People have been riding waves for thousands of years. Captain Cook, upon seeing a native Tahitian surfing on a canoe in 1877, exclaimed, “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure.”
Perhaps that is what makes surfing special – it is an activity that brings the surfer immense joy, adrenalin and satisfaction. For ancient Hawaiians, surfing it was the sport of kings – a way to prove strength, dexterity and bravery. They surfed on dug out canoes and logs, expertly carved to support the rider on an often bumpy ride to shore.
When Protestant missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they considered surfing to be a sinful activity and, along with many other aspects of Hawaiian tradition and religion, tried to erase it from the culture. Were it not for the tenacity of a few dedicated locals like the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, surfing might not exist today.
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The father of modern surfing
Born in Honolulu in 1890, Duke Kahanamoku was the first world famous surfer. As a young man, he dropped out of high school to earn money to support his family. He spent his free time on the beach at Waikiki and sent ripples around the swimming world when, as a relative unknown, he smashed the American freestyle record, swiftly earning himself a place on the USA swimming team. A remarkable talent, Duke competed in three Olympic Games between 1910 and 1924, repeatedly setting the world record in the 100 meter freestyle and winning several medals. He was a gallant sportsman who valued the ‘aloha’ spirit of his homeland. Aloha means “the breath of life” and it is a sacred Hawaiian way of living, encouraging people to treat each other with love and respect.
Despite experiencing racial discrimination due to his darker skin and struggling financially due to remaining an amateur athlete, Duke embodied the aloha spirit, sometimes even slowing down mid-race to allow his competitors to catch up with him.
World-renowned for his swimming prowess, demand for Duke’s attendance at competitions and exhibitions around the world increased. He embarked on several world tours both to give swimming demonstrations and to share his passion for surfing. He was the star of the world’s first surfing exhibition at Freshwater Beach in Sydney, Australia, in 1915, demonstrating not only how to ride waves but also how to shape boards from local wood. He gave similar demonstrations everywhere from New Zealand to California, planting the seeds of what would become the global surfing subculture.
Duke was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame and, when Hawaii became a state in 1959, was named an Ambassador of Aloha. Throughout his life, Duke continued to surf on traditional Hawaiian surfboards, staying true to his roots, and the aloha spirit.
What is a surfer?
A surfer is someone who has mastered the skills required to stand on a surfboard and ride along a breaking wave. For previous generations this meant living close to an ocean coastline with regular wave activity. Nowadays a surfer can learn and develop their skills in a range of wave pools, from Texas to Switzerland.
There are no formal levels in surfing but some loose definitions are:
Professional surfer – an elite athlete, usually competing in the World Surf League. An example is 11-time world champion, Kelly Slater.
Free surfer – someone who has reached the elite level but does not compete in competitions. They are usually sponsored to travel and shoot videos for on of the major surf brands. An example is Dave “Rasta” Rastovich who has become an important voice in ocean conservation.
Specialist surfer – someone who has specialised in one wave or type of condition. For example, you get specialist “big wave surfers” or those who are a “Pipe specialist” – meaning they have mastered the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. An example is Jamie “J.O.B.” O’Brien who lives on the beach at the aforementioned Pipe, and presents a great Youtube channel about his exploits.
Hardcore surfer – someone who surfs most days of the week and has travelled widely. They are confident in most conditions and can perform a wide range of manoeuvres. They tend to base their lives around surfing and have jobs that enable them to prioritise catching waves over work.
Intermediate surfer – someone who surfs regularly but doesn’t necessarily revolve their life around the surfing. They can confidently ride small and medium-sized waves and will be able to perform a range of manoeuvres, including cut backs (changing direction), top turns (hitting the lip or the steepest part of the wave) and floaters (riding over a breaking lip). They get barrelled (ride inside of a wave) occasionally and may even do a radical (high performance) move every now and then. Intermediate surfers generally have a day job and may be considered “weekend warriors”.
Beginner surfer – someone just getting started or who surfs only a few times per year. Some people never graduate from this category. To advance to intermediate level, a beginner surfer should at least be able to bottom turn (take off, then drop down and change direction) before riding along the face of an unbroken wave.
Kook – a kook could be any of the above categories because it simply means someone with little consideration for others. They might drop-in on another surfer’s wave, or paddle into waves beyond their skill level, putting others at risk. They might just be out in the lineup causing a scene – usually about being a local and seeing strangers paddling out. They are the worst kind of surfer and have spawned a number of hilarious Instagram channels, like Kook of the Day.
Grommet – these are young surfers, usually under the age of 15.
Surfers are usually acutely aware of weather conditions, paying close attention to wind direction and swell size. When the wind is offshore (blowing from land to sea) they get excited as this will fan the waves into a silky smooth surface – perfect for riding a surfboard. Bumpy, onshore conditions are generally less enjoyable.
Most surfers own at least one surfboard. Modern boards tend to be made from polyurethane, epoxy and fibreglass. However, a revival of old-style wooden alaia surfboards is taking place.
Surfers tend to purchase gear and apparel from a range of surf brands who make up a vibrant surf industry. Surf fashion tends to be relaxed and informal and many non-surfers aspire to achieve the surfer look. This is how brands like Quiksilver and Rip Curl ended up in mainstream shopping malls around the world.
A list of the best surfers
A list of the world’s best surfers will always be controversial and generally skewed towards more recent contenders. With surfing’s colourful history and rich heritage, this article could contain hundreds of names that most people in the surfing community would recognise and revere.
In this list, you’ll find individuals who are not necessarily the greatest, nor the most successful, but are certainly amongst our favourite surfers in the world. We have another article available if you’re interested in the best world champion surfers of all time.
From Slater to Occy, Ross Clarke-Jones to Cheyne Horan, let’s get started now.
One of the most dynamic surfers to ever ride a wave, AI was a multiple world champion who wore his heart on his sleeve and never backed down for anything. Hailing from Hawaii, AI was the sort of person who held family and friends above anything else, and was fiercely protective of everyone close to him.
Andy dominated when the waves got heavy and dangerous at places like Pipe and Teahupo’o but also knew his way around smaller waves, and was a ruthless competitor. He passed away tragically in Dallas in November 2010.
The 1977 World Champion, Shaun Tomson was the world’s answer to the hippiedom that surrounded surfing in the 70’s and 80’s. He was clean cut, good looking, intelligent and extremely passionate about the sport of surfing, and surfed and trained daily in a bid to be the best in the world.
Shaun perfected a skill for riding deep in the tube by pumping with a wide stance while in the barrel, often exiting waves that seemed impossible to make. Shaun went on to a career in acting (In God’s Hands) writing, film producing and motivational speaking, and enjoys popularity today with all of his endeavours.
There’s very little to say about King Kelly that hasn’t been said, but the history books might start to wane a little bit on his significant contribution to the sport from winning 11 world titles, and focus more on the legacy he has created with the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch, the most perfect, longest and most intense man-made wave in the world.
Slater has branched out into many different directions apart from the Surf Ranch, including food and drinks, furniture and clothing, and is the one person who totally embodies all elements of our sport.
Next year will be his last on tour, but will not be the end of Slater as he will remain as one of the most important people in surfing for decades to come.
MR is one of the most dominant competitive surfers in history, setting a new precedent when he won his fourth consecutive world title (1979-1982).
Richards is heralded as the pioneer of the twin fin surfboard, a design that allowed him to progress his surfing to unseen levels of performance for the era. His “wounded gull”, knock kneed stance was, and still is one of the most recognisable surfing styles we have seen.
One of the most well rounded professional surfers, Mark Richards won events in tiny waves in Australia as well as excelling in the powerful Hawaiian conditions.
Now in his 60’s, MR continues to shape beautiful surfboards, often finished with his iconic twin fin setup and throw back spray jobs.
Multiple world champion Mick Fanning has had quite a ride on the Championship Tour, and is still just as relevant today after retiring earlier this year from the world tour.
Mick is most well known for his encounter with a Great White Shark in JBay while surfing the final of the Corona Open JBay, with the whole incident being caught on the live broadcast. He also invented a shoe that opens bottle tops, is currently surfing on Rip Curl The Search trips and working on the Balter Beer brewery that he opened up recently with a few of his friends.
Two times world champion and also the smallest world champion, the diminutive goofy-footer was one of the most popular power surfers of his generation, choosing power surfing over everything else.
Tom was fearless, and made a name for himself charging Pipeline, pulling into massive barrels and carving a crazy snap under the lip at massive Pipe during one particularly gnarly event.
Carroll also was part of the boycotting of South Africa during a world title year 1985, and did not win the title that year as a direct result. By missing out on the entire South African leg – there were four events – he was overtaken on the rankings and lost his world title bid.
AKA Mr Pipeline, Gerry Lopez is regarded as one of the most stylish surfers to ever grace our sport. His casual approach to riding bone-crushing waves, on his beautiful pin-tail “Lightning Bolt” surfboards, created the iconic images that remain breathtaking to this day.
Modern Pipe surfers use Lopez’s positioning and grace under pressure as a yardstick for performance, some forty years later.
Two time pipe masters winner, Gerry is one of the most recognisable surfers in history despite never really committing to the pro tour. However, his foray into acting in the 1980’s (Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian, North Shore) certainly boosted his public profile.
The little kid from Hawaii who came good, John John Florence is widely recognized as the best surfer in the world right now – when he’s not injured that is.
JJF has a grom’s proclivity for doing silly things sometimes, like dropping down a half pipe on his skateboard the day before a big event, paddling out to closing out and slightly onshore Waimea Bay, or going for the craziest wind-assist airs that just look like they’ll blow ankles.
With two world titles under the belt, the Hawaiian kid who grew up in the shade of the trees at Pipe has a long and illustrious career ahead of him.
The legend that is Curren has grown over the years. A two-times world champion, when Curren decided that he wanted to compete again, the only way back to the premier tour was through the Trials Events, which preceded every main event. He surfed through the trials in his comeback year all the way through to his third world title, a feat that will likely never be repeated.
Curren is mysterious, enigmatic, and stylish. To watch him surfing, even in his fifties, is always pleasing to the eye. When he paddled out for his Heritage Heat in JBay in 2014, he kicked it off with a perfect 10-point ride.
The first Brazilian world champion, the dynamic goofy footer was always earmarked for a world title, from the early days of King Of The Groms days, when he won the event in fun beach break Hossegor surfer with a perfect 20-point heat score.
Medina wears his heart on his sleeve, competes fiercely, and always loves it when the waves get big and serious and left, with solid Pipe and Chopes bringing a smile to his face.
He has the classic combination of big wave bravado and small wave talent, finding a double overhead Teahupo’o barrel just as easy as a massive forehand rotation. Medina is bound to get a second world title.
A dogged and determined workhorse, De Souza was the second Brazilian surfer to win a world title, leading the Brazilian Storm along with Medina.
Adriano comes from a poor background, escaping the favelas in his youth to find redemption in surfing, and his route to a world title is a well-documented rags-to-riches tale of achievement.
In his world title year De Souza made a few changes to his approach, and by finishing his waves solidly, and not falling off, he managed to edge his points that little bit higher than usual, resulting in an accumulative points total that saw him win the world title.
He was described by Kelly Slater as the surfer who is going to win multiple world titles, yet Jordy has yet to climb onto that podium, despite winning numerous events and consistently redefining high-performance surfing.
Jordy is a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who seems content with winning the odd event, placing high on the Jeep Leaderboard every year, and making some ridiculous video clips, but underneath it all, he is a fierce competitor who takes losses hard and who wants a world title so desperately that it literally defines him.
The world expects a title from the big guy some day soon.
Being runner-up to Mark Richards – and a world title – four times must have been disheartening for Bondi’s Horan, but he has managed to bounce through all sorts of turmoil in his life and come out the other side full of spirit and good humour.
Cheyne reinvented himself as a big wave surfer, moved on to start a surf school, and has been involved in various other aspects of the sport over the years, reemerging as situations dictated.
Always a presence at the World Surf League’s Gold Coast event, Horan remains a legend of the sport.
Stylish surfer Wayne ‘Rabbit’ Bartholomew is credited with a lot more than his world title. He was the surfer who boldly claimed the Australian influence in Hawaii, or as he put it in Surfer Magazine, he was ‘bustin down the door’ – a statement that saw him go into hiding as well as lose his front teeth in an altercation.
Rabbit was at the forefront of explosive surfing for many years, always winning events with stylish and controlled performances. He went on to lead the ASP with his idea of the ‘dream tour’ of a world tour only taking place in perfect waves in the best locations in the world, and his ideology was the basis on what the tour is now based on.
Fletcher began surfing competitively at the age of five. He dropped out of school at fifteen to pursue a competitive career.
Despite winning the 1989 Body Glove Surf Bout at Lower Trestles, and grabbing $30,000, this was not the route that Fletcher ultimately took.
Son of icon Herbie Fletcher and grandson of legendary waterman Walter Hoffman, Christian Fletcher had surfing running through his veins, his natural ability and punk orientated approach soon had him taking skateboarding moves to the waves.
This high performance, pioneering aerial approach to surfing paved the way for modern high-performance surfers. Christian invented many of the moves we see today.
The Australian rabble-rouser has been in the game for over 30 years and has shown no signs of slowing down. From his early days and Mad Wax, to his win at the Eddie, to his TV show with Tom Carroll all the way to his recent exploits at Nazaré, Ross is still going at breakneck speed.
Clarke-Jones nearly won the last installment of the Eddie before it was shut down, earning a second place to John John Florence, but there were many people who thought that he should have won it.
She was the most stylish and most imitated female surfer in the world when she emerged along with her Roxy boardshorts, and proceeded to take over the world with her fast and dynamic surfing performances.
It was inevitable that Andersen was going to win multiple world titles; but more than that she can actually be named as the person who changed women’s surfing fashion forever, opening up massive dividends to the big surf clothing companies of the time, and she was as cute as a button the whole time.
For an era in the mid-nineties, it was the Slater and Andersen show on world championship tour, with everyone else fading into obscurity.
Steph is recognized as one of the most stylish surfers in the world, and her performances at everywhere from Supertubes in JBay to the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch lay testament to the claims of her stylishness.
Gilmore is a joy to watch and is one of the most popular and respected surfers of her time.
Her multiple world titles are a testament to this, and she continues to define high-line speed runs and the smoothest arcs.
For years Dane has been known as the best free surfer in the world, and it’s a shame that he is less in the limelight than before.
His radicalness didn’t really suit a contest vest, and his discomfort with crowds and interview situations didn’t really help his career as a competitive surfer.
Dane is now a father, is still sponsored, and is still ripping harder than anyone in the world. His free surfing performances are unbelievable to watch in real life: every wave is a huge, open canvas for the high-flying freak.
Another surfer who had an incredible and illustrious career without a world title, Taj has always been one of the most popular surfers in the world.
His decision to hold back from the Championship Tour for a year, even after he had qualified, is a prime example of someone doing things differently, and his leaning towards producing incredible videos instead of winning events in his prime goes to show what he felt about professional surfing from the start.
A lack of a world title was never going to be an issue for the lad.
In 1989, after a story written for Surfer Magazine by Derek Hynd gave Potter no chance of winning a world title, he went on the biggest winning streak in our sport.
When he won the title that year, he did it by the biggest margin ever seen, and yet to be repeated. He is the surfer credited with starting the aerial surfing approach of today, and he currently works for the WSL as an online commentator for the Championship Tour events, where he comes across as knowledgeable and humble.
Originally from Newcastle in the UK, Pottz learned to surf in Durban before heading to Australia to kickstart a flamboyant professional career.
Michael Peterson burned twice as bright for half as long.
His iconic and revolutionary surfing style set the competitive world alight during the 1970’s. Peterson was famous for his era defining barrel riding at Kirra, while his carves wrote the blueprint for power surfing.
MP was a competitive animal, dominating Australian competition for years.
Unfortunately, undiagnosed schizophrenia and drug abuse meant that Michael stopped displaying his surfing talents due to a self imposed exile, until his death in 2012 at age 59.
After being savagely attacked by a shark back in 2003, when she was only 14 years old, Hamilton continues to surf with one arm, redefining what can be done with a surfboard, despite her physical challenge.
Bethany competes, surfs serious waves and carries on her life with passion and enthusiasm. She is a mother, was in the television series ‘The Amazing Race’ and even had a movie made based on her incredible story.
Hawaiian charger Dorian was one of the best surfers of his time, part of the ‘Momentum Generation,’ and a surfer who has gone on to greatness in other fields of surfing and life.
Shane starred in the movie ‘In God’s Hands’ and reinvented himself as a big wave charger who went on to become one of the greatest big wave surfers of all time at Jaws and Mavericks, to name but a few places.
Dorian is not a fan of cold water, however, and prefers to surf waves closer to home at all times.
‘The Man Who fell To The Couch’ was an excellent story written on the rise and fall of Australian legend Mark Occhilupo.
One of the greatest up-and coming goofy-footers in the world, Occy rose to prominence in 1984 when he arrived out of the blue and won the Country Feeling Classic at JBay in excellent conditions, redefining backhand surfing at that iconic pointbreak.
It was said that the waves seemed to slow down when Occ was riding Supertubes, but all that was happening as that he was surfing so superhumanly fast that the perspective changed.
Occy had a subsequent mental and emotional breakdown and disappeared for a few years before launching a comeback that went all the way to him winning a world title in 1999.
Twiggy is a two times Big Wave World Champ who has been surfing the biggest waves on the planet for the best part of two decades.
He is also a hardcore traveler and does it solo as well as with his little family. Twiggy likes to embark on intrepid missions up the west coast of South Africa and beyond, being one of the earlier guys to surf Donkey Bay in Namibia.
Twig has never been one to shy away from controversy, but also one to heap on the accolades when someone deserves them. One of the most reassuring guys to surf with when it’s big, Twig has a watchful eye on everyone who is in the water with him, and his slot in the record books is already cast in stone.