August 15, 2013

John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and a longtime surfer.

Surfing has always been bigger than the sport itself. Just ask Bruce Brown, who in 1964 set out to film two top surfers as they traveled the world in search of the perfect wave. Made on a shoestring, “The Endless Summer” opened two years later in theaters across the country, earning $30 million and rave reviews from the New Yorker and Time. There was something about the nature of the surfers’ quest — purity, freedom, a hint of nonconformity — that struck a chord with audiences, not only on the coasts but also in places like Wichita, where Brown held one of his test screenings. No disrespect intended, but can you imagine a similar reaction to a low-budget documentary on tennis?

Now comes “The World in the Curl,” which seeks to explain surfing’s transcendent appeal while putting the sport in its social and historical context. Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul trace surfing from its ancient Polynesian roots to its current incarnation as a “global commercial and cultural phenomenon.” Along the way, they look at the connections between surfing and, among other things, colonialism, technology, Hollywood, advertising, fashion, real estate development, pollution, climate change — even Islamic fundamentalism. This grab-bag approach has its shortcomings, but the overall result is provocative and highly entertaining, if not always flattering to surfers.

Westwick and Neushul are historians as well as avid surfers, and you can see why the course they taught on surfing history at the University of California at Santa Barbara was oversubscribed. Their prose is largely free of academic jargon, and they have a gift for deft summary, noting, for instance, that ancient Hawaii became “the cradle of surfing” in part because of its gentle climate and abundance of healthy food. “You can’t surf if you’re out finding food or shelter,” they write. “Surfing requires leisure time.”

The authors skillfully debunk some of the myths that have grown up around the sport. For example, Christian missionaries who landed in Hawaii in 1820 often have been accused of putting a damper on surfing, purportedly because they saw it as immoral. Certainly they objected to the natives’ habit of surfing in the nude. But Westwick and Neushul find ample evidence that the missionaries had no particular problem with the sport, with some even embracing it as an expression of Christian virtue. In fact, the authors contend, surfing all but disappeared in 19th-century Hawaii for two main reasons: a “demographic collapse” caused by imported diseases, and the introduction of a cash economy that left little time for surfing.


“The World In The Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing” by Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul. (Random House Publishing)

“So, why the persistent belief that the missionaries suppressed surfing?” they ask. “Because this is where surfing first acquired its countercultural cachet. If the missionaries were against it, surfing must be cool. The missionary story is surfing’s origin myth.”

But the authors ably demonstrate that surfers are not nearly as cool or subversive as they like to think. The sport is anchored firmly in society’s mainstream. The surfing revival of the early 20th century, for example, owes much to tourism promoters at Waikiki Beach near Honolulu, where surfing was marketed to visitors along with palm trees and ukuleles. In Southern California, meanwhile, developer Henry Huntington lured visitors — and potential buyers — to Redondo Beach by hiring a Hawaiian surfer, George Freeth, to give demonstrations. Thus did surfing take root on the mainland, boosting a nascent California beach culture in a string of new communities that later became known as “Surfurbia.”

Southern California’s emergence as the hub of the aerospace industry had profound implications for surfing, starting with the board itself. Until the 1920s, surfboards were large, ungainly things, generally made of solid redwood, that easily could weigh 100 pounds. Then Wisconsin-born surfer Tom Blake met Gerard Vultee, a Caltech-trained engineer who had helped design a sleek airplane with a single lightweight wing made of plywood over wooden ribs. Blake borrowed the concept for a new hollow surfboard, whose low cost and portability brought many newcomers to the sport. Subsequent innovations — in particular, the replacement of wood with fiberglass and polyurethane foam — had a similar provenance in the defense industry.

The rise of the military-industrial complex did more than change the way surfboards were made. It also generated an economic boom that “made California the capital of middle-class leisure culture,” the authors write. “Teenagers in aerospace surfurbia weren’t getting up early to milk cows or mine coal.” Many of them were heading for the beach.

As surf culture bloomed in the 1960s, it intersected with social trends in ways that did not always reflect well on surfers. “The sixties offered two paths, political activism or hedonist escapism,” the authors write. “Surfers chose the latter.” A discussion of “surf apathy” accuses the surfing community of indifference to the environment, even though self-interest, if nothing else, would seem to dictate a fierce response to untreated sewage and other forms of ocean pollution.

Such generalizations will irritate the many surfers who do, in fact, care about these problems, and they highlight a weakness of this otherwise admirable book — its tendency to overreach. For example, the authors cite the 2002 terrorist bombing of a nightclub in Bali as evidence of surfing’s relationship to fundamentalist Islam (many of the victims were surfers). By that logic, they also should have examined the link between surfing and auto safety. Plenty of surfers have died in car crashes.

Such occasional missteps aside, the authors mostly succeed in making the case that, as they put it, surfing is “a window on the modern world.” You could say the same about a lot of things, of course. But it probably wouldn’t be as much fun.

John Lancaster is a former Washington Post reporter and a longtime surfer.

THE WORLD IN THE CURL

An Unconventional History of Surfing

By Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul

Crown. 405 pp. $26