Surfing in New Zealand

'Surfing is more than a sport; it is a way of life.'
Kent Pearson, 1979

According to recent Hillary Commission statistics, 75,000 more Kiwis surf or body-board than play rugby.

Wave riding is one of the oldest sports on the planet. The first surfers were Polynesian. They started riding wooden planks in the Pacific surf about 4000 years ago. Then around AD 400, the first people reached Hawai'i and began to take the sport further. They made bigger boards and developed techniques for standing up while riding diagonally across the wave front. They were passionate about this pastime, and all levels of society enjoyed it: royalty, men, women and children. European visitors to the Hawaiian islands in the eighteenth century, including Captain Cook, were amazed at their skills.

Although the Hawaiians were the undoubted masters of surfing, the sport was enjoyed in different forms all over the Pacific. Here, in Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori enjoyed surfing (whakaheke ngaru) using waka (canoes), boards (kopapa), and kelp bags (poha). They also body surfed.

When missionaries arrived in the Pacific, they thought that frolicking semi-clothed in the waves was highly improper, and did their best to stamp it out. By the early 1900s, only a few Hawaiians still had the skill. However, they were determined not to let their sport die.

The Hawaiian George Freeth introduced surfing to California in 1907. In 1911, Hawaiian Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku popularised the sport there, before heading Downunder. He introduced surfing to Australia in 1914, and to New Zealand in 1915. Wellingtonians saw him display his skills at Lyall Bay.

Surf lifesaving was soon the most popular water sport on Kiwi beaches, remaining so for the first part of the twentieth century. Surf lifesaving clubs - community groups who keep the beaches safe - provided their members with 'longboards' for surf rescues. You could either stand up on them, or sit down and paddle.

In the late 1950s, Rick Stoner and Bing Copeland, two Los Angeles County lifeguards, were travelling around the Pacific in search of good surf. They stopped off in New Zealand. Their light, modern 'Malibu' surfboards had never been seen here before. These boards allowed them to surf across the face of the wave. After the duo's demonstrations at Piha, surfing really took off here.

We held our first national surfing championships at Mount Maunganui in 1963, and The New Zealand Surf Riders' Association, known today as Surfing New Zealand, was born. Two years later, the New Zealand Surfer magazine was launched.

As boards got lighter and shorter, more people took up surfing. Wetsuits made an impact, too; they meant surfers could enjoy their sport all year round.

The surfers of the 1960s were seen as one of the first alternative cultures here. They partied hard and cruised the country in big cars, chasing the best waves. They dressed differently, talked differently, and listened to different music - to Californian groups like the Beach Boys and Dick Dale.

Surfing went on to become mainstream. Leg-ropes appeared in the 1970s, allowing surfers to get back on their boards quickly and making the sport safer. In the 1980s, multi-fin boards gave greater control and manoeuvrability. These improvements increased the sport's popularity.

Surfing has also become more professional. Corporate sponsorship and years of hard work by organisations like Surfing New Zealand have reaped rewards at international competitions. The Auahi Kore Maori Surfing Team has won the Oceania Teams title three times: in 1998, 2000, and 2001. And at the 2001 International Surfing Association World Junior Champs, New Zealand won its first world title in the under-eighteen division, and the New Zealand team finished first overall.

In the early 1960s, there were 300 surfers in New Zealand. Today there are nearly 240,000. Surf clothing has become an industry in its own right, and a huge part of the fashion mainstream, with an annual turnover of more than $50 million.

Many of our pioneering surfers are still in the water, surfing with the younger members of their families.

The downside of such popularity is over-crowding. Breaks that were practically deserted in the 1950s are now packed. However, dedicated surfers continue their search for the perfect, empty wave. As Surfing New Zealand says, 'Board-riding captures the imagination, creating images of a free spirit combined with the thrill and danger of a challenging nature.'

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
  • Finney, Ben and James Houston (1996). Surfing - A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport. San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks
  • Pearson, Kent (1979). Surfing Subcultures of Australia & New Zealand. University of Queensland Press
  • Williamson, Luke (2000). Gone Surfing - The Golden Years of Surfing in New Zealand, 1950-1970. Auckland: Penguin Books (NZ)

Thanks to
Luke Williamson
Surfing New Zealand Inc.


Bill Ebdale surfing at Pakiri Beach, Northland 1963. Courtesy of Alan Godfery, Auckland