An Ode to History's Most Underrated Surfers

David Kawānanakoa, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole and Edward Keli’ialonui in Santa Cruz. 

The Inertia

In every country that’s ever been surfed, there’s been a first surfer. A man, or woman, who has sprung to their feet on a surfboard and, for the very first time in that nation’s history, been propelled to its shore.  Some of these origin stories are well-known, others more obscure, but all are fascinating. From this very first wave, the country’s surf culture was launched. From Yorkshire to Redondo, Sydney to the Cote de Basque, these are the facts behind some of the biggest surf nation’s first waves and the surfers who rode them. 

Stoked. Photo: Duke's Oceanfront

Stoked. Photo: Duke’s Oceanfront


Who: Duke Kahanamoku

Where: Freshwater Beach, Sydney

When: 1915

How: Surfing arrived in Australia in a blaze of publicity in 1915 when Duke Kahanamoku – fresh from his first Olympic Gold swimming medal win – toured the country to show off his new swimming technique: the front crawl (aka freestyle). At a demonstration in Sydney’s Freshwater Beach, the beach north of Many, Duke took his hand-shaped sugar-pine board out into solid waves in front of a huge crowd and press. And the first Aussie surfer? That would be local lass Isabel Letham, who the Duke took for a tandem spin that same day. 

Fun Fact: The board was eventually donated to the Freshwater Life Savers Club in 1953. It was well-used by then, and even in the 1970s it was regularly taken out by the club members for a splash in the surf. Now it’s behind glass in the clubhouse and insured for a cool million bucks.

Mr. Troy. Photo: Encyclopedia of Surfing


Who: Peter Troy

When: 1961

Where: Arpoador, Rio de Janeiro

How: In Rio, Australian explorer Peter Troy was picked up on a roadside in Brazil by the then president Castelo Branco, who was so intrigued by the Australian’s surfboard that he offered him a ride in his limousine. Days earlier, about 2000 people had watched Troy carve up Rio de Janeiro’s Arpoador Beach during an impromptu demonstration, a moment he later described as the most amazing of his life.

Fun Fact: In the 1960s Troy traveled virtually the entire coast of Africa (38 separate countries), South America, Indonesia (helping pioneer Nias among other surf zones), and most of the Pacific Ocean’s many island chains. Oh, and he hitchhiked from Terra del Fuego to Spitzbergen, with a 100-pound balsa board. No surfer has ridden more first waves in more countries than Troy. 


Who: David Kawānanakoa, Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole and Edward Keli’ialonui (pictured above). 

When: 1885

Where: Santa Cruz, California

How: After their parents died, the three brothers of royal lineage were adopted in 1884 by the Hawaiian monarchs, King David Kalakaua and Queen Consort Esther Julia Kapiʻolani. Having learned to surf in Waikiki, the brothers traveled to Santa Cruz in 1885 to attend St. Matthews Hall military academy. Their boards were made out of local first-growth redwoods, milled in the shape of traditional Hawaiian o’lo boards and weighed around 150 pounds. Their efforts were widely reported and sowed the seed. A weekly edition of the Santa Cruz Surf paper from July of 1896 reported: “The boys who go in swimming at Seabright Beach and use surfboards to ride the breakers, like the Hawaiians.” While George Freeth’s exhibitions at Redondo in 1907 are often claimed as the start of mainland U.S. surf culture, it was the Hawaiian brothers who kick-started the craze. 

Fun Fact: For decades after the Hawaiian princes surfed Santa Cruz, redwood was shipped from Northern California to Hawaii, where it became the favored wood for surfboards.


When: 1890

Where: Bridlington, Northeast England

Who: Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole, his brother Prince David Kawānanakoa, and their English tutor John Wrightson.

How: In the east Yorkshire resort of Bridlington – in the chilly, grey North Sea, the Hawaiian princes who had brought surfing to Santa Cruz five years earlier were given a holiday at the seaside resort Bridlington as a reward for good work in their studies in schools and colleges around Britain. It is thought they would have made their surfboards from timber acquired from a Bridlington boat builder, and they would have bought or hired neck-to-knee swimsuits made of cotton or wool.

Fun Fact: On September 22, 1890, Jonah wrote of the experience in enthusiasm in his letter to Consul Armstrong; “We enjoy the seaside very much and are out swimming every day. The weather has been very windy these few days and we like it very much for we like the sea to be rough so that we are able to have surf riding. We enjoy surf riding very much and surprise the people to see us riding on the surf.”

Peter Viertel, center, a hero of Biarritz. Photo: Flickr


When: 1956

Who: Peter Viertel

Where: Cote de Basque, Biarritz

How: In August 1956, the filmmakers Peter Viertel and Dick Zanuck, as well as the writer Ernest Hemingway, were in Biarritz to shoot the film adaptation of Hemingway’s novel: The Sun Also Rises. Zanuck, a keen surfer, brought his board from Malibu. The lore says he was teaching Viertel to surf at the Cote de Basque when the board ended up on the rocks and broke. However, Viertel did enough to claim to be France’s first surfer. 

Fun Fact: Peter Viertel returned to Biarritz with three boards the next year. He gave one to the scientist Joël de Rosnay (only in France would a surfer pioneer be an eminent physicist ), and the other to locals Georges Hennebutte and Jacky Rott. And so the French scene took off!


When: 1936 (ish)

Who: Bob Koke

Where: Kuta Beach

How: In 1936 Robert (Bob) Koke and his girlfriend Louise traveled from Singapore to Bali by steamship. The pair would settle and eventually open the Kuta Beach Hotel. Koke had learned to surf in Waikiki in Hawaii when he had been an assistant to the film director shooting the 1932 film Bird of Paradise. Seeing the waves in Kuta, he arranged for his redwood plank to be shipped to Indonesia. In the meantime, he had some locals carve out a couple of shorter wooden boards in the Hawaiian alaia style. Either way, it was Koke who would set the spark for Bali’s eventual surf revolution in the 1970s. 

Fun Fact: “Immediately after the war Bob Koke returned to Kuta Beach, and found that his hotel had been burned to the ground,” wrote Peter Jarratt in his book Bali: Heaven and Hell. “The only souvenirs of those years were his surfboards, which are still in Bali today.”


Only the best. We promise.


Join our community of contributors.