When Captain James Cook sailed past the island of Oahu in 1788, his eyes were cast downward, latched to the maps that he had been meticulously crafting throughout his journey amongst the constellations of islands that speckled this previously unmapped quarter of the world. His surgeon, however, one William J. Anderson, was on the deck staring out at the many shades of blue and green in the water. On the horizon, he spotted a figure paddling what looked like a small canoe into the crest of a curling wave. “He then sat motionlessly, and was carried along, at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach,” Anderson wrote in his journal that night. “Then he started out, emptied his canoe, 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 so smoothly, by the sea.”
Anderson’s observation is the first European account we have of surfing, a sport born in Polynesia thousands of years ago, travelled to Hawaii after the Polynesians invaded, and spread across the world from there. And in that account, Cook’s surgeon captures the precise emotional state that drew so many thrillseekers and soul-searchers to the beaches of Hawaii, California, and Australia in the 1960s. Because it was this “supreme pleasure” that made surfing – alongside climbing – one of the definitive sports of the counterculture movement. So, where did it all start? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back even further than 1778, to roughly the 12th century.
In Polynesia at this time, the indigenous communities already revered surfing – or some form of it – to such an extent that they painted depictions of surfers riding waves on cave walls, depictions we have to this day. For the Polynesians, the sea was everything. It was a way of life, a source of food and myth in equal measure. In Hawaii, surfing was practised by men and women of all social strata. However, when European settlers arrived in the 19th century, Christian missionaries effectively banned the sport, who regarded it as immoral, disapproving of the “constant intermingling, without any restraint, of persons of both sexes”.
It wouldn’t be until the 1920s that the sport would return to Hawaii, a time when the island was transformed from an isolated paradise to a commercial tourist hotspot. Jack London, the author of The Call Of The Wild, played no small part in this, having published several accounts of his time in Waikiki in various American magazines throughout the early 1900s. Surfing quickly crossed to the US mainland where, in the 1950s and ’60s, it became so much more than a sport, it became an essential feature of the beatnik philosophy, with its own soundtrack, style, and language.
The likes of Link Wray, Dick Dale, and The Beach Boys, took up their space-age Jazzmaster guitars, plugged in their tremolo pedals, and introduced the world to a jangly, harmony-laden form of pop that seemed to capture the laid back surf lifestyle perfectly. Suddenly, California was full of 20-somethings decked out in bleached-blond hair, striped shirts, and Ray-Ban sunglasses. They spoke to each other in a language the pre-war generation didn’t understand and, by the 1960s – at which time the surf culture and been absorbed by the burgeoning hippie movement – surfing had become an all-encompassing stoic philosophy. Watching from the sidelines as these young people left their homes behind in pursuit of the perfect wave, the establishment saw surfers as little more than itinerant nomads, rootless wanderers with no ambitions to speak of. Of course, this rootlessness was exactly what they’d been aiming for.
For the West-coast hippies, surfing was the perfect bohemian sport. It was (and is) an escape from normality, an adventure into the unknown, an act of communion with nature. In this way, pursuing the perfect wave became more than mere thrill-seeking; it became an act of defiance. So, pack your wetsuits and join us as we take a tour of the most iconic beaches of the ’60s surf scene.
The surf spots of the 1960s:
Banzai Pipeline, Hawaii
Location: Ehukai Beach Park, Pupukea, O’ahu’s North Shore.
Perhaps the most famous stretch of surf in the world, the Banzai Pipeline is home to what has been repeatedly called the “world’s deadliest wave”. Phil Edwards made a name for himself when he managed to ride that wave in 1961, making him the first American do to so. His victorious eight-foot ride was captured on film by filmmaker Bruce Brown, making it one of defining moments in ’60s surfing.
By 1962, word of Edward’s ride had spread throughout the surfing community, and the Pipeline soon became a spot for experienced surfers to test their metal. The following year, in 1963, the stretch of azure water was immortalised in The Chantay’s classic ’60s surf track ‘Pipeline’. Today, the Banzai Pipeline is still one of the most well-known surfing spots in the world, occasionally for the wrong reasons. Indeed, since Edwards surfed the Pipeline in 1961, seven surfers have died attempting to recreate his triumph.
Dana Point, California
Location: Orange County, California, USA
Dana point has been surfed since the early 1900s but was made famous by the legendary 1966 surf film Endless Summer (Bruce Brown) which was filmed there, on what are some of the most beautiful coves in all of Southern California.
Modern surfing owes a lot to Dana Point. It was here, after all, where Hobie Alter – who went on to create the industry-shaping foam surfboard – set up his first board shop in 1954. Numerous surfer magazines began life on these shores as well, and it was in the waters of Dana Point that the pioneering surfers of the 1950s and ’60s pioneers caught waves at the legendary surf break of Killer Dana, a massive wave just off the headlands that was renowned for producing huge surf. That is until construction of the Dana Point Harbor in 1966 stopped the break altogether.
Location: Honolulu County, Hawaii.
Mākaha, meaning ‘fierce’ in Hawaiian, has likely been surfed by the indigenous community for thousands of years. Carved into the base of the Waianae Mountains, Mākaha looks like the bite-mark of some ocean-dwelling diety, a semi-circular inlet of ivory sands that, come nesting seasons, becomes the battleground of innumerable baby sea turtles making their way into the ocean. Don’t be fooled, though. Mākaha is home to some of the biggest and most terrifying waves in Hawaii.
On December 4th, 1969, one of those waves nearly destroyed the entire North Shore, leaving endless palms uprooted, houses devastated, and boats shattered into splinters or pushed onto the Kam Highway. But down the beach, in Mākaha, the conditions were surfable. Gregg Noll saw an opportunity and took his board down to the water’s edge before. Without hesitation, he started paddling, making his way into the mouth of a giant wave. As the wave rushed towards the shore, Noll was with it, riding along with the biggest wave ever surfed. No one knows quite how big this mythical wave was, there being no recorded evidence. Still, Noll’s ride is one of the most legendary events in surf history.
Location: Pillar Point, California, USA
In 1967, three Half Moon Bay Surfers and their dog discovered one of California’s greatest surf spots. Alex Matienzo, Jim Thompson, and Dick Knottmeyer came across the location when they bought their dog ‘Maverick’ along when they headed out to catch some waves, leaving him on the shoreline. Not wanting to be left alone, Maverick swam out to his owner Alex Matienzo and joined the surfers as they attempted to ride the hefty waves crashing onto the bay. The three friends decided to name the stretch of water after Maverick, who never seemed more content than when he was in the water.
Although discovered in the 1960s, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that Mavericks would be rediscovered by a 17-year-old Jeff Clarke, who grew up watching huge 24-foot waves from his classroom window at Half Moon Bay High School. In ’74 he finally plucked up the courage to take on one of those same waves. At that time, the big wave surfing community believed that there simply were no big waves in California, meaning that Clarke spent the next 15 years surfing ‘Mavericks’ before the rest of the world caught on, marking the beginning of a whole new chapter in surf history.