If there’d been no Hawaii, how different would surfing be today?

Hawaii is traditionally known as surfing’s birthplace, and Duke Kahanamoku as the legendary father of modern-day surfing, spreading the joy from California to Australia in the early 20th century, opening avid eyes to the sport. But if there’d been no Hawaii, and no Duke, how different would surfing be today?

Many years ago, we anchored off an Indonesian island so outer it was at the edge of the known world. A small wind swell pulsed around the headland, which had a curved cliff face that caught the small waves, built them up, and shoved them back in a head-high wedge toward the beach. Something to surf, one of those novelty waves.

Also at anchor were a couple fishing boats from one of the bigger islands on the other side of the horizon. They watched us with keen interest, and then a couple of the younger fishermen scooted out into the surf with wooden planks that they belly-boarded, and expertly too. They’d never seen surfing, they told us, but back home when they were kids they rode the waves off their beach with similar belly-boards.

There’s something about things in motion that attracts kids, and grown folks who are kids at heart, to play, whether it’s moving water or a hill to slide down. It seems to be pretty much a universal human constant. In Bali, before the first modern surfboards were seen, Kuta village kids were riding broken bamboo outriggers and whatever else would float in the beach break. I’ve read numerous similar anecdotes from around the world.

Genuinely new things that no one has ever seen or known before or thought about (except for a single lone genius) are actually rare. Discoveries and developments almost always come out of a bubbling stew of similar thinking and experimentation. There were most likely a whole bunch of troglodytes in various caves trying to figure out how to get¬ a fire going. The history of science is full of stories of simultaneous discoveries—Alfred Wallace actually beat Darwin to the theory of evolution, and any number of physicists were very close to Einstein’s whole E=MC2 thing*.

Same with surfing, I think. The idea of riding waves on a plank of wood would have occurred to some Australian or California, probably a few of them at the same time. The technological developments of foam and fiberglass would have accelerated the process, people thinking, “hey, what if I use this material to make a wave-riding thingamabob?” I bet soon enough there would have been a convergence of this alternate history to actual history.

No disrespect to Duke (a genuine waterman and hero who, by the way, called the first foam single-skeg tankers “trick boards”), but my guess is that if there’d been no Hawaii, surfing today would sorely miss a bunch of very high profile waves, and Mr. Laird might be an Idaho potato farmer (although somebody else would have come up with the SUP), but other than that, the sport of surfing would look just the same.

* But most scientists agree that Einstein’s general theory of relativity, the curved space-time thing, was truly a lone genius breakthrough. That theory can be expressed in this equation:

Pretty simple, hunh?

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