These days anyone can grab a surfboard and hang 10. Some even ride them down waves as tall as 10-storey buildings (dude!). From its humble wooden beginnings, we explore the surfboard’s past – and look to its future.
CIRCA 500: Surfboards are to sixth-century Polynesians what Ferraris or giant flat-screen TVs are to consumers today – the ultimate status symbol. And size matters: tribal chiefs and nobles ride boards as long as 8 metres, while commoners catch waves on 2-metre jobs.
1778: During a stop in Hawaii, the crewmen of Captain James Cook’s HMS Discovery become the first recorded Europeans to witness surfing.
I GOT THE BOARD PLACED RIGHT, AND AT THE RIGHT MOMENT, TOO; BUT MISSED THE CONNECTION MYSELF. THE BOARD STRUCK THE SHORE IN THREEQUARTERS OF A SECOND . . . AND I STRUCK THE BOTTOM ABOUT THE SAME TIME, WITH A COUPLE OF BARRELS OF WATER IN ME. NONE BUT NATIVES EVER MASTER THE ART OF SURF-BATHING THOROUGHLY.” MARK TWAIN, ROUGHING IT, 1872
1907: Surfing makes its mainland debut at an event for, weirdly, the railroad. Hawaiian George Freeth – who reinvigorated surfing by cutting his 5-metre redwood board to a more nimble 2,4 metres – demonstrates his skills in this publicity stunt for the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway.
1926: Tom Blake – who was born in Wisconsin and later moved to Hawaii – drills holes in his 5-metre redwood board to reduce its weight, then encases it in two other pieces of wood. His friends sco° at the “Cigar Board”, but in 1930 a version of his super-fast board becomes the first ever to be mass- produced. Seven years later, he publishes plans for a DIY board in PM.
1932: The introduction of balsa decreases surfing board weights from 50 to 15 kilograms – which makes impressing beach bunnies by hoisting a board overhead much easier.
1934: Hawaiian surfers taper the tail end of their boards; the new, more hydrodynamic design allows them to manoeuvre into the curl of the wave and ride in the pipe.
1935: Blake creates the fixed-tail fin, which increases manoeuvrability and stability. (Twin fins hit surfboards in the late ’60s, triple fins in the early ’80s.)
1940S TO ’50S: Glass fibre, invented in the ’30s, is used on surfboards after World War II. In the ’50s, Hawaii’s George
Downing creates “gun” longboards: shaved polyurethane finished in glass fibre, the narrow, lightweight boards are ideal for big-wave riding.
“MY SURFER KNOTS ARE RISING / AND MY BOARD IS LOSING WAX / BUT THAT WON’T STOP ME, BABY / ’CAUSE YOU KNOW I’M COMING BACK… SURFIN’ IS THE ONLY LIFE / THE ONLY WAY FOR ME.” BEACH BOYS, “SURFIN”. 1961
1971: Sick of losing his board after wipeouts, Californian Pat O’Neill (son of wetsuit designer Jack) comes up with a DIY solution: suction cup + surgical cord = surf leash.
FEBRUARY 2011: Spanish firms Tecnalia and Pukas equip a board with a gyroscope, an accelerometer, a GPS, and strain gauges to gather data. They find surfers experience up to 5 g’s during sharp turns.
Video: Watch a video about the world’s first World’s first surfboard with integrated technology
NOVEMBER 2011: Hawaiian Garrett McNamara rides a 27-metre wave – shattering the previous record, a mere 23 metres – off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal.
Video: Watch a video of Garret McNamara rides a 24-metre giant wave
2012: Global Surf Industries layers glass fibre and hand-laid coconut husks over an expanded polystyrene core to create a surfboard (left) that is 25 per cent lighter – and 35 per cent stronger – than most other boards. Surfboards continue to get more high-tech, thanks to devices such as the WaveJet, a water-propulsion system that attaches to the bottom of boards and allows surfers to cut through water at up to 11 km/h. Using the device, McNamara paddled into a 15-metre wave; the only way to catch a breaker that big before was to be pulled in by jet ski. Gnarly!