No one really knows who the first person was to get a piece of wood or plane down a log and take it out into the surf and ride it into shore. There are intimations that this first occurred some 2000 years ago in or around Tahiti. Early Hawaiians, who were reputedly descended from seafaring Polynesians who found their way from Tahiti or surrounding islands, were first observed plying their skill at the sport some 1700 years later. A crew member of Captain James T. Cook's expedition, that first exposed the Hawaiian Islands to the West in the late 1700's, saw the locals exhibiting their prowess at this sport on his first voyage. To the Hawaiians, surfing was much more than a sport, with social status attached to proficiency at doing it. They called it "He'e Nalu" or wave sliding and a person's "rank" in society could be, and was, directly influenced by his ability to ride the waves. Early Ali'i (Hawaiian royalty) all participated in this activity, including legendary King Kamehameha I, who first united the Islands in 1795 and was an expert on the waves.
Missionaries, led by Hiram Bingham, arrived at the Islands in 1820 with a goal of converting the native population to Christianity. They took a dim view of most everything that was done by the locals, including surfing, which led to a temporary demise in the prominence of the sport. But, in 1885, three Hawaiian princes took a break from their studies at St. Mathews's Boarding School in San Mateo, CA and made it down to Santa Cruz with a couple of redwood boards they had shaped in their spare time. They proceeded to catch a couple of good ones and, thereby, introduced the sport to the west coast. Somewhat later, Henry Huntington, for whom California's Huntington Beach is named, brought Islander George Freeh to California to do an exhibition of the sport as a PR stunt for Huntington's new railroad. This was the first introduction to surfing in Southern California.
Meanwhile, back in the Islands, there begat a revival of interest in the sport around the beginning of the 20th century, as locals living in Waikiki began to practice the sport in the relatively calmer waves that hit the south shore. The beach boy became a fixture on Waikiki Beach, as tourists began to visit the Island mecca in numbers and notables, such as Duke Kahanamoku, would dazzle visitors with their skill in the surf. In the late 50's-early 60's, a television show set in Hawaii, with the name "Hawaiian Eye" featured, in its opening sequence, some footage of a surfer on a wave and this sparked interest in the "new" sport, which would become a signature California fad, bringing with it its own language ("bitchen, man", etc.), music (The Beach Boys and many others), movies ("The Endless Summer" remains a classic tribute to the sport and its practitioners) and apparel-the first "Surf" label was Duke Boyd's "Hang Ten" surf trunks. Previous to the introduction of surf wear, surfers would sport Hawaiian shirts, by makers such as The Kamehameha Garment Company in a nod to the birthplace of the sport. And, indeed, such shirts are still the garment of choice for many surfing aficionados today.
From its origins in Hawaii, the sport has spread worldwide with superstars of its own, including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, who is sometimes referred to as "The Michael Jordan of surfing." Catch a wave!