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What Is Surfing?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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Surfing is a water sport in which athletes ride breaking waves into shore on a piece of specialized equipment called a surfboard. The sport has spawned a number of offshoots, including wake boarding, skim boarding, skateboarding, and windsurfing, among others. In addition to being a dynamic sport which can be practiced by people at all levels of ability, surfing is also associated with a specific surfing subculture which some people aim to emulate. California, Hawaii, and Australia are particularly associated with surfing, but good surf spots can be found all over the world, from the coast of Africa to the beaches of Japan.

The origins of surfing are at least 500 years old, and possibly even older. Early Polynesian cultures developed the sport and brought it with them as they traveled throughout the Pacific, introducing it to missionaries and European explorers. Lest you think surfing is only for shaggy bums, Captain Cook himself wrote about surfing in Hawaii on his voyages there. Early missionaries tried to repress surfing, but the sport continued to be practiced, and in the 1920s, it exploded in popularity, thanks to the work of Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian surfing legend.

The equipment required for surfing varies, depending on where the surfer is. At a minimum, a board is needed, which may vary in length or construction depending on the style of surfing that the surfer practices. Most boards are broken into traditional longboards and more modern shortboards. In climates with cold water, a surfer will also require a wetsuit so that he or she will be comfortable in the water.

surfing

The surfer paddles out to the break on his or her board, or gets a tow from a small boat. The break is a section off the beach where waves tend to break, displacing huge amounts of energy and curling into a distinctive swell which can be ridden all the way to shore, if the surfer is perfectly positioned. When a wave starts to break, a surfer paddles to keep up, eventually being caught up in the energy of the wave and rushing into shore. Surfers may lie, sit, or stand on their boards, depending on skill and personal preference.

Like other sports in the ocean, surfing can be dangerous. Waves and currents are not predictable, especially on unfamiliar shorelines, and surfers can be injured or killed. This is especially true of big wave surfing, in which surfers seek out especially large waves at famous spots like Mavericks in California, which is also the site of a major surfing competition every year. Spats over particularly good surf spots have also resulted in injuries or long running feuds which can make the sport dangerous for newcomers to contested spots.

In addition to being a recreational or sometimes spiritual practice, surfing is also a competitive sport, which major competitions being sponsored all over the world. People who are interested in taking up surfing can usually find someone offering lessons, assuming they are in an area of the world near the ocean. Surfboards and wetsuits are commonly available for rental, so that people can try the sport out before committing to expensive equipment. Would-be surfers should be warned that the sport can be highly addictive, and it has been known to become an all-consuming passion.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Sports n' Hobbies researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon317235 — On Feb 01, 2013

@hidingplaces: I like how you described why you got into a different hobby, but still like surfing.

By Crispety — On May 03, 2011

@Animegal- I always heard that getting a surf board with a rounded edge is safer for you when you surf because it will have a lower tendency of cutting you when you hit a big wave. The sharper edges can really hurt especially when you are thrown into a wave.

I think that you should also look into a surfing camp or sign up for a few classes because they will at least teach you the basics and you might even be able to just rent the surf board rather than buy one.

Also, keeping track of the surf forecast is important and many beaches will have specially colored flags in order to inform you of the safety measures that you will have to take while surfing.

By animegal — On May 02, 2011

As a beginner looking to surf, can anyone tell me how to choose my first board? Is there anything in particular I should look out for?

By hidingplace — On Apr 30, 2011

As an Australian, I surfed for a while growing up. Just about everyone does. I actually got more into bodyboarding because it's easier to carry around a bodyboard on public transport on your way to the beach. It was great fun checking the surf reports and going for road trips to secret breaks where the waves were better than the local popular beach and there were less people to get in your way.

It does however take a lot of physical strength, more than most people realize. There are some spots where the reef is literally just below the surface of the water. In places like this you can't afford to wipeout on or you could end up hurting yourself really bad.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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