From beginners to pro surfers, ask any one of them ‘what is surfing’ and they’ll tell you that catching the perfect wave is a wondrous experience. It’s an adrenaline-pumping, breathless ride that can trace its roots back to ancient Peru, Polynesia and Hawaii.
In fact, surfing is more than just a sport, it’s an art form. To many devotees, it’s a way of life. Here, we’ll answer the questions ‘what is surfing’ and most importantly, ‘what to wear surfing’.
Surfing - A Short History
The sport of surfing didn’t start with the Beach Boys in the 1960s, it’s been around far longer than that! Riding waves to get back to the shore has, in one form or another, been done ever since humans have swum in the sea. Indeed it’s believed that ancient Peruvian cultures rode waves in one-person watercraft fashioned from totora reeds known as ‘caballito de totora’ or ‘little seahorses of totora’ between three and five thousand years ago.
Surfing was ingrained in Polynesian culture as far back as the twelfth century, in fact Samoans and Tahitians used surfing as a method for training warriors for war. In the eighteenth century Captain Cook and his men saw Tahitian men riding waves and he was quoted as saying ‘I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on, so fast and so smoothly, by the sea.’
From Peru to Polynesia we fast forward to Hawaii and the start of the tourist industry at the end of the nineteenth century. The popularity of the modern sport of surfing is largely down to native Hawaiians Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth who took it from Waikiki Beach to the rest of the world.
Today, the answer to the question ‘what is surfing’ isn’t much different to the answer of a century ago. It is a sport for those who want a battle of wits against one of nature’s most supremely powerful forces. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight, but if you’ve ever watched pro surfers in action you’ll realise it’s more equal than you think. All you need is a board and the will to get out there!
Indeed, the largest wave ever surfed was 26.21 metres high and ridden by German surfer Sebastian Steudtner in October 2020 off the Portuguese coast of Nazaré, a place famous for some of the world’s biggest waves.
What is a Surfboard?
You can’t really explain ‘what is surfing’ without asking ‘what is a surfboard.’
The earliest surfboards were nothing more than planks of wood nearly five metres long crudely hewn from trees. In the 1930s, athlete and inventor Tom Blake was credited with turning surfing from a fun oddity into a lifestyle by drilling dozens of holes into traditional wooden boards to make them much lighter, shaping them to make them more aerodynamic and attaching a fin for directional stability.
Come the 1940s, with the advent of plastic materials such as polyurethane foam and fibreglass, and surfboard design became more scientific. Additional fins were added and designers including Joe Quigg, Bob Simmons and Pete Peterson experimented with different designs, compositions and styles.
The answer to the question ‘what is a surfboard’ is dramatically different today than it was in the post-war decades. In the 2000s there was a shift to greener manufacturing materials such as bioresins and biofoams and the top surfers in the world like Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds and Stephanie Gilmore became involved in the design and technology of the latest surfboards.
When you’re armed with the latest surfboard, you want to immerse yourself in surf culture and that starts with the clothes and the question of what to wear surfing?
Culture & Clothes - The Surfer Way
There are absolutely no rules on what to wear! Surfing isn’t dictated by what you’re kitted out in, it’s about what you feel comfortable in. If you’re surfing in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean then you may just opt for board shorts or a swimsuit, but if you’re more hardcore and you’re in the cold waters of the Atlantic then a wetsuit or drysuit might be more appropriate.
What is Body Surfing?
Put simply, body surfing is the same as surfing but with one fundamental difference. There’s no surfboard. Instead, you ride the wave by aquaplaning on your stomach and chest. According to 14-time Pipeline Bodysurfing Classic winner Mike Stewart, ‘bodysurfing is the best interaction between man and nature that exists.’
It’s hard to pinpoint when body surfing was created but anyone swimming in the sea for fun or for practicality will have been wise to the fact that riding waves can get you into the shore. It seems that the answer to the question ‘what is body surfing’ was documented in the 1930s as a legitimate sport and since then it has become a global phenomenon.
Body surfing is a very popular activity among those who live near the coast and it’s also a great way to stay in shape, but even the most experienced body surfers need to be aware of the dangers and the power of the ocean. The most important is being able to identify rip currents. These are localised and incredibly powerful and fast-moving bodies of water that flow away from the shore and can drag inexperienced body surfers away from their intended destination and cause panic. That’s why some kind of professional training is highly recommended. As long as you learn from experienced body surfers, it’s a wonderful adrenaline rush which is hard to get anywhere else!
So now you know what is surfing, what is a surfboard and what to wear surfing, it’s time to get your board and hit the waves!