It’s commonly thought that the first Western account of surfing comes from Lieutenant James King, who assumed command of the HMS Discovery, after Captain James Cook was killed by Hawaiians in 1779 (Cook had tried to kidnap their chief to force them to return a ship’s boat they’d stolen). King said of the Hawaiians of Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island:
But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct. If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais’d. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious. The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.
However, this is the first record of Hawaiian surfing.
Ten years previously, when Cook’s expedition reached Tahiti, the naturalist Joseph Banks went native, shed his clothes, and frolicked with the lissome Tahitian lasses. He wrote coyly of this in his journals. He also recorded a very strange and wonderful sport that absolutely astonished him.
The following is from THE AGE OF WONDER by historian Richard Holmes , a New York Times Best Book of the Year (and the quotes in this excerpt come from Banks’ journal of 29 May, 1769)
Rounding the tip of the bay, they [Banks and company] they looked out to sea and saw something wholly unexpected and ‘truly surprising.’ This was the astonishing and never-to-be-forgotten sight, far out on the unprotected edge of the lagoon, a group of dark Tahitian heads bobbing amidst the enormous dark-blue Pacific waves. At first Banks thought they had been flung out of their canoes and were drowning. Then he realized that the Tahitians were surfing.
No European had ever witnessed—or at least recorded—this strange, extreme and quintessentially South Seas sport before. It left Banks amazed by the courage and dexterity of the Tahitian surfers, and the beauty and nonchalant grace with which they mastered the huge and terrifying Pacific rollers: ‘It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as it is usually the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore. A more dreadfull one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no European who had by any means got into it could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was covered with pellbes and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming.
…The Tahitians had developed what were clearly surfboards, constructed out of the smooth, curved ends of old canoes. They were scornful of all danger and exultant in their physical skills. ‘Whenever a surf broke near them they died under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their chief amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe. With this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness.’
Most of extraordinary of all [to Banks], this perilous activity evidently had absolutely no practical purpose or possible use. The Tahitians did it for the sheer, inexhaustible delight of the thing. It was a complete Paradise sport: ‘We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full hal an hour, in which time no one of the actors attempted to come ashore bu all seemd most highly entertained with their strange diversion.’