Surfing: it all started without wetsuits and high-performance fins

They are the pioneers of modern surfing; from James Cook to George Downing, a select group of people has been instrumental in transforming the act of riding waves into a proper sport. Because of their vision, we now have surfing.

The surf riding practice/art has many centuries of history behind it.

We know it was part of the ancient Polynesian culture and that it was the favorite outdoor activity of Hawaiian royalty.

We can credit 11 key individuals whose actions have connected to form a chain of progress that has led us to the modern incarnation of surfing.

Surfing, as the 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 in the birth of surfing?

James Cook (1728-1779)

When Captain James Cook's third Pacific expedition reached the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, he couldn't believe his eyes. Natives were out on the water using boards to enjoy 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 notes indicate that surfing is older than football. Remember that.

James Cook and Alexander Hume Ford

Alexander Hume Ford (1868-1945)

The founder of the Outrigger Canoe Club was born in South Carolina. In 1907, he settled down in Honolulu and met Jack London, the world-famous adventure writer.

Ford shared his passion for surfing with the literary star and built the world's first 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 on Waikiki.

Alexander Hume Ford never stopped promoting surfing. He was instrumental in boosting the careers of George Freeth and Duke Kahanamoku.


Jack London (1876-1916)

In 1907, Jack London was a famous best-seller. Having arrived in Hawaii for the holidays, he met Alexander Hume Ford and took his first surfing lessons.

"They don't know what they got," London later 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.

Jack London and George Freeth

George Freeth (1883-1919)

The Irish-Hawaiian surfer became famous after being depicted as the "young god bronzed with sunburn" by Jack London in the novelist's 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 in the history of the sport and the man who introduced and promoted surfing to the U.S. Mainland.


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 the aloha spirit.

He developed his natural swimming skills and won five Olympic medals in the sport.

In 1914, his surfing exhibition at Sydney's Freshwater Beach marked the birth of surfing in Australia.

Later, Duke would work as a lifeguard, sheriff, movie star, and businessman. He is surfing's first global icon.

Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake

Tom Blake (1902-1994)

Inspired by the image of Duke Kahanamoku, Blake 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 American Red Cross Life Saving Division would adopt the "Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard" for use in water rescues.

Not happy with his 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 (1907-2001)

John "Doc" Ball could have easily followed a career as a dentist but, influenced by Duke Kahanamoku and Tom Blake, 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 outstanding talent.

His photos traveled the world for decades. He defended healthy habits and passed away at the beautiful age of 94.

John Ball and Hugh Bradner

Hugh Bradner (1915-2009)

He is the "official" inventor of the neoprene wetsuit.

While working at the University of California at Berkeley, Bradner was working on research when he had to do several underwater dives.

Staying in cold water for long periods was a serious problem - for him and others - so he developed a suit that didn't need to be dry to work.

Although Hugh Bradner tried to market the new neoprene wetsuit, he paved the way for Jack O'Neill and Body Glove to introduce it to the water world.

Surfers owe this American physicist the ability to surf in conditions we previously could not.


John C. Crowell (1917-2015)

This hidden legend of oceanography played one of the most critical 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.

From there, he 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 helped change forever how we schedule our waves.

John C. Crowell and Robert Wilson Simmons

Robert Wilson Simmons (1919-1954)

The father of the modern surfboard, who survived cancer in his early years, had a short yet rich 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 (1930-)

Downing was the first big wave surfer and an experimenter in the surfboard shaping room.

When Makaha was still the premium surf spot on Oahu's North Shore, George Downing had already built a complete quiver suitable 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.

George Downing

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