Playing the Same Game

Tracking the overlooked roots of our origins.

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Though the early origins of wave riding are most frequently thought of as Polynesian, or perhaps spawned in Peru, evidence indicates that it was and is a natural thing for man or child to be drawn to wherever conditions are suitable. It no doubt evolved to its greatest heights in Polynesia, but the surfing sensation is essentially the same game wherever and however it occurs. To wit: peruse the following quotes as published in Joel T. Smith’s thoroughly researched The Illustrated Atlas of Surfing History

Columbia River: “I have seen the natives near the coast riding waves in these canoes with safety and apparently without concern where I should have thought it impossible for any vessel of the same size to live a minute.”—Meriwether Lewis, 1805

Australia: “The Aborigine stood upon the verge of a rock and plunged through a rising wave, and disappeared. He stayed underwater full a minute and rode a heaving surge back onto the rock.”—William Romaine Govett, 1836

India: “…we thought that the exciting work of landing through the surf, riding on the crest of a gigantic wave, and then being swiftly whisked ashore by strong and swarthy arms was the best thing about Madras…How we envied the independence and pluck of the amphibious natives dancing over dangerous surf on their tiny catamarans.”—Colonies and India Magazine, 1879

Tabago: “Children aged 12 and 14 have a unique game that would frighten a European. They chose a plain beach with no rocks…each one having a plank in his hand, as wide as they can find, then they put their chest on the board, then they abandon themselves to the wave…They advance as far as they like into the sea, all arranged in a row, and let themselves ride on the summit of the swells toward the beach: the wave is sometimes so high that for those spectators who look at them from shore, their heads appear like balls on a carpet of snow. I saw children having fun at the same exercise at the Bay of Bermuda, the Turks Islands near Santa Domingo…” —Captain Philippe Aubin, 1756

West Africa: “Children of the Fante Tribe use pieces of broken canoes, which they launch, and paddle outside of the surf, when, watching a proper opportunity, they place their frail barks on the tops of high waves, which, in their progress to the shore, carry them along with great velocity…to the plaudits of the spectators who are assembled on the beach to witness their dexterity.”—Captain John Adams, 1823

Syria: “The boys of Ruad, Syria pass their existence almost in the water, and use a surf-board very similar to that of the Sandwich Islands, except that they sit and lean on it, while the Kanaka stands. My windows, overlooking the western sea, were enlivened with their cries: ‘A heavy sea Allah give us, a calm sea we do not want.’” —Commander Frederick Walpole, 1851

Japan: “Perhaps ten children of 12 or 13 are there, taking the boat’s planks they go, embarking and diving into the racing sea, further and further out they go, then riding the waves back to shore, fast like an arrow, so many times they go.” —Dokurakuan Kanri, 1821

Feature image caption: A hand-colored aquatint of a sketch by Charles Gold, first printed in 1800, depicting Mandrassan men in India surfing breaking waves on “catamarans.” Photograph courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum.