Thomas Jefferson, Syphilis, and LSD: A Bizarre, Brief History of Surfing

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The history of surfing is captivating, beautiful, and speckled with disaster. With 20 million participants worldwide, surfing has become a dominating force in the world of sports. The history of the sport sheds light on a bumpy ride through disease, war, mainstream Hollywood and drug smuggling rings.

The Declaration of Independence & Disease

The birth of surfing is speculated to have occurred around 3000 B.C., when Inca fishermen rode waves on reed boards, also called cabillitos. Polynesian stories date the sport back to 1000 A.D., when people enjoyed it as a form of recreation. In Hawaii, “wave sliding” was part of religious ceremonies and deeply engrained into the culture. Royalty had a board length and area of waves that were not to be touched by the commoners.

In 1778, Captain James Cook made the first recorded visit to Hawaii and was killed when he tried to kidnap a high chief. His successor, Lieutenant James King completed his travel journals, reveling in the art of surfing. He wrote, “The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a trial of skill, and in a gentle swell that sets on must, I conceive, be very pleasant—at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives.”

During this time period, the French and American Revolutions were occurring. Accounts of Cook’s trip were published and the Declaration of Independence was written. Historians believe that Thomas Jefferson’s addition of the inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness” was born from the accounts of surfing coming back from Polynesia.

Shortly after the publication of Cook’s and King’s journals, explorers and missionaries began infiltrating the islands. With their arrival came syphilis and a cash system. The Hawaiian people were reduced to 10% of their population. The new economy greatly reduced leisure time and Hawaiian traditions were squashed. Japanese, Filipino, and Chinese workers were brought in to keep the newly established agricultural system alive. With this devastation, surfing was almost lost in the wind.

Surfing’s Slow Rebirth

After a tumultuous century, which included the annexing of Hawaii as a United States territory, surfing was reborn. Best-selling author Jack London and journalist Alexander Hume Ford visited Hawaii. There they met Waikiki beach boy George Freeth. After hearing about Freeth’s prowess on the waves, the “young god, bronzed by sunburn,” was invited to California by real estate mogul Henry Huntington. To promote the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway, Freeth put on surfing demonstrations, earning him the title of “The First Man to Surf in California.” In 1908, the dynamic trio of Freeth, London and Ford opened up the first club dedicated to surfing—the Outrigger Canoe Club—in Waikiki. Grass huts, board storage and dressing areas lured in 1,200 members by 1911.

Another prominent figure, recognized for making surfing mainstream in Australia, was Olympic medalist Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. Duke was a passionate Hawaiian surfer, whose surfing demonstrations in California caused a greater frenzy than Freeth’s. His Olympic and surfing stature brought him Hollywood fame.

In 1915, Duke traveled to Sydney for a swimming exhibition. Australia was stunned by his skills on a surfboard, and went into a surfing frenzy when Duke built a surfboard out of Australian sugar pine. Duke’s surfing legacy is cemented in history by his 1000+ yard wave ride at Kalehuawehe, Hawaii. His feat of riding through the Castles, Elk’s Club, Canha’s and Queen’s to the beach, has yet to be matched.

Hollywood, LSD and Modern Surfing

World War II greatly dampened the world of sports. Surfing rebounded after the war in a big way and shifted into a mainstream Californian activity. Thousands of men had come home from the South Pacific with new knowledge of the sport. It wasn’t until the late 50’s and 60’s that surfing took on the energy we see today.

Hollywood was enamored with the blossoming surfing subculture. Women, such as Eve Fletcher, Marge Calhoun and Anona Napoleon were emerging as dynamite forces in the sport and dominating the Makaha International Surfing Championship. Fredrick Kohner’s sensational book and subsequent movie Gidget, chronicling his young daughter’s surfing life, made surfing an international sensation. Hollywood jumped on the surfing bandwagon with movies such as Beach Blanket Bingo and The Endless Summer. The Beach Boys immortalized the surfing subculture with a new “surf rock” genre.

Meanwhile, the California surfing subculture was having a historically significant affair— with LSD. Laguna Beach was home to one of the greatest international drug smuggling rings in history, called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Millions of doses of LSD passed through the Laguna hub in the sixties, masked beneath the free spirit image of the California surfer. One of the reasons the Brotherhood was so successful was because the federal task force didn’t believe that a group of hippie surfers could be capable of such an organized operation.

In the past 50 years, surfing has taken on an unprecedented momentum. The culture has changed. The style has changed. Tom Carol is acknowledged as the founder of “power surfing,” aggressive, fast and forceful. Tom Curren’s unmatched ability for tube riding has become the quintessential picture of modern surfing. Aerial tricks influenced by skateboarding have become mainstream, with today’s Kelly Slater melding tricks and power surfing.

Championships, cash prizes, and wave technology have evolved this era of surfing. Surfboards have become the new razor, with three fins being more efficient than two. Environmental movements have swept across the surfing communities. Wetsuits have made year-round surfing a norm. Almost anywhere that has desirable surf will be speckled with surfboards or lessons. Mutterings of surfing becoming an Olympic sport have been heard. The ten-billion-dollar industry is still in an unparalleled growth spurt. Who knows what the future holds for the sport of surfing?

Have you heard any other great surf history tales? We’d love to hear them if you have, your comments are greatly appreciated!

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Stephan Aarstol is an American internet entrepreneur and author of the book The Five Hour Workday, which is based on Tower Paddle Boards' invention of the 5-hour workday in 2015 that would eventually spread the idea to over 10 million people worldwide. Since founding Tower in 2010, it has gone on to become one of America's fastest growing companies and Mark Cuban's best investment in the history of Shark Tank. Tower has diversified into a direct to consumer electric bike company called Tower Electric Bikes, a beachfront event venue called Tower Beach Club, and, where consumers can shop all the world's finest direct to consumer brands from one easy place.