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When Captain James Cook sailed into the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, and
recorded sightings of natives riding waves stood on wooden boards, he
unintentionally hooked Britain into the history of world surfing. Records
show that by the late 19th century Hawaiian surfers had traveled to California
and ridden waves. The real expansion came when Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku
won the Olympic gold in swimming in 1912 and 1920, going on to give exhibitions
of surfing in California and Australia in proceeding years.
the next 30 years the sport developed slowly but steadily with competition
surfing coming into vogue in the 1950's and 60's in California and Australia.
In Britain, pounded by the swells of the cool north Atlantic the seeds
of this culture had been planted in the first half of the 20th century
and carried forward by pioneering individuals in the Channel Islands and
The sport of surfing really started to expand in the early 60's when
the developing lifesaving beach-culture met the 'Beachboys.' One delivered
the skill and water knowledge, the other fired the young imagination with
the antics of a teenage culture on the beach in California.
In reality, the rising in drownings on popular ocean beaches had moved
the newly formed Surf Life Saving Association to establish clubs of trained
volunteers to care for the beaches. Later, this developed into paid lifeguards
on specific beaches, often from Australia or South Africa, and bringing
with them their surfboards. They set the example for keen local water-wise
lifesavers to follow.
Britain there were two twin springs from which the popular surfing culture
flowed initially, St Ouens Bay in Jersey and Newquay on the north coast
of Cornwall. The ingredients of waves, active local water-users, exploring
foreign surfing lifeguards and willing local board builders contrived
in both locations to develop rapidly a microcosmic surf culture. Jersey
had a club of surfers riding the waves of St Ouens on wooden longboards
by 1959, whereas it was 1962 before a cult group came together as surfers
riding the new fibreglass Malibu surfboards in Newquay. Once contact was
made, in the mid-60's between the Cornish-based and Chanel Island surfers,
sporting competition, business and friendships followed rapidly, one spin-off
being the formation of the British Surfing Association.
With the passage of time into the 60's Newquay in Cornwall, which was
more naturally positioned to influence the spread and development of the
sport in the nation, became the focus for surfing in the UK.
An identity was formed. New surf spots were discovered and an industry
to build the equipment soon developed. Ultimately, every coastline of
Britain receiving waves was recognised by surfers protected from the chill
by their neoprene wetsuits, for what it truly was "a surfers playground!"
From these early beginnings, today an estimated 250,000 people in Britain
go surfing annually. The 'Surfs Up Exhibition' told the history of surfing
in Britain and travelled on an extended and well-attended tour of museums
in southern England.
Roger, who was curator of the exhibition, is currently working on a definitive
history of British surfing - The Surfing Tribe - due for publication in
Spring 2009 by Orca Publications.
For more information contact Roger Mansfield.