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The world in the curl : an unconventional history of surfing

Call Number: 
797.6 W538

While surfing on a warm day near Santa Barbara, two senior surfers, each having surfed over thirty years, and who were also scholars and historians, thought it would be fun and informative to teach a class on the history of surfing to students at U.C. Santa Barbara, known for its easy access to good surfing sites. The class was "inundated" with students and most of them were non-surfers. This book evolved from the class and covers the modern history of surfing as it originated in Hawaii.  There are other parts of the world (Peru, West Africa, and Polynesia) where people surfed, but Hawaii is the link to today’s sport.

Whatever the season or weather, “Surf’s up!” are words that bring joy to passionate surfers. If the waves are flat, then a fair substitute is skateboarding, which on its own has become a common land sport that evolved from the water sport.  Modern surfing is a leisure activity, but also a fierce, sometimes deadly one, that originated in Hawaii, and went through many ups and downs because of explorers, missionaries, and the sandalwood and whaling trades. Early missionaries to Hawaii were appalled at the sight of native surfers riding the waves completely nude, or wearing very little clothing. It was not the zealous missionaries who caused the sport to take a downturn, but contact with a mix of Europeans who brought a horrific group of diseases that killed off large numbers of the indigenous people.  The Hawaiians were healthy, fit and isolated, but during the mid-nineteenth century their death rate was very high. In the early part of the twentieth century, three key people helped to revive the sport:  George Freeth, Alexander Hume Ford, and Jack London were enthusiastic boosters. Along with Duke Kahanamoku who is the father of modern surfing, the annexation of Hawaii, tourism, and the 1916 cover of Sunset magazine, the sport was jumpstarted into the popular activity it is today, plus created a multi-billion dollar industry.

The unconventional aspect of this history is that Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul bring their scholarship and joy to a sport they love. Most surfing books write about modern personalities and places, but these two surfer dudes give us so much more: in a tightly arranged work they cover the worldwide popularity of the sport; how invasive water-pollution and climate change have affected surfing; the influence of modern technology, from the smallest advancement such as surfing leashes to improvement of boards, has helped popularize the sport; the attendant growth of clothing, paraphernalia, music and films; racism and sexism; the unique culture of the surfing world which has created its own jargon and mystique where people live to follow the waves.  And they do answer a question many have asked as they visit our beaches or drive along the coast, and see bobbing bodies, straddling boards:  What are they waiting for?  Of course, it is the next wave, the perfect wave, and another after that, and another and . . .