1900: This famous photo of a Hawaiian Surfer at Waikiki Beach carrying an Alaia Board. Courtesy of Bishop Museum Archive.

Courtesy of Bishop Museum Archive

1905: Papa holua found in Hookena by Napoleon Kalolii Pukui, 1905.

“On the 6th of last month, N. K. Pukui, traveling agent of the Hawaiian Realty and Maturity Co., while on a tour of the Island of Hawaii, found a surfboard and sled in a cave at Hookena, Hawaii. It is said that the oldest kamaainas of Hookena have heard from their parents and grandparents that sometime in the reign of King Keawenuiaumi, about two hundred and fifty years ago, a high chiefess named Kaneamuna [Kaneamama] was the living at Hookena. Her principal amusement was hee holua (coasting on a sled) and hee nalu (surfing).”

1907: Four men were decided to revive the sport of surfing and Ford Petitioned the Queen Emma Estate to set aside a plot of land on Waikiki Beach, next to the Moana Hotel to build a club that would preserve the ancient Hawaiian sports of surfing and outrigger canoeing. He explained that it would also promote tourism to Hawaii. 

In 1908 Alexander Hume Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe and Surfing Club the first modern organization developed to promote surfing broadly, although it was de facto whites-only and women weren’t admitted until 1926.

1911: Local Hawaiians started their own club in 1911 called Hui Nalu, meaning “Club of the Waves”. But the first surf icons who gained widespread recognition, George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku, became famous for practicing their traditional sport and helped spread it from Waikiki to around the world.

1914: Surfboard riding exhibitions by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku in the summer of 1914-1915 at several Sydney Australia beaches. 

1935: Hookipa Surf Club was formed at Hookipa Maui. County builds 50 surfboard lockers.

1939: Surfboard paddling races were held in Kahului Harbor on Kamehameha Day in 1939, and again in 1959

In the 1940s, Modern stand up paddle surfing has Hawaiian roots. Surf instructors in Waikiki like Duke Kahanamoku and Leroy and Bobby AhChoy would take paddles and stand on their boards to get a better view of the surfers in the water and incoming swells, and from time to time they would surf the waves in themselves using the paddle to steer the board.

In 1953 the Waikiki Surf Club hosted the first international surfing championships for men and women at Makaha, Hawaii. This competition marked the official birth of the sport of surfing.

1959: Surfboard paddling races were held in Kahului Harbor on Kamehameha Day for the second time in 1959.

1960: First Annual Lahaina Invitational Surfboard Paddling Races.

Today: Surfboards have become Archeological Artifacts. Bishop Museum in Honolulu houses one of the largest collections of ancient and traditional surfboards. “Papa he‘e nalu, or surfboards, were invented in Hawai‘i hundreds of years ago and were once the province of royalty.” Many more ancient boards and vintage boards are in public and private collections.