June 7, 2021

A history of surfing in Europe

Though surfing was discovered just about as far away from Europe as possible, on the Polynesian islands of the Pacific, the sport has since been adopted here and it is now one of the premier surf destinations of the world. Europe is home to some of the surf world’s most famous breaks, such as the reefs of Ericeira, the sandy beaches of Hossegor and south west France, and the biggest wave in the world, Nazaré. 

It is hard to believe that with such a thriving surf community, that surfing really didn’t exist in Europe before the second world war. Various people had hit some of the waves along the Atlantic coast but it wasn’t until American soldiers rocked up to Biarritz with their Californian quivers that surfing in Europe started to take off.

The first known instance of surfing coming the Europe was in 1890 when two Hawaiian princes, Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Piikoi and David Kahalepouli Kawananakoa Piikoi, took a break from their studies in England and went to the coast town of Bridlington where they surfed. This form of surfing, with 15ft planks of wood, most likely bought from a local boat builder, was far from what we consider surfing to be today. It was in fact much more similar to the traditional Hawaiian style of surfing which used to be part of a large religious ritual.  

Surfing was practically unknown worldwide until the rise to fame of one of the most influential icons in surf history, Duke Kahanamoku. Duke won swimming gold at the 1920 Olympics and he used his new platform to promote the great sport of surfing. After his success at publicizing the sport, surfers began to pop up all over mainland Europe, notably Portugal, where the first footage of people surfing was taken in 1926. These forms of surfing however, were very mundane, normally just laying on your front on a plank of wood. It wasn’t until World War Two that performance surfboards were introduced to Europe by American soldiers.  

WW2 is one of the reasons why surfing is such a global phenomenon today. Wherever there’s a wave, there’s a surfer. Prior to 1941 when America joined the Allied war effort, the sport of surfing, and especially the performance aspect of it, remained relatively isolated in various parts of the United States and Hawaii. The deployment of US troops to the far reaches of the world, armed with the latest Californian surf technology, meant that surfing was introduced not just conceptually, as Duke Kahanamoku promoted it, but physically as people were able to see the surfboards in action at their local beaches. A popular destination for US troops was South West France, especially Biarritz, which transformed into one of the premier surf destinations of the world.  

Surfing only became commercially available in Europe around 1956 when Californian film scriptwriter Peter Viertel came to the Basque country to shoot The Sun Also Rises with Dick Zanuck. He and Dick brought a surfboard which they had to smuggle into France via Spain due to expensive customs. They made copies of the surfboard using balsa wood which weighed about 25 kilos. They also notably inspired a group of young French surfers known as the ‘Tontons Surfeurs,’ Jacky Rott, Georges Henebutte, Jo Moraiz and Jöel de Rosnay, who founded the first European surf club in 1959 and created the first European based surfboard company, the Barland-Rott. 

Since then, the European surf industry has boomed, bringing in billions in tourism revenue to Portugal, Spain, France and the UK in particular. Many staples of the surf industry now have bases and headquarters along the European Atlantic coast, and the market only seems to be growing!