Hawaii to the Isle of Wight

Surfing of some sort has been around as long as man has had interaction with the ocean. In Polynesia and Hawaii it is thought that surfboard riding has been part of their culture and lifestyle since at least 400 AD. Initially it was probably fishermen who used the waves as the quickest way to get their boat or canoe to the beach.

Captain James Cook was the first European to witness surfing in 1777 while on his voyage of expedition on board HMS Discovery and HMS Resolution. At Matavai Point on the island of Tahiti December 1777 he wrote in his diaries of Polynesians riding waves in canoes.

‘He went from the shore until he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise. Watching its first motion very attentively, he paddled before it with great quickness, until it had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, until it landed him upon the beach. Then he started out…and went in search of another swell. I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and smoothly by the sea.’

In January 1778 Captain James Cook set foot on the Hawaiian Islands where he witnessed an impromptu demonstration of stand up surfing off the island of Kauai. In his journal Cook wrote;

Twenty or thirty of the natives, taking each a long narrow board, rounded at the ends, set together from shore…As soon as they have gained – by repeated efforts – the smooth water beyond the surf, the lay themselves at length on their boards and prepare for return. As the surf consists of a number of waves, of which every third is remarked to be always larger than the others and to flow higher on the shore, their object is to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge, by which they are driven along with amazing rapidity towards the shore.’

In the decades that followed western diseases nearly wiped out the Polynesians and the Christian missionaries repressed surfing due to its nudity and perceived frivolity. In the early 20th Century the influence of the missionaries had declined and surfing was taken up again by Hawaiians along with the sons and daughters of Europeans and Americans who had set up homes in Hawaii.

The famous beach boys of Waikiki were largely responsible for the renewed interest in surfing. Duke Kahanmoku was one of these beach boys who later went on to be one of the greatest surfers in history. Duke was a very talented young man and gained gold medals for swimming in the 1912 and 1920 Olympic Games. His talents saw him travel to America and Australia becoming the first emissary of surfing.

During April 1920 Prince Edward and his royal party visited Hawaii where the prince was taken for a ride in the surf by Duke in a canoe. In the diaries of Lord Louis Mountbatten (Mountbatten was Governor of the Isle of Wight from 1969 until 1974 and then appointed the first Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight in 1974. He kept the position until his death) it says that after three rides in the canoe the Prince jumped over board to have a go on a surfboard and after initially slipping off the Prince had one or two successful rides.

By the early 1900s belly boarding started to become very popular with the renewed interest in seaside holidays. By the 1930s and 1940s the railways had been greatly improved making access to the beaches of Britain much easier. The design of belly boards had also improved with marine ply being used and the boards having upturned noses.

During the 1930s a man named Jimmy Dix wrote to the Outrigger Canoe Club in Waikiki asking for information about surfing. It is said that as a grand gesture of goodwill the Wave riding club of which Duke and a surfboard shaper called Tom Blake were members replied with a gift of a signed 66lbs 14ft Tom Blake surfboard. It is not known if Jimmy ever learnt to stand up on this board but the presence of the board definitely had an effect on a young man called Pip Staffieri.

Papino ‘Pip’ Staffieri was born on 5th August 1918 of Italian parents who had moved to Newquay to set up an Ice Cream business. Pip worked for the family business and he serviced the bathing machines. Pip went to the Pavilion Theatre above Towan Beach which sometimes showed footage of the Australian surfboat races. Pip enjoyed belly boarding and he joined a bunch of Newquay lads in building canoes. One day in 1938 Pip came across 2 surfboards on the beach. One was a 14ft board with the Hawaiian Islands painted on it. Pip never saw Jimmy that day but he came away with the design for a surfboard in his head. It took Pip 2 years to finish his surfboard which was too heavy to be carried, so Pip built a trolley to get it to the beach. He would surf in the evenings after work at Towan or Great Western. To improve his board he and added a 4 inch keel on the bottom of the tail. In 1941 a photograph was taken of 23 year old Pip surfing at Great Western. It is the first shot of its kind in Europe. In 1960 Pip went on a World Tour. When visiting Waikiki he hired a 10ft fibreglass surfboard and went surfing making him the first person from Britain to ride a fibreglass surfboard.

The 1960s saw the growth of surfing really start to spread. South African, Australian and American lifeguards were now all over Europe. There were also magazines and films documenting surfing and music inspired by surfing.

Ned Gardner

Geoff 'Ned' Gardner

By the early 1960’s surfing was something a small number of friends had started to experiment with on the Isle of Wight. Many started out with bodyboards, some with homemade wooden surfboards.

There were little pockets of surfers scattered around the Island all experimenting with surfing in their own ways until Roger Backhouse and friends; Susan Ellis (Backhouse), Kevin Digweed, Geoff ‘Ned’ Gardner, John Ainsworth, Russell Long and Colin Burgess decided to try and start an Isle of Wight Surf Club. An advert was put into the Isle of Wight County Press and this brought surfers together from around the Island including Keith Williams, Glyn Kernick, Ben Kelly and Sid Pitman.

The first meetings of the Isle of Wight Surf Club were held in a tent on the cliff tops at Ventnor. They later moved to the Roger Backhouse’s Mum’s Bed & Breakfast in Ventnor. During the summer Pat Morrell and a ‘Woodwork Teacher’ Mike ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson would join them with their homemade wooden boards.

The wooden surfboards were so heavy that some of them needed two people to carry them to the beach. This also mean’t with no leashes at that time, they were lethal and they decided approach a local insurance broker about getting some sort of insurance.

As soon as some of them had cars it wasn’t long before trips to Cornwall were arranged and savings were spent on the new fibreglass surfboards that were now available.

If you wish to read more about the ‘A History of Surfing in Britain’ check out Roger Mansfield’s new book ‘The Surfing Tribe’