Surfing is an ancient sport which dates back to three thousand years, but its popularity has only grown over the years creating a meaning and culture of its own. Surfing or wave riding as some like to call it, has always been associated with pictures of Hawaii and its sandy beaches. But few know that the tradition actually started among the Maori people in Western Polynesia who treated the game as more than a pastime. They practised surfing to build strength and stamina for doing activities like catching fish and returning to shore quickly after finishing a hunt. The used anything for the surf including wooden boards, logs and even canoes.
The Hawaiians came to associate surfing with high class and reputation. They showed off their skill in board making and wave riding to claim their prominence. The esteemed people of Hawaii had beaches reserved for surfing, and no one else could ride in that area. The consequences of trespassing were serious and sometimes resulted in a death sentence.
The surfboard making became a kind of ritual too and only special kind of trees were used for the job. Before cutting the wood, fish were placed around the tree as a kind of offering to the divine. In those times, there were four kind of surfboards. The paipo that was 4 feet long and normally used by children, the alaia which was about 8 feet long, the kiko`o which was much bigger about 18 feet and required a lot of skill in handling, and finally the olo which was the longest surfboard kept for royalty and measured about 24 feet.
Surfing travelled with the Polynesian people wherever they went through songs, chants and storytelling. Their tradition was passed on from one generation to the next. The Europeans became acquainted with this sport when the famous navigator Captain Cook landed in Tahiti in the 18th century. He saw a Tahitian riding on the waves in his canoe, and enjoying himself immensely. The Caucasians discovered surfing in the 19th century on the beaches of Waikiki. The well-known Hawaiian George Freeth demonstrated a new feat in surfing, instead of lying flat on the board, he stood on it and slided over the waves.
He not only introduced a new style in surfing but also gave it a new meaning by becoming the first lifeguard after moving to California. He received the Carnegie Medal of Honor for rescuing seven Japanese fishermen in a violent storm battling through tough mountainous surfs. His started a movement in surfing which picked up quickly, and spread through other parts of the world. Many famous swimmers and surfers joined in, and paved the way for modern surfing as we know it today.
When swimmer Duke Kahanamoku visited New Zealand, he inspired many to take on surfing after seeing him ride the waves along the west coast beaches. In Australia, Duke Kahanamoku introduced surfing as a sport in its own right. Surfing quickly became an international sport, and spread around the globe. Waikiki remained an important attraction for tourists because of its historical connections with surfing. The presence of Maori tradition can still be felt in the beaches of Hawaii seeing surfers ride along the waves.