Where does the term "goofy-footed surfer" come from?

July 12, 2021 | Surfing
Gabriel Medina: a goofy-footed world surfing champion | Photo: WSL

Around 10 percent of the world's population is left-handed.

In the surfing world, you can often hear someone saying they're goofy or goofy-footed. But what does that exactly mean? And when was the term goofy surfer first used?

A goofy-footed surfer is a surfer who rides a surfboard with their left foot as the back foot and the right foot as the front foot.

In other words, they have their left foot near the board's tail and their right foot planted forward closer to the nose.

As a result, a goofy-footer will surf a right-hand wave with their back facing the breaking wall of water, and vice-versa.

The origins of the unlikely expression are not clear and somehow controversial. There are actually a couple of theories on the first use of the term.

But first, there's a historical remark that must be made.

In the past, and for several centuries, "left" - or the left side - was widely considered the evil side and often associated with darkness, demons, and malevolence.

The Latin word "sinister" means "on the left side," and the first use of the term in English was linked to negative connotations, immorality, and foreboding.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Latin word "dexter," meaning "on the right side," carried all the positive connotations, including the popular expression, "the right thing to do."

Even the French words "droit" (right) and "gauche" (left) have positive and negative connotations in English, respectively.

Today, left-handedness is no longer the impersonation of evil.

Nevertheless, the scientific community concluded that left-handers are more prone to have learning disabilities.

Certain cognitive disorders such as developmental coordination disorder (DCD), AHD, and autism are more common among left-handed individuals.

But how and why did some surfers start getting called goofy-footers?

Owen Wright: the goofy-footer attack a right-hand wave at Margaret River | Photo: WSL

Theory One: Walt Disney's 1937 "Hawaiian Holiday"

One of the most popular theories on the origin of the expression "goofy" is related to "Hawaiian Holiday," a 1937 animated surf movie by Walt Disney.

The film features Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck, one crab, and a starfish.

In his first surfing lessons, Goofy adopts a right-foot-forward stance before suffering a horrendous wipeout.

However, the problem with this hypothesis is that Goofy also rides regular - with his left foot forward - in the movie.

Furthermore, the expression "goofy" - originally from the word "goff" - was already a derogatory term meaning "fool," "weird," and "silly."

And that was probably the reason Disney named his cartoon character, a clumsy anthropomorphic dog, Goofy.

Theory Two: Desmond Muirhead's 1962 "Surfing in Hawaii"

Desmond Muirhead (1923-2002) was an internationally renowned golf course designer.

A former Hawaii resident in the 1960s and frequent visitor in the following years, he was described by various golf publications as the most innovative golf course architect in the world and one of the greatest, according to the Executive Golfer, a magazine for which he wrote for 16 years.

Muirhead is credited with laying the groundwork for the Hawaii Kai master plan when the area was unmarked by development.

The English-born and Cambridge University-educated designer partnered with Jack Nicklaus to build five golf courses, among a hundred others worldwide.

His designs were controversial and provoked hypocritical criticism from the staid world of golf architecture.

Muirhead was a very outspoken, fascinating person, but he could rub people the wrong way. He was a rebel somehow in Hawaii in speaking out against overdeveloping the slopes of Diamond Head.

In 1961, Muirhead made a plea before the City Council to save the landmark's beauty by not allowing apartment zoning.

He said allowing high-rises on Diamond Head would be "a national disaster."

Muirhead had many friends in Hawaii and visited several times a year, staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

In his first visit to Hawaii in 1956, he fell in love with surfing, took lessons, and became a well-rounded surfer.

Six years after his first contact with Waikiki's perfect and smooth-rolling waves, he wrote a book about "Surfing in Hawaii."

And it is precisely in this book that the first ever written reference to goofy-footed surfers can be read.

"People who put their right foot forward are called 'goofy foots.' Personally, I find this position the most comfortable," Muirhead wrote.

The quote is from page 51 of Chapter V, "The Beginner and the Philosophy of Surfing."

The book has been brought to life and republished on SurferToday.com thanks to Romy Muirhead, the daughter of the famous golf course designer.

"Surfing in Hawaii: A Personal Memoir" was published in 1962.

Muirhead had tried surfing for the first time in 1956, so it is plausible that the expression "goofy-footed" was already in use in the Hawaiian islands prior to 1962.

Surfing in Hawaii: A Personal Memoir: a 1962 book by Desmond Muirhead

Goofy Stance vs. Regular Stance

As we've seen above, left-handed people were segregated for centuries - even in the 20th century.

In 1963, one year after Desmond Muirhead's stunning book, Paradise of the Pacific magazine published a feature on surfing terminology.

The publication, born in January 1888 and later renamed Honolulu Magazine, defines "goofy" as a "strange type."

Just that. And with no reference whatsoever to what's strange. Is it the stance or the people who ride with their right foot forward?

Also, in 1963, Shean and Jenkins released a song named "Goofy Footer Ho-Dad," proving that the expression had already moved from the surfing to the non-surfing world.

It is highly likely that there were already goofy-footed wave riders at Malibu in the 1950s.

"[Matt] Kivlin's (...) used a narrow stance, like the old plank riders," notes Matt Warshaw, author of "The History of Surfing."

"But where past masters like Tom Blake and Pete Peterson tried to keep the hips, chest, and shoulders turned forward, almost in a skiing style, Kivlin positioned his feet and body plumb along the board's centerline."

"It was a more asymmetrical way of riding, but it somehow felt more rooted, and all of the Malibu locals were soon doing it this way."

"Surfers were now distinguished as left-foot-forward 'regular foots' and right-foot-forward 'goofy foots.'"

The truth is that, as with most of the minorities, goofy-footers were always going to belong to the uncommon, unusual, odd, different, and rare group of surfers who feel comfortable riding waves in an "unnatural" stance.

Italo Ferreira: an accomplished goofy-footed, backhand tube rider | Photo: WSL

Switch Stance: The New Surfing and Skateboarding Skill

Time has smoothed the differences, though.

Today, there are more goofy-footed surfers than ever, and footedness has become a widely accepted preference. Nothing more than that.

Although there are no exact numbers, the ratio could be around 70-30 or 60-40, with regular footers still predominant.

The goofy-footer is no longer seen as the "strange type" - it's just a natural choice like coffee with or without sugar.

Interestingly, only a small percentage of all goofy-footed surfers are left-handed, and switching stance is increasingly becoming an advanced surfing skill.

In skateboarding, a sport born in the 1950s, there are more goofy-footers than in surfing.

In other words, the difference between stances is more pronounced in surfing than in skateboarding.

And, let's not forget, skaters have to master the fakie technique, i.e., switching stance and riding backward, a skill that is not that critical in surfing.

The same applies to snowboarding and other board sports.

One thing is certain: the origin of the expression "goofy-footer" applied to surfing must have been coined between the 1920s and the late 1950s.