Surfing: it all started without wetsuits and high performance fins

They are the pioneers of modern surfing. From James Cook to George Downing, a very restrict group of people helped transform the act of riding waves into a proper sport called surfing.


The birth of surfing. The act of surf riding has many centuries. We know it was part of the ancient Polynesian culture, and that it was the favorite outdoor activity of the Hawaiian royalty.

Fate and destiny have connected 11 personalities with wave riding. They've improved the water activity, they've promoted it in all the corners of the world, and they've added revolutionary changes to the sport.

Surfing, as a well-established mainstream sport that we know today, couldn't be possible without the work and dedication of the following people. Who are the most influential people to the birth of surfing?

James Cook and Alexander Hume Ford

James Cook (1728-1779)
When Captain James Cook's third Pacific expedition touched the Hawaiian Islands, in 1778, he couldn't believe his eyes. There were local natives enjoying the pleasures of surf riding. The testimony of what he saw was left in his journals, so that "his" world could take note of this strange activity called wave riding. James Cook's legacy tells us surfing is older than football. Remember that.

Alexander Hume Ford (1868-1945)
The founder of the Outrigger Canoe Club was born in South Carolina. In 1907, he settles down in Honolulu, and meets Jack London, the world famous adventure writer. Ford shares his passion for surfing with the literary star and builds the world's oldest surfing organization. The Outrigger Canoe Club opened to provide dressing room facilities for men and boys, who had no easy access to the good surfing areas of Waikiki. Alexander Hume Ford would never stop promoting surfing. He helped boosting the careers of George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku.

Jack London and George Freeth

Jack London (1876-1916)
In 1907, Jack London was a famous best-seller. Having arrived in the Hawaii for holidays, he met Alexander Hume Ford and got his first surfing lessons. "They don't know what they got", London told his wife. "The whole method of surf-riding and surf-fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance. Never be rigid. Relax". London's writings would attract even more tourists to Hawaii. Everyone wanted to see the Waikiki beach boys in action, and how they mastered the waves with big heavy boards under their feet. Jack London is probably the world's first ambassador of surfing.

George Freeth (1883-1919)
The Irish-Hawaiian surfer became famous after being depicted as the "young god bronzed with sunburn" by Jack London, in his journals. Later, he would be hired to promote the Pacific Electric Railway, in California. In uncrowded lineups, he presented surfing to the Southern Californians. As one of the first lifeguards in the State, Freeth saved 78 lives. His own life ended abruptly when he contracted influenza, at only 35. He is the first professional surfer of the history of the sport, and the man who introduced and promoted surfing in the US Mainland.

Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake

Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968)
He is widely considered "the father of modern surfing". Duke Kahanamoku was one of the early Waikiki beach boys, who entertained tourists with surf riding and with the aloha spirit. He developed his natural swimming skills and won five Olympic medals. In 1914, his surfing exhibition at Sydney's Freshwater Beach, in 1914, marks the birth of surfing in Australia. Later, Duke would work as lifeguard, sheriff, movie star, and businessman. He is surfing's first global icon.

Tom Blake (1902-1994)
Inspired by the image of Duke Kahanamoku, he dedicated his life to swimming and surfing. In the mid-1920s, Tom Blake created the first 15' hollow board, weighing less than 100 pounds. The shaper's "cigars" combined ancient Hawaiian designs with light materials and innovative techniques. The "Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard" would be adopted by the American Red Cross Life Saving Division. Not happy with his critical invention, Tom Blake developed a waterproof camera housing, added the first ever fin to a surfboard, and wrote the "Hawaiian Surfboard", the world's first surf book. He is the ultimate surf entrepreneur.

John Ball and Hugh Bradner

John Ball (1907-2001)
John "Doc" Ball could easily followed a career as a dentist but, influenced by Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake, he became one of the pioneers of surfing in California. "Doc" Ball is also the world's first surf photographer. Having started in the late 1920s with a Kodak Autographic folding camera, John Ball documented the birth of surf culture with an outstanding talent. His photos traveled the world for decades. He defended healthy habits, and passed away at the wonderful age of 94.

Hugh Bradner (1915-2009)
He is the "official" inventor of the neoprene wetsuit. While working at the University of California, Berkeley, Bradner had to do several underwater dives. Staying in cold water for long periods of time was a serious problem, and so he developed a suit that didn't need to be dry to work. Although Hugh Bradner tried to market his new neoprene wetsuit, he could only open the way for Jack O'Neill and Body Glove to introduce it to the water world. Surfers owe the American physicist the possibility of surfing more and warmer.

John C. Crowell and Robert Wilson Simmons

John C. Crowell (1917-)
This hidden legend of oceanography has had one of the most important roles in the history of the world. During the summer of 1943, Crowell studied oceanographic meteorology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California, and was sent to England to work on wave forecasting for the planned Allied Invasion of Normandy. Alongside his army colleague Richard C. Bates, Crowell picked the right day and hour for the troops to make their final assault on Omaha Beach. Using simple surf forecasting models, John C. Crowell changed the way we schedule our waves forever.

Robert Wilson Simmons (1919-1954)
The father of the modern surfboard, who nearly survived cancer in his early years, had a short, yet, richful life. After earning a B.S. in mathematics, "Bob" Simmons adapted all he had learned to the study of planing hulls. The result was the world's first balsa wood surfboard with a thin layer of fiberglass. Later, he would apply two fins and revolutionary designs to his surfboards. "Bob" Simmons drowned in eight-foot waves at Windansea, when he was only 35. Fortunately, his legacy and vision remain with us.

George Downing

George Downing (1930-)
The first big wave surfer and an experimentalist in the surfboard shaping room. When Makaha was still the premium surf spot on the Oahu's North Shore, George Downing had already a complete quiver for all surf conditions. He built the first surfboard for big waves, and developed the first changeable fin system. Downing studied swell charts and maritime weather forecasts. His nicknames - "the guru" and "the teacher" - say it all. George Downing is probably the world's first complete surfer.