The History of Water Sports


We’ve been swimming, snorkeling and playing basic water sports for centuries, but the true water sports, the ones loved for harnessing the power of the waves and the strength of the tide, came to us from distant exotic islands where man was as at home in the warm water as he was on land.  Surfing, as we now know it, allowed islanders to stand on a wooden board and feel the surging power of the waves a few inches below the soles of their feet. They learned to steer those boards, balancing upon the crest of a wave and feeling the water crash on the warm shore.

Surfing History Watersports History

Natives of Hawaii and other sun-kissed Pacific islands developed sports where a simple board was shaped to ride the currents into shallow water.

Pearl divers in the pacific displayed underwater skills where they could hold their breath and lazily swim among the coral and seaweed, while cliff divers on volcanically active islands dropped hard and fast into the clear blue water, leaving nothing but a ripple to show their passage into the depth. All of these activities were as much undertaken on a spiritual level as they were for fun. Locals challenged each other to jump from higher cliffs, to take on deeper water while diving for oysters and clam shells. They combined their spiritual communion with the surf, raising a new competitive spirit where surfers waited for taller waves, crossing each other’s paths on their boards and staying upright as long as possible before finding shallow water.

The pacific island love of water sports continued uninterrupted for centuries, an idyllic age, until explorers of the British maritime fleet floated into sight, arriving in Tahiti and in the bays of Hawaii, where they observed islanders surfing. Locals at Kealakekua Bay on the Kona coast of the Big Island guided their boards unerringly on the crest of fast, whitecaps. British naval officers and their crew experienced the sight of strong men dropping of 100 foot tall cliffs, diving into water, and saw narrow boats, outriggers, cutting through the ocean.

What was a diversion, a simple afternoon’s fun for some, became a sport for others. The late 1700’s saw more explorers and anthropologists arrive to study island habits, but the Polynesian island chains and the Hawaiian islands were to be more fully explored and occupied in the 19th and early 20th century. Western colonists were becoming hooked on surfing and diving. In 1912 George Freeth and Hawaiian beach boy Duke Paoa Kahanamoku took surfboards to the shores of California, and a lifelong love affair between California and surfing was born.

Water sports are seen in Olympic competitions and undertaken for nothing but fun. People take part to challenge the wind, waves and tides of the ocean and beaches. It’s always been this way, even back in the 1700’s when young cliff divers proved their courage and worth to young women on the islands of Hawaii by jumping from great heights, hitting the water with barely a splash. The daredevil act is still popular among the cliffs of Acupulco, Mexico, as men display their accurate diving abilities to folk on vacation. As for surfing, water skiing and wakeboarding, those water sports and more are natural extensions of the Pacific islander spirit.

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