Locomotion in the service of obtaining food, of seeking out new habitats to escape predators. At some point there was a development of movement that didn’t have any clearly useful purpose. The baby cubs rolled and tumbled, the ancestors of dolphins jumped and splashed. They were playing; their actions didn’t have a practical or easily decipherable reason.
Down the line, humanity evolved and had to move like all the other creatures. Except during sleep and infrequent periods of rest, they had to hunt and chase game and run away from fiercer fauna. The new species also traveled, leaving its birthplace in Africa and spreading out across the globe. At some point, humans came up with ways to move themselves along that didn’t rely on their two feet. Floating rafts pushed by sticks and paddles and sails, then most importantly, the wheel facilitated this movement of the human body from one place to another. In addition to this, there were domesticated animals that were eventually ridden for transportation. And some of these, the horse in particular, could go much faster than humans could on their own.
The harnessing of the domesticated animal to the wheel led to the rounded object as an engine of recreation, and the primal urge for speed blossomed. The mechanical advancement of the wheel allowed humans to figure out ways to ride in chariots and wagons, gliding with the forces of nature to become one with them, and in doing so to experience the joy of unshackled propulsion.
In myriad ways, the mechanical device married to natural forces enabled this urge for movement and unlocked the purely psychological reasons that were behind it all–a need for release, uncertainty and fear induced on purpose at high speed. All over the world, the ways of doing it emerged and multiplied. The horse was ridden faster, initiates jumped off of towers with only a vine attached to their feet, rafts shot rapids, and ships were flung forward by the power of the wind. A singular relationship to the earth based on independent movement came into being, to risking death in the pursuit of vertigo and using speed as a destroyer of perception’s stability, creating simultaneous panic and tranquillity in ordered minds. Whether thrill-seeking, fun-making or an attempt to clear the mind of prosaic concerns, these urges fed a hunger to test balance and the body’s ability to stay upright under adverse conditions.
Surely from the very beginning of the wheel or the sled, somebody was going too fast, using the device in a way that wasn’t commensurate with its purpose. There is archaeological proof that points to later developments in the recreational use of wheels attached to a platform. Skis found in a bog in Hoting, Sweden have been carbon-dated to five thousand years, and prehistoric rock drawings at Rodoy in Norway and in northern Siberia from around 2500 b.c. show skis being used for hunting and traveling across snow-covered land. Later there are reports from the Tang Dynasty of Mongolian tribes riding MuMu (wooden horses), and Bishop Adam of Bremen in 1000 a.d. described skridfinns (sliding Finns) who “borne on bent boards . . . traverse the heights which are covered with snow.” The Norse sagas tell of contests that document less disciplined and dreamier uses for skis. In the nineteenth century, a poor Norwegian farmer named Sondre Overson Norheim began experimenting with ski and binding design. He almost went bankrupt, and his wife was reduced to begging for food, but by 1868 he went to the Molmenkollen ski competition where his technical breakthroughs helped him win in both the jumping and style skiing events. Skiing took off soon after as an arena for physical flights of fancy that had nothing to do with work.
But the roots of skateboarding are found far away from the mountains of northern Europe, in the much warmer climes of the Pacific. The Polynesians went one step further than the Scandinavians, using another kind of platform on an aquatic stage–the moving wave. The inspiration might have come from riding canoes in the surf, though before that, they were surely engaging in bodysurfing, one of the purest manifestations of a body acquiring speed via a natural force. Surfing waves with the body was going on in Tahiti, Samoa, New Zealand and New Guinea, but it wasn’t until the eastern migration from the Society Islands to Hawaii around 500 a.d. that surfing developed the intermediary platform to balance on that bodysurfing lacked. By 1000 a.d., he’e nalu–surfboard riding–had been perfected in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands.
By the time Captain James Cook landed in 1778, surfing was a cross between sport, leisure activity and religious ritual that amazed the Europeans with its combination of skill, talent, balance and daring. The Hawaiians owed much to the ocean; they lived by it and it had a profound influence on their lives. But surfing was special and mostly reserved for the royal classes, the alii. The kapu (taboo) system deemed it for the most part unvirtu-ous for commoners to engage in bowling, running, canoe races and especially surfing. It was the alii who had the time to really pursue surfing and who could use the lengthier and better olo boards, and it was their ceremonies that had the greatest religious import.
Building a proper olo board began by selecting the right tree with an offering of kumu fish and incantations by a kakuna (priest) at the base of the trunk. After the tree was cut down, the board was custom-built for a specific owner; shaped for the least amount of traction and maximum maneuverability. When it was com-pletely carved it was polished with oahi stone rubbers, stained with the ash of burned kukui nuts and shined to reflection with kukui oil. The kakuna performed further rites upon the launching of the board. Then the alii owner paddled the wiliwili-wood board, fourteen feet long, five inches thick and weighing 150 pounds, out beyond the breakers to wait for a good set. As the wave approached, the rider got prone and paddled until the board was at enough of a slant on the incoming wave and in one feline, graceful movement, got to his or her feet. Standing upright, he or she rode the wave in, maneuvering by leaning left and right, rushing and gliding toward the shore with the power and roar of the curling wave. On these isolated islands in the Pacific, the alii were the avant-garde in rejecting mere transportation for a more transcendent connection to nature, one in which they tempted fate by going to the heart of the ocean’s power to ride big waves.
Contact with outsiders following Captain Cook’s arrival ripped Hawaiian society apart. The influx of explorers and then traders destabilized the civic situation and fostered a concurrent cultural revolution. Only fifty years after Cook’s landing, the society was in such disarray that the taboo system was abolished. In 1820 the first Calvinist missionaries arrived from New England, and the war on surfing began. According to missionary Sheldon Dibble,”The evils resulting from all these sports and amusements have in part been named. Some lost their lives thereby, some were severely wounded, maimed and crippled, some were reduced to poverty, both by losses in gambling and by neglecting to cultivate the land; the instances were not few in which they were reduced to utter starvation. But the greatest evil of all resulted from the constant intermingling, without any restraint, of persons of both sexes and of all ages, at all times of day and at all hours of the night.” The betting that went along with surfing and the scanty clothing worn in the water seemed to inspire particular horror among the missionaries. One of the first converts was Kaahumanu, King Kamehameha’s widow, who had ascended to power as de facto prime minister. The missionaries saw the end of taboo as a sign from God that their mission had holy sanction. They convinced Kaahumanu and the other alii converts that surfing and other leisurely pastimes would offend heaven. The alii quickly decreed that these activities should stop.
So there were new taboos after all that coincided with the disintegration of Hawaiian society, a reshuffling of massive proportions. Some of the missionaries despaired at the passing of “noble” pursuits like surfing, but the damage was done. By the late nineteenth century, Caucasians were the important ministers in what was effectively a puppet government. The noveau-riche royal figureheads were so enamored with their newfound wealth and zest to acquire foreign luxuries that they taxed the commoners exorbitantly, forcing them to work harder and robbing them of any serious leisure time. Barter and trade replaced the subsistence-based economy, and the Hawaiians began to imitate the more technologically advanced Caucasians. The removal of the old gods and ways created a vacuum for a headlong rush to the new, in particular a mania for reading and writing. In Kauai surfboards were turned into desks for schools. The family and traditional crafts degenerated along with a catastrophic decline in the native population, from three hundred thousand in 1778 to forty thousand in 1900. The annual Makahiki sporting festival became a thing of the past. The cumulative effect of all these factors was that for all intents and purposes surfing was dead by the beginning of the twentieth century.
But some Hawaiians must have been surfing in secret, riding hidden breaks by moonlight; some rebels continued to hear the siren song of the crashing waves. In the early twentieth century surfing was resuscitated. Maybe atavistic longings could only be suppressed for so long. Maybe the example of skiing as pure recreation had echoed; perhaps the railroad and faster ships and the possibilities of aviation reawakened dreams of flight down waves.
After the turn of the century Hawaii’s economy improved and with that came a resurgent interest in sports. Haoles (Caucasians) and locals alike began to surf again off of Waikiki. Around 1905, some Hawaiian boys started gathering around a hau tree at Waikiki Beach and formed a club called Hui Nalu, a poor man’s fraternity whose name, roughly translated, meant “united in surfing.” One of the boys hanging around at the hau tree was fifteen-year-old Duke Kahanamoku, who would later gain notice by winning a gold medal in the hundred-meter freestyle swimming event at the 1912 Stockholm Olympic games. After that he began to go around the world giving demonstrations on “speed swimming,” and on surfing whenever there waves enough to do so. He brought surfing to Australia, New Zealand and the mainland United States, where his role as ambassador of surfing would have furthest-reaching consequences in California.
Surfing in California between the wars was a matter of a small brotherhood riding redwood or hollow “cigarbox” boards at places like Corona del Mar. In the early thirties, before the harbor entrance was dredged, surfers were riding a quarter mile from the jetty down to China Cove. A few schoolboys hitchhiked to the beach wearing custom-sewn white canvas trunks to partake in an idyll of uncrowded waves and unrestrained aquatic pleasure.
World War II slowed things down for surfing, with most of the able-bodied men and potential surfers away. The Allies’ 1945 victory led to an American cultural ascendancy over the rest of the world. And much of that cultural hegemony radiated from the golden state of California, its massive filmmaking industry producing movies with their all-persuasive ability to transmit directly ideas and ideals through the retina to the brain, to entice people to covet a way of life and a notion of freedom and possibility.
In this state by the Pacific, the caldron of postwar change was roiling. Returning GIs were joined by an influx of new immigrants in fueling and benefiting from a booming economy. Working-class people now had more time for leisurely pursuits. Freeway networks were constructed that made these activities easily accessible. Fun became a goal, a way of life, a birthright. With these changes also came the advent of the modern American teenager. Kids with their parents’ disposable income had time on their hands for fun and rebellion, time for being bad and a nascent repulsion toward their parents’ world and its value system.
The confluence of these factors meant an upswing for surfing in California. GIs coming back from Hawaii drew on Duke’s example and made surfing part of their lives. The new freeways, along with films of Hawaiian wave riding and the development of the light foam surfboard at Windansea in La Jolla (by Bob Simmons, who later drowned there), expanded the visibility and potential of surfing. A new type emerged who yearned for the sensation of speed that surfing provided, who saw the riding of waves as a lifestyle that was a rejection of the civilized land and its society, an escape to the last frontier. They had a spiritual attachment to the ocean and “the life,” an ethical conception of what they were doing as a communion with nature that harkened back to the Hawaiians of two hundred years earlier.
They used the beach as a base for what was beyond. Surfing was challenging, a melding with the ocean’s power. In life it was an art, a movement. They were doing something odd and transgressive and new. It was an obsession that was antisocial while having its own underground communities, a culture distinct from what was sanctioned. At the right place and right time, the gestation was happening. California had the adherents of surfing, and they were about to start a revolution.
Excerpted from The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World
” Copyright 2002 by Jocko Weyland. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.