For most Americans in the 1960s, surfing was the subject of a Beach Boys song, a setting for teenage romance in movies like Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo, and a sport practiced by young, tanned, well-muscled youths with toothpaste white smiles, in California.
But surfing didn’t start with teenagers in California. It began hundreds of years ago in Polynesian islands, in Hawaii. It spread to southern California in 1907, but didn’t become widely popular until the 1940s.
Since then, surfing has spread all over the world, to Morocco, Japan, Germany and Iceland. How did an ancient Hawaiian sport make its way to Hollywood, and then the world? According to Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, authors of The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing, modern surfing culture has its roots in World War II.
“During World War II, California became one of the main centers of the defense industry,” says Westwick. The region began producing materials like fiberglass and polyurethane, and soon, “some surfers working in the defense industry got their hands on this stuff and started making surfboards out of it.”
Before the war, California surfboards were carved from wood according to Hawaiian traditions. They were often 14 to 16 feet-long (4 to 5 meters), and could weigh 100 to 150 pounds (45 to 68 kilograms) when dry, and more when wet.
These wooden boards weren’t something that the average beach bum could handle (sorry, Moondoggie). But the advent of new materials like fiberglass allowed surfboards to lighten up—now they weighed only 20 or 30 pounds (9 or 14 kilograms), with a corresponding reduction in length: Instead of 14 to 16 feet, the new generation was six or seven feet-long (about two meters).
At the same time that surfboards were becoming easier to use, white middle-class teenagers in southern California were enjoying more leisure time; if your family made enough money in the defense industry, you didn’t need to work as hard on weekends to make your own. This mix of lighter boards, more time, and more money led to a West Coast surf culture that was reflected in movies and on the radio.
But lighter surfboards still weren’t enough to make the sport global. For that, surfers needed something that would allow them to swim in chilly waters.
Cut to WWII, again. In the 1940s, the U.S. Navy designed special suits to keep its Underwater Demolition Teams warm in cold water. After the war, surfers adopted them for their sport.
“If you have a wetsuit, you can surf in California year round, [or for that matter] New Jersey or New York,” says Westwick.
Armed with wetsuits, surfers now ride waves in waters that pre-war surfers never dreamed of. Even so, many serious surfers still make pilgrimages to the sport’s homeland, Hawaii.
In surfing, as in much else, tradition still matters. “A lot of the romantic imagery [of surfing] comes through California,” says Westwick. “But ultimately traces back to Hawaii.”