From surfing’s early beginnings as the “Sport of Kings” in Hawaii, it has held a certain sway over spectators and participants alike. While estimates of the number of surfers world wide vary wildly (from 5 million to 23 million), there are a select few that, for one reason or another, have left an indelible mark on surfing. The interesting thing is that in most cases, it’s not so much for the actual act of surfing, but for what they did to significantly alter the course of things to come. From the Duke to Gidget, this is a list of a ten of surfing’s most influential people.

The Duke, Waikiki, around 1912. Photo:  State Library of Queensland

The Duke, Waikiki, around 1912. Photo: State Library of Queensland


The Inertia

#1. The Duke

Duke Kahanamoku is hailed as the father of modern surfing. A full-blooded Hawaiian from Honolulu, Hawaii, the Duke is responsible for spreading a view of surfing that has since soaked into the masses and stuck fast. Born in 1890, the original Beach Boy was the first of five children, all of which turned into extraordinary watermen in their own right. Kahanamoku however, was head and shoulders above them all. At the young age of 20, he broke the American short-distance swimming record for the 50-yard sprint and the beat 100-yard world record by almost five seconds. The next year, in 1912, he set another world record at the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1920, he won gold in the both the 100 and 400-meter freestyle relay.

All this acclaim brought him–and his surfing–to the forefront of the public’s perception of watermen.

After a disc jockey from Honolulu became his manager in 1961, the Duke became the face of a litany of businesses that used his surfer image paired with the now-popular Hawaiian lifestyle.

At the age of 77, Duke Kahanamoku died of a heart attack, after a lifetime of piling the building blocks that would become modern surfing. He was named Surfer of the Century in 1999, and the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him in 2002.

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  • Ben

    Curren (Tom) on, Noll on, Paskowitz off, Gabaldon off if we’re keeping it objective.

  • nextstep99

    Tom Blake, George Greenough, Nat Young, Wayne Lynch

  • Bob Feigel

    The list started out so well. The first three mentioned were spot-on. But then the list became a bit silly in my opinion. Sure, “Doc” is a nice guy and an icon of sorts, but he’s hardly been a major influence on surfing. Same with Nick Galbaldon. Politically correct for sure. But a major influence? Hell … his name was virtually unknown until the past few years.

    The film character, Jeff Spicoli, is not worthy of mention, and certainly not before Gidget.

    The films of Bruce Brown have definitely been a major influence on surfing and Laird Hamilton’s big wave exploits have made him a living legend. But Sean Collins? How many surfers even recognize the name?

    Personally, I think “top ten” lists like this are useless. Particularly if they’re as flawed as this one.

    • mrempty

      Uh, Sean Collins? Surfline? You don’t need to recognize the name to know you don’t have to drive to the beach to check the surf anymore. Although I agree the list sucks, Collins totally deserves to be there.

  • Scott Bass

    Blake -fin , Greenough- performance, Tom Morey -accessable, Velzy -commercial, Bonzer Brothers – innovation, BING -marketing, NOLL-legend, Simon- innovation, McTavish -design, Brewer – design , Hynson – down rail… left out many and butchered a few but … the list of board builders that have influenced our aquatic expression is long.

  • Michael Harnage

    MR, Lopez, Curren and or Carroll. Either of these men over Jeff Spicoli And “Queen of Makaha”, Rell Sunn. Great list otherwise!

  • piskian

    Jesus.And Moses,for the paddleout skills on Red Sea breks

  • Teresa Anne Moore

    This ‘nana left out Shaun Tomson???

  • Ben

    Oh yeah, Greenough is a serious omission, innovating when Laird was just a pup. Greenough on, Laird off.

  • surferpl

    Influential… How about: L.B., Buttons, Lopez, Butch VanArtsdalen, Noll, and Simmons for crissakes.

  • Joshua Ben Paskowitz

    Don’t forget bringing the first surfboard to Israel, starting the first surf camp, pioneering the sport and sacrificing a Stanford medical degree and the lives of his family on the alter of Surf. Of course that’s overlooking his personal influence on every Surfer in History since duke and including Slater Dora Tubesteak machado Gerry Lopez and Eddie Aikau but hey what do I know? Ask Herbie Fletcher, Joel Tudor, Steve Pezman, George Downing and Eddie Rothman. They all Appreciate the fact that Doc is one of 3 last living Pioneers that have a direct connection to the first generation of haole Surfers
    Ever. Not a Sport, a Religion that is Handed down by Devotion. Of course I’m biased my Dad is my Hero for rushing the Gaza border crossing at gunpoint to bring surfboards to the Palestinians. Hardly an influence. Aloha.

  • Jim Clements

    How is there no Gerry or Bertleman or Tudor? And, what about the Aussies? Doc and Nick are a stretch, good stories both, but influential??? And you lost all credibility with Spicoli and Gidget. While they influenced surfing, as did Sean Collins and Bruce Brown, they weren’t even surfers. Ridiculous

  • Pointy

    No George Greenough and yet you have fictitious characters?
    Please file this story under “we didn’t do our research very well but decided to publish it anyway”

  • ichorousmedia .

    I’m pretty sure Phil Edwards wins out over Miki Dora, but Bruce Brown suffices, barely, in the sense that he spent a lot of time filming Phil and exposing his talent

  • Seabass120

    Sean Collins, Gidget and Spicoli? No Tom Curren – SHAME on you!!

  • mrempty

    Of the ten most influential surfers two of them are fictitious characters… Not one but TWO??? Come on. Art imitates life, not vice versa.

  • Rob Farrow

    Thinking the name Gerry Lopez, Grubby Clark, Joe Quigg, Hobie Alter should have been in there somewhere, considering what they individually brought the sport over the decades. Eddie Aikau is another name that was missed who has had a profound impact on our evolution of big wave surfings legitimacy. I would venture to say if Laird is on the list then Mr. Joel Tudor would have earned a spot for his contributions to surf culture. On the remove for the list side…well I’ll reserve my comments. Fun conversation topic for sure.

  • Dr. Bob

    Dudes, if you are goin’t list non-surfers types who altered the sport how’about photogs like Dan Merkel, or surf artists like Chris Lassen. And you should’ve had at least one real female surfer like Margo Oberg on the list … gawd you guys really dropped it!

  • Jamie DeMatoff

    I’m sorry everyone, but Slater should of been number 2 right under the Duke. Period.

  • Sierra C

    Where’s Brock LIttle on this list? You have Laird and Sean Collins, but not Brock Little? Who made this list anyway?