Polynesian children engaged in primitive surfing activities thousands of years ago. In some areas surfing on various types of board was merely transportation for fishermen. Hawaiian adults began to develop boards for surfing about 1200 C.E. Matt Warshaw, in his The History of Surfing, states that in Hawaii, surfing was “both recreational and universal” and was practiced by all members of society.
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Mark Twain wrote a derogatory account of what he called “surf-bathing” after trying to surf in Hawaii in 1866. It is Jack London who is credited with introducing mainland Americans to the “Royal Sport” in his 1907 essay about watching and experiencing surfing in Hawaii. From 1907 to 1919, Hawaiian George Freeth worked at California resorts where he demonstrated wave riding and helped establish mainland surfing.
In 1908 South Carolinian Alexander Hume Ford founded the Outrigger Canoe and Surfboard Club to develop the “great sport of surfing in Hawaii.” In August of 1909 Colliers Weekly published an article about surfing by Ford in which he encouraged readers to try the sport. Wrightsville Beach native Burke Haywood Bridgers read the article and, wishing to ask Ford detailed questions about surf boards, he wrote to the author in care of Colliers.
Bridgers’ letter was published in Colliers in April 1910. In the letter he stated that “during the past summer, we tried the sport to a very considerable extent” but without great results. However," the most successful effort toward coming in erect, were by small boys under 100 pounds in weight." He went on to describe the kinds of boards that the locals were using and the nature of the Atlantic Coast surf. It was Bridgers’ hope that Ford would answer his questions so that the Wrightsville Beach surfers could be successful.
The surfboards described in the Bridgers letter were made out of original growth Juniper trees, which points to their potential provenance to southeastern North Carolina. Junipers are Atlantic White Cedar (Eastern White Cedar) and their wood is a traditional favorite of boat and ship builders, as it is resistant to wood-boring worms. Carolina bays and swamps support vast quantities of Juniper trees.
An article appeared in the Wilmington Evening Dispatch on August 29, 1909, touting a surf board riding contest to be held at the Lumina on Labor Day. Similarly, an article in the Wilmington Morning Star of September 1, 1909, described planned Labor Day activities that included “surf board sports, always interesting and entertaining for spectators.” Two postcards, dated 1907 and 1909, from the Sea Shore Hotel in Wrightsville Beach use roughly the same image, a person on what appears to be a Hawaiian-style surf board. A more robust surfing image is included on a 1912 Lumina postcard and a 1922 postcard portrays a group of surfers riding a wave at Wrightsville Beach.
In a 2014 interview Laurence Gray Sprunt, former owner of Orton Plantation, recalled growing up next door to Burke Bridgers at Wrightsville Beach in the late 1930s and 1940s. Sprunt stated that Bridgers taught local boys how to surf and was the “original surfing leader.”
It is impossible to claim a “first” in East Coast surfing, but Bridgers’ experiments certainly would have been among the earliest appearances of surfboards in the Atlantic Ocean. The surfing that occurred in the Wrightsville beach area in the early 1900s is the earliest documented in the state of North Carolina. Of course other people were influenced by the early writings about surfing. An August 1909 article in Florida’s Daytona Gazette states that local bicycle shop owner Eugene Johnson had a surfboard and “had fine sport at the beach last Thursday afternoon riding the waves.” The article further indicates that he “got the idea from Colliers Weekly.” Besides local people trying to figure out surfing on their own, the generally accepted advent of east coast surfing is Duke Kahanamoku’s August 1912 visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he demonstrated surfing.
Today surfing is big business in North Carolina. In 2012 National Geographic designated Wrightsville Beach as one of the top twenty surfing towns in the world. A 2011 socioeconomic profile of surfing in America tallied the annual economic impact of surfing in North Carolina as approximately $3,025,000. The North Carolina Maritime Museum staff is studying the state’s surfing heritage for a future exhibit.
Matt Warshaw, The History of Surfing (2010)
Encyclopedia of Surfing, online at http://encyclopediaofsurfing.com/
Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg, Surfing on the Cape Fear Coast (2008)
Webpage posted by Funderburg: http://www.carolinabeach.net/surfing_history_changed.html
Scott Wagner and others, “A Socioeconomic and Recreational Profile of Surfers in the
United States” (2011)