What is surfing?

Surfing: the sport of riding waves | Photo: Shutterstock

Surfing is the sport of riding waves in an upright or prone position. Surfers catch the ocean, river, or man-made waves and glide across the surface of the water until the wave breaks and loses its energy.

In the ocean, wave riders stand up on surfboards and navigate the water - nearly parallel to the beach - toward the shore.

There are four types of surfing waves: spilling waves, plunging waves, surging waves, and collapsing waves.

The ultimate goal of surfing is to ride and progress on the unbroken part of the wave using a surfboard.

Nevertheless, beginners can learn to surf in the whitewater part of the wave.

Many surf historians and enthusiasts believe that the essence of surfing is in bodysurfing, the art of gliding over the waves using only the body as a planing surface.

According to the University of Hawaii, bodysurfing dates back as far back as 2,000 BC, but the first evidence of bodysurfing activity in the Western world only emerged in 1899, when Australian Fred Williams got a few lessons from Polynesian islander Tommy Tana.

The sport of surfing began between the 19th and 20th centuries, but wave riding is an old practice that has its origins in the ancient Polynesian and ancient Peruvian cultures.

Surfing: all you need is a surfboard and a wave | Photo: Shutterstock

From Pastime to Sport

The first English-speaking person to write about wave riding was James Cook.

The eighteenth-century sea captain and ocean explorer wrote about canoe surfing and board surfing during his stops in Hawaii and Tahiti between 1777 and 1779.

Modern surfing was born in the sands of Waikiki, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, when the first local beach boys began taking tourists to the surf for wave-riding experiences.

Duke Kahanamoku is widely considered the father of modern surfing.

He made it a physical recreation, an outdoor activity with rules, gear and techniques, and business.

Surfing is a sport with multiple interpretations.

For many, it's a recreational activity, physical activity, and a competitive sport, but for others, it is a religion, a lifestyle, an addiction, and a spiritual connection with Nature.

In less than a century, the act of wave riding evolved and gave birth to several other boardsports.

Skateboarding, bodyboarding, windsurfing, kitesurfing, skimboarding, and kneeboarding are, in a way, part of the surfing family.

According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), there are between 20 and 25 million surfers worldwide, and the surf industry is worth around $15 billion.

Surfing: a water sport, a religion, and a lifestyle | Photo: Shutterstock

Surfing: A Broad Expression and Experience

Interestingly, the word "surf" has its origins in the late 17th century, apparently from obsolete "stuff."

But the surf culture developed its own lingo, and surfers' catchphrases can be instantly recognized in a non-surfing environment.

The popularity of surfing has never stopped growing, and the word entered the mainstream world.

Mark P. McCahill, a passionate windsurfer and world wide web pioneer, used the expression "surfing the internet" for the first time on February 24, 1992, in an online newsgroup.

A few months later, in June, and without previously knowing McCahill or his expression, Jean Armour Polly released an article titled "Surfing the Internet" in the Wilson Library Bulletin.

The article was written in the early months of 1992, so Polly might have been the first to write the famous expression.

She only lost to McCahill because he made it public first via the good old Usenet.

The future of surfing is bright. With the advent of artificial wave pools and river waves, the sport will attract new participants in landlocked countries.

Surfing has different meanings to different surfers. What's yours?