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The basic idea behind ­surfing has been around for thousands of years. It probably star­ted when Polynesian fishermen discovered that catc­hing a wave was a speedy way to get to shore. In Hawaii, surfing gradually became a sport and an expression of social status -- the longer the surfboard, the more important the ­surfer's role in the community.

When missionaries and colonists arrived in Hawaii in the 1700s, surfing's reputation soured. Some newcomers were offended by the idea of scantily-dressed men and womensurfing together. Missionaries banned the sport, and the islands' native population declined in the face of an influx of colonists. As a result, the practice of surfing dwindled until the 1900s, when surfers like George Fre­eth and Duke Kahanamoku caught the eye of the public and the media. This sparked resurgence in surfing as a recreational activity.

­As surfing grew in popularity, it changed dramatically. Hawaiian surfboards had been 10 to 16 feet (3 to 4.9 meters) long and made from solid wood. They could carry a person from the breakers to the shore, but they were heavy and hard to steer. Twentieth-century surfers made improvements to surfboards that allowed riders to control how and where they moved on the waves. New materials made boards lighter and easier to manage while fins and new board shapes added stability and maneuverability. Instead of simply aiming a board at the shore and trying to stay afloat, surfers could rapidly change direction, position themselves precisely on a crashing wave and even launch themselves from a wave's crest.

In his book "Roughing It," Mark Twain describes trying to surf -- and failing.
Public domain image

The ability to balance and maneuver on rapidly-moving water is pretty amazing, but it's not the only incredible thing about surfing. There are some specific requirements for good surf conditions, and these conditions exist only along the world's coastlines. Artificially constructing waves or changing the way natural waves break is difficult or even impossible -- in other words, you can only surf where the good waves are. In spite of this limitation, surfing has spawned a musical genre, multiple films, a wealth of slang terms and an entire culture.

If you’re interested in surfing and other board sports, check out the sandboarding article, video and images at Discovery’s Fearless Planet to learn more.

One reason behind surfing's popularity is that it doesn't take a lot of gear to get started. We'll look at surfboards in the next section.


Long and shortboards

The biggest and most expensive requirement is a surfboard, which can cost anywhere from $150 to $500. These boards come in a range of basic shapes and sizes within two broad categories -- longboards and shortboards. Both types can have permanent or removable fins on their undersides, as well as strips of sturdy material known as stringers to help hold the board together. The sides of the surfboards, known as rails, can be rounded or tapered in a variety of ways to suit different surfers' preferences. The bottom of the board, or rocker, can curve to different degrees, changing how much of the board is in contact with the water.

Longboards are usually at least 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, and some are as long as 12 feet (3.7 meters). They are generally less maneuverable but more stable than shortboards. Shortboards are usually between 5 and 7 feet (1.5 and 2.1 meters) long, and they come in several shapes. As their names imply, fishes and eggs are short and wide. Funboards are a little longer and work well as all-purpose boards. Long, tapered shortboards known as guns are for expert surfers and exceptionally big surf.

Early Hawaiian surfers carved and shaped their own boards using local wood. Today's surfers can choose from custom-shaped boards or mass-produced boards known as pop-outs. Pop-outs get their name from the manufacturing process -- they pop out of factory molds. Both types are usually made of polystyrene or polyurethane foam covered in fiberglass and resin. In some people's minds, these artificial materials contradict the environmentally-friendly mindset of many surfers. An alternative is the Eco Board, developed by Project Eden. The Eco Board is made from balsa wood, hemp cloth and plant-derived resins.

Some surfers follow the examples of Hawaiian and early modern surfers by making their own boards. These boards start as blocks of foam or partially-shaped foam boards called blanks. After shaping the board, the surfer seals, or glasses the board with resin and fiberglass cloth. You can see a step-by-step video guide of what it takes to shape a surfboard at Surfline.