What is Surfing? A comprehensive guide.

This is a comprehensive guide to surfing, including surf history, equipment, key people and culture. We also explore surf brands, competitive surfing and how surfing will evolve into the future.

The Very Early Days

Chances are surfing is as ancient as almost anything that involves humans and rudimentary tools. It is widely believed that the Polynesians pioneered the art of wave riding, famously documented by Captian Cook and his crew upon arrival in the Pacific Isles.

However, there is increasing evidence that people have ridden waves across the world for thousands of years. 

Surfing for Function vs Surfing for Fun

It makes sense to establish a clear definition of what surfing actually means. Does someone standing in a canoe that is being propelled across the ocean surface by a wave count as surfing? What came before canoes? Does someone standing on a raft that is bouncing through whitewater qualify?

Surfing as a purely functional activity – i.e. enabling someone to return quickly to shore on some form of watercraft – has undoubtedly been around for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Ever since man ventured into the ocean on chunks of wood, waves would have helped him return to shore. 

Many of our ancestors would have actively avoided the breaking water because it is inherently hazardous. Surely a few thrill-seekers would almost certainly have discovered the benefits and, perhaps, pleasure in being driven ashore by a breaking wave. 

Perhaps the definition of surfing should be, “the act of standing upon a watercraft that is being propelled by a wave and deriving pleasure from the experience.” 

Alternatively, “riding a breaking wave for the purpose of pleasure or sport.”

Why Did Surfing Start?

As defined above, crucial determinant as to whether an individual is surfing – at least in the modern context of the word – is the element of pleasure, rather than the experience being purely functional. 

What if an ancient Indian fisherman enjoyed catching and riding a wave as he returned to shore from fishing? The wave riding is incidental and functional. The purpose of him being on a craft in the water is to secure a meal. However, the surfing of the wave on the way back to the beach requires skill and almost certainly provides the fisherman with a few moments of exhilaration, followed by a sense of satisfaction when the ride is successfully completed. That qualifies as surfing in my books. 

What if the fisherman passes the skill of riding those waves on to his sons and daughters. They may never paddle out on their rafts or canoes expressly to catch waves – remember canoes would have been valuable and time-intensive to construct – but they may have learnt how to match their paddle speed to the incoming wave, angle the craft along an unbroken wall and to avoid nosediving or getting stuck in the impact zone. Perhaps the more skilled fisherman took great pride in their mastery of returning to the shore amongst the breakers. 

Can we consider this a fledgling surf culture, borne out of necessity? Rock climbing, javelin, running, game fishing, all began with a very real need, prior to becoming popular sporting activities.

When a society can meet their basic survival requirements – food, shelter, safety – and have either a surplus of resource or time, then individuals tend to get creative and dedicate time to activities that are fun. We paint pictures, we innovate, we pursue challenge purely for pleasure, sport or status. 

The first surfers, those who leapt aboard the hedonic treadmill of seeking waves purely for pleasure, must have had access to good surf, wood, and time. It’s no coincidence that Hawaiian royalty possessed all three.

Who Invented Surfing?

Around the world, coastal communities have ventured into the ocean to fish and travel for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact, a human predecessor, Homo Erectus, navigated vast stretches of open ocean up to 1.8 million years ago. Did Homo Erectus surf? Pure speculation, but the name suggests that ‘upright man’ just might have been standing when weaving that raft to shore. 

Because rafts and boats were made of wood very few have survived. The oldest watercraft that looks vaguely surfable is the Pesse Dugout canoe, dated to 8000 BCE and discovered in Holland. Those ancient Dutch may have been onto something when you consider the relatively sophisticated design of this craft. In fact, you might marvel at how little we’ve progressed in 10,000 years (not taking into account aircraft carriers and cruise liners, of course).

What do you think? Do you reckon you could’ve “shot a few curls” with the Pesse canoe?

Out of the Canoes and on to Surfboards

While we can formulate an argument that surfing has potentially been around for millennia, surfboards as we know them are much, much younger.

‘Leaps and bounds’ is the clichéd phrase that describes the advances, both technological and conceptual, that surfing, and surfboard design, has undergone in the last hundred-odd years. We’re going to take a look at some of the more seminal moments.

A Brief History of Surfboards

Straight from the Tree to the Ocean

Capt James Cook and his crew observed that the first surfboards were massive planks, hewn from the native Wiliwili tree. These boards weighed up to 100 pounds and were ridden straight to the beach. The best and more refined boards were reserved for royalty, while non royals rode inferior craft, in the nude. It was a pastime of enjoyment however, and going surfing was always about good times in the earlier Hawaiian culture.

Tom Blakes Era Defining Fin and Hollow Surfboards

Leap ahead to 1935. Surfer and author Tom Blake decided that his unstable surfboard needed a fin, and went ahead to craft one onto his favourite board. Surfing changed forever when it was discovered that a fin drastically improved the performance of the heavy, slip-sliding logs that were the norm.

Realising that he was onto something real here, Tom went on to develop a hollow surfboard to go with the fin placement, and helped to drop the surfboard weight by at least half. Tom Blakes surfboards, with his rudimentary fin, were the predecessors of the modern day performance surfboards.

Balsa Wood Surfboards

While working on making their surfboards lighter and thus more maneuverable, Blake and others stumbled upon balsa wood as a possible method of manufacturing lighter and more buoyant surfboards.

These boards were made with a balsa blank, hand-shaped to the desired dimensions, and sealed with a thin fibreglass skin. The change in dynamics and performance were incredible. Tom’s designs were hugely popular for a period, as more and more people discovered surfing. Balsa had a fairly short lifespan when exposed to seawater however, and the search was on for better materials.

PU Foam Party

Molded polyurethane (PU) foam blanks were the next massive step in the evolution of the surfboard, and these blanks made the boards even lighter, more buoyant and more manoeuvrable.

The blanks were shaped and then sealed with fibreglass and resin, redefine the speed and precision of surfboard manufacture. Huge surf factories started blowing foam blanks, and in the process casually making some quite large carbon footprints.

Epoxy and Styrofoam (EPS)

Epoxy surfboards comprise an expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) foam core and coated with an epoxy resin, the only resin that can be used on EPS foam. This resin is 35% stronger than resin used on a PU board and it can snap back into shape better than a standard PU board, which tends to crack under strain.

Epoxy boards are way lighter, so they’re perfect for surfers who are focused on high performance surfing and/or aerial surfing. They are also more buoyant allowing surfers to quickly generate speed over flat sections by rail-to-rail movements. These types of boards are great for small-wave shredders, with the extra float helping to prevent bogging. Epoxy surfboards played a massive part in the evolution of the modern surfboard, with companies such as Firewire taking the technology and designs to space age levels.

Mark Richards Twin Fin

Australian surfer Mark Richards aka The Wounded Gull was the surfer who decided that two fins are better than one, and being a shaper himself, developed the twin-fin concept. It changed the face of surfing as we know it, with the characteristics of a twin-fin being massively advantageous over the single-fin.

The boards were fast, they were loose and they were highly maneuverable, resulting in Richards clocking up four world titles back-to-back with his newfangled equipment.

It was mocked at first, before nearly every professional surfer in the world was riding one. South African professional surfer and 1977 World Champion Shaun Tomson was the one surfer who held out against the twinnie for as long as possible, preferring the drive of the single-fin, but when everyone started beating him, he relented and tried out the twin-fins to great results.

Simon Anderson’s Thruster

The looseness of the twinnie however, didn’t really work for the well-built Australian surfer Simon Anderson. Anderson found them too lose and lacking in drive. In a bid to combine the drive of the single fin with the looseness of the twin-fin, he went on to develop the first Thruster, a surfboard with three equal-sized fins.

Simon Anderson went on a winning spree with his new equipment, taking out the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the Coca Cola Surfabout at Narrabeen and the Pipe Masters in Hawaii in the same year, 1981. The board was a game-changer, and the Simon Anderson Thruster became the most popular board in the world. Watch any WSL event and you will see just how the thruster dominates the high performance surfing space.

The Quad

Australian goofy-footer Glen Winton from the Gold Coast, also known as Mr X, went one step further and put a fourth fin on his surfboard. The original quads were modified twins, with the two smaller rear fins providing a little bit more stability, but still allowing for the speed and squirt of the original MR twinnie. Mr X went on to moderate competitive success with his designs, but not as much as MR or Simon.

The Bonzer 5

The five-fin Bonzer surfboard, developed by the Campbell Brothers, was an anomaly in the fin set-up process. It was a very technical hydrodynamic theory that was developed to control water flow and reduce drag across the bottom of the board’s surface. The fins on a Bonzer are small, and there is very little resistance, but the Bonzer design only picked up a very few die-hard fans and stalwarts in comparison to the standard board designs and fin set-ups previously discussed.

The Steg

Glen Winton came back into the scene a few years ago with a six-finned board called a Steg. It garnered minimal interest, although the few people, including Glen himself, swore by them, especially when the waves were bigger and clean.

The Quad 2.0

Quads very much re-entered the scene, particularly via William “Stretch” Riedel who introduced the quad-fin set-up into the high performance and big wave arenas.

Unlike the four-finned version that Mr X used to ride, the big wave quad is based more on the three-fin model, with the two back fins basically an expansion of the thruster’s standard third fin, but with the fins placed further up the tail. The quad set-up proved extremely popular among the big-wave riders the world over at places like Jaws, Nazaré and Mavericks. Big wave legend Peter Mel is a big fan of the quad gun.

Kelly Slater is one surfer who has been excited by the quad set-up. He is often the only world tour surfer rocking a quad in competitions. Kelly has adapted his Firewire models to allow him to transition from thruster to quad depending on the conditions.

The New-School / Old-School Longboard

The retro movement has seen the re-introduction of the longboarding movement, with these logs having strict design guidelines. The boards have to be of a set length, a minimum weight, no leash is allowed and the board can only have a solitary large single fin. Logging is a popular sub-genre. It is fascinating to see how the sport of longboarding progressed to high performance surfing, only to devolve back to the style of surfing and equipment that were popular in the 1960s.

Take a look at the article “The 18 Most Stylish Longboard Surfers” for an in depth look into where longboarding is right now.

Removable Fin Systems

Surfboard design reached a point where the old school fin box and glassed on fins became a hindrance to progression.

The thing about all these fins and fin configurations is that thy needed to be put in and out of the surfboard, as easily and conveniently as possible.  Fin Control Systems (FCS) was invented in Elanora, Gold Coast by Brian Whitty and patented on November of 1995. FCS is a system where one can interchange fins between different setups, allowing for two, three four and five-fin setups on a single board (no Steg set-ups).

FCS experienced a number of competitor systems that shared their ideas and followed into the market, but FCS were first to the party, and still occupy the lion’s share, working with people like Gabriel Medina, Julian Wilson and Filipe Toledo, as well as brands like Channel Islands Surfboards.

Future fins are another fantastic option for removable fins.

The Shaping Machine

One of the biggest developments in surf technology was the invention of the shaping machine. Michel Barland built the first shaping machine down in Hossegor France in 1981, and kick-started the industrial revolution of surfing. It was going to be a further two decades however before machine shapes became the norm.

It was only when Miki Langenbach developed his APS3000 machine in the early 2000’s that the machines started taking over. It was the advances in design software, coupled with ease of availability that was key to the widespread adoption of shaping machines worldwide.

Shapers remain relevant however as they transitioned more towards the role of designer. Taking away the time consuming labour of physically drawing and cutting plan shapes, rockers, and rail profiles allowed shapers to spend more of their valuable time on refining and perfecting their concepts. The repeatability of a machine shape compared to a hand shape has meant that surfers can assist shapers with testing, research, and development, far easier than pre machines.

Free Friction

In my opinion, one of the best things about radical progression in surfboard/fin design and performance is that it allows free thinkers to rebel completely. Legendary Australian surfer and journalist Derek Hynd has done exactly that with his Far Field Free Friction theory. Derek has influenced an entire generation of surfers who have little interest in machine shapes and absolutely no requirement for removable fin systems.

FFFF boards have no fins whatsoever, they are heavy and solid with crazy channels, and turn off the rail. Hynd hasn’t surfed with a fin on a board in over eleven years now, and has become exceptionally adept at riding waves of consequence.

At six-foot days at Jeffreys Bay it appears that he is the one surfer out there consistently having the most fun with his spinning, lip slides, and 360 moves on the face.

I doubt that fins free surfing is the future of the sport, but I could argue that Derek and his compatriots have certainly opened/blown the minds of surfers as to what can be achieved on a breaking wave. Who knows, maybe we will all have a fins free board in our quiver eventually. Maybe they are the answer to those days where we need to put a bit of fun into our surfing.

Surf Culture

Surf culture is a truly fascinating subject. It is a complex network of counter cultures, genres, sub-genres and fashion, that at first glance appear worlds apart, yet are centralised by a love for the natural and beautiful art of riding ocean waves.

I always feel like surfers walk to the beat of a slightly different, more melodic drum than the rat race. We have something in our lives that excites us, grounds us, motivates us, yet chill out our very being, all at the same time.

The sport, art, religion/spiritual pursuit of surfing has created a culture that enhances our lives like no other recreational activity I can think of. You may surf for two hours at a time, but your entire day, your whole week, your overall existence, is that of a surfer.

Surfing influences who we are, the clothes we wear and the movies we watch. Even the music we listen to and the artwork we hang on our walls.

Click on the links below to learn everything you need to know about surf culture.


There are so many types of surfers that co-exist in our oceanic space. From absolute beginners enjoying the gentle whitewater breakers, to the weekend warriors riding wave catching machines, all the way to the professional surfers with stickers all over their boards and thousands of instagram followers.

With wave pools popping up in numerous landlocked cities, chances are we will soon see a generation of real-life Rick Kanes, who have never actually surfed an ocean generated swell.

Surfers are a worldwide tribe who not only worship the ocean, but also have a unique set of icons of the sport that we look up to, admire, and use as points of study for how to ride waves.

Here are Surfds “30 of the Best Surfers Ever” and “The Ultimate List of Surfing World Champions.”

Learning to Surf and Improving Your Surfing

Here at Surfd we strongly recommend that your first steps towards learning to surf are with a reputable and qualified surf school. The instructors will give you the basic knowledge you need to safely and effectively catch your first waves and no doubt put a huge smile on your face.

You will also be provided with the equipment you need to enjoy your first surfing experience, ensuring you don’t need the large financial investment of buying your first surfboard, wetsuit, and all the accessories, before you know if surfing is the sport for you.

Following your initial lessons however, the next steps can be a little intimidating, daunting, and confusing. “Which surfboard should I buy?” “Where should I surf?” “What can I do to improve my fitness for surfing?” Even, “How do I wax my board?”

Don’t worry guys, Surfd has got you covered! We can guide you through the “Most Important Next Steps” you can take as a beginner surfer, as well as helping you learn the intermediate level moves and tricks that will accelerate your path to becoming a great surfer.

Surfing Health and Performance

Surfing makes you fit and surfing keeps you healthy. Surfing requires a unique range of strength and endurance across the body systems. 

Unfortunately surf health can decline quite quickly, especially in older surfers. Usually a couple of weeks out of the water is enough to lose a bit of the hard earned conditioning that is the key to surfing performance and longevity.

The archetypal surfer is a young, free individual with time on their hands and a reluctance to “settle down.” However, most people tend to reach a point in their lives where that freedom to roam is restricted somewhat. 

Work promotions, buying a house, getting married, and having children are all fantastic waypoints in life. But all the above can have a huge effect on the amount of time a surfer spends in the water. 

Priorities change over time and opportunities to surf can become extremely limited. The more mouths to feed and outgoings to cover, the less time we have available. The less time available, the harder it is to maintain surfing health and performance.

Surfd has the most comprehensive collection of information to make sure you have everything at hand to enjoy ultimate surf health, performance, and longevity.

Surfing Gear

Learning to surf and transitioning from beginner, through intermediate, and eventually performing at advanced level, is absolutely one of the hardest things you will ever undertake. Surfing is so fun, but so hard to master.

Fortunately there’s an abundance of surf gear available that makes surfing even more fun, and just that little bit easier to do!

There is nothing more frustrating than attempting to surf on the wrong board, or wearing the wrong wetsuit.

“Over the years I have lost count of the times someone has tried ordering a board completely inappropriate to their level of surfing. Guys and girls, fresh off of surfing lessons, who should be riding mini mals between 7’0″ and 8’0″ are asking me to shape them 5’10″s, because that’s what their favourite pro is riding. Surfing is a hard enough sport to master without sabotaging your progress with the wrong surfboard. Surfing is all about having fun! Catching and riding loads of waves is fun, missing every wave and going home with a sore back isn’t fun!”

Roger Tout – Iconic Shaper of 50 years

Surfd reviews every type of surfing products, helping you make more informed purchasing decisions. Our focus is always on quality, performance, value and design. Products that excel in all of these areas are given special recognition (for example, an Editor’s Choice Award) along with their star ratings.

Surfing Industry

The surfing industry is a bit like a labyrinth. Sometimes you just don’t know which way to turn! As much as the “big four” surf companies have been dominating the space for decades, there are now an abundance of brands, both large and small, who might align with your style, demands, or ethos.

You will find detailed surf company profiles on the Surfd site. Do you want to learn a bit more about your favourite surfing company? Or perhaps find a brand you’ve never heard of that produces awesome gear? Check out the most comprehensive database of surf brands on the web right here at Surfd.

We also keep you up to date with breaking industry news. “Who’s sponsoring who?”, “Who’s just dropped a new film?”, “When can I expect a new range to hit the shelves?”. Surfd keeps you up to date with the movers and shakers in the surf industry.

Surfing Travel

Surfers are a nomadic bunch. Surfing is a catalyst for global travel, encouraging us to travel to far-flung places in search of the perfect wave.

There has never been more opportunity for quality surfing destinations than now. Sometimes choosing where to travel is the most difficult part of the whole trip.

Surfd is here to help you find the perfect surf-trip. We partner with travel industry experts and let you know the hows, wheres, whys, and when’s for your dream trip.

Surfing Activism

Surfing, for all its grounded, earthed, back-to-nature vibes, is, unfortunately, a pursuit that internally battles a toxic footprint. It is a sport where technology just cannot keep up with the mindset of the participants.

Surfers are renowned for their love of the ocean, as well as the animals residing in the coastal shallows and deeper regions. Surfers are environmentalists by design; however traditional/archaic industry practices are uniquely hypocritical.

Here at Surfd we have a strong sense of environmentalism and pride ourselves in spreading the message of sustainability and renewable practices wherever and whenever we can.

We are determined to be a part of the movement that ensures the impact of surfing is reduced to sustainable levels, as soon as possible. We actively support activist groups, such as Surfers Against Sewage, The Surfrider Foundation, and Surf Aid, providing them with a platform to tell their stories, hopefully influencing the current, and future generations of surfers to stand up and be counted in the fight to protect our precious environment.


Surfing Now and the Future

The evolution of surfing has been so incredibly fast. Just a few decades ago the sport was almost unrecognisable compared to where it is today.

Wave pool technology is setting new standards for what is imaginable and wearables are tracking everything from our performance to our well-being. Surfing is in a really interesting place.

What does the future hold for surfing?

Can surfing moves get any more radical?

Can even bigger waves be successfully ridden?

Are there anymore undiscovered corners of the earth that hold the perfect, uncrowded surf break?

Will the rebellious devolution of the sport that we are currently witnessing through the traditional longboard and retro board movements continue to gain traction?

Will technology embed itself even further into a surfers existence?

Honestly, we just don’t know! But you can be assured that Surfd keeps their ear firmly to the ground, and finger on the pulse, ensuring we bring you the best of everything futuristic.