Surf-loving historians find ‘The World in the Curl’

Surfer Alessandro Malo of Brazil at the World Surfing Games in Huntington Beach on July 24, 2013.
(Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Picture this: Two surfers are bobbing on their boards at a remote surf spot north of Santa Barbara. They drift into a dreamy discussion and the question arises, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get paid to do this?”

That question, in various forms, pops up frequently among surfers waiting out long lulls, whether they are work-shirking stoners or hard-charging professionals. In this instance, it was a pair of PhDs, playing hooky from their teaching jobs at UC Santa Barbara.

In their pursuit “to combine our lifestyle with our profession,” historians Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul initially coaxed the deans at UC Santa Barbara into permitting them to teach a history of surfing class. It was a serious class. Honest! Then some years later came this book, “The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing.”

The authors promise an intelligent guide to surfing. And they have delivered one, although it’s more of a history textbook than a rollicking summer read. Don’t expect adrenaline-pumping descriptions of wave riding or revealing psychological insights into key characters of surfing history. Instead, the book is a serious compendium of historical developments in the sport, from its earliest known roots in Hawaii to today.

Westwick and Neushul bring an academic rigor to the topic, backed up with an impressive review of the literature from the archives of surf magazines and The Times to books, films and historical records. There’s one benefit to the matter-of-fact delivery: They don’t engage in the mindless idolatry that pervades surf magazines and similar write-ups, gushing over the latest bronzed god to drop off the lip of a mountainous wave or dazzle spectators with gravity-defying maneuvers on the pro surfing association’s world tour.


The authors make a valiant effort to peer into the essence of surfing culture, to figure out why it has become so popular. Is surfing attractive as a hotbed of beach bums, dope-smoking dropouts and iconoclasts reveling in a subversive counterculture? Or is it a good, clean sport that — in California, at least — attracts middle-class white males, often supported by wealthy parents and, in turn, feeds the multibillion-dollar clothing, tourism and real estate industries?

The cultural and socio-economic history of surfing is replete with examples of both, of course. The authors make a persuasive case that the rise of surfing is inextricably linked to an abundance of leisure time. That’s why it flourished in pre-colonial Hawaii, they argue, when the living was easy. Native Hawaiians had protein-rich diets, feasting off the riches of the sea, bountiful fishponds and fields of yams and taro.

“The World in the Curl” paints an idyllic if not hedonistic scene with athletic Hawaiian surfers of both genders frolicking naked in the water. The sport often involved competitions, gambling, expert wave riding, followed by sex on the beach. To buttress their argument, the authors go on at length to try to explain that Calvinist missionaries, despite their own words to the contrary, really didn’t try to kill the fun. At least, not the surfing part, if the early 19th century wave riders were properly attired.

Instead, they argue that a colonial cash economy of sandalwood, whale oil and sugar — rather than spoilsport missionaries — suppressed the sport of kings in Hawaii. How? By effectively enslaving natives as workers and robbing them of free time.

The missionaries emerged decades later as convenient scapegoats in the lore of the surfing counterculture. “If missionaries were against it, surfing must be cool,” Westwick and Neushul write.

The argument gains more traction when applied to surfing’s growing popularity in California. All the aerospace and defense dollars pouring into postwar Southern California created a middle-income leisure class with teenagers who had no need to get up to milk cows or mine coal. A similar socio-economic transformation was happening near Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It raises an intriguing idea: Surfers cannot escape their middle-class culture, despite their rebellious inclinations to challenge conformity — just like Jack Kerouac’s beatniks in “On the Road.”

“The only reason the Beats could chase their kicks, or surfers the endless summer, was because society was affluent enough to support them,” the authors write. “Like the ancient Hawaiians, middle-class Americans in the 1950s enjoyed material abundance that made leisure a common privilege.”

In other countries, many with bountiful waves and warmer water, teenagers were simply too busy scraping up enough for the next meal.

The book offers much more in its 392 pages. It touches all the familiar cultural references and the more obscure ones cherished by surfers: “Charlie don’t surf,” shouts Robert Duvall’s character over the roar of helicopters under his command in “Apocalypse Now.” The air cavalry is clearing a Viet Cong-held point break so a pro surfer can show off his moves. It sketches out most of the sport’s real historic figures too, from Hawaiian King Kamehameha to Laird Hamilton and Kelly Slater.

As the authors explain, surfing often reflects the world around it and sometimes shapes it. Surf culture is now woven into the fabric of commerce around the globe, as is evident from sales of board shorts in shopping malls from Minneapolis to Moscow — and other locations hundreds of miles from the beach.

With meticulous precision, the book traces the technological evolution of surfboards, which have mostly sprung from top engineers at California universities and aerospace companies, and how such innovations have changed the way surfers can carve up waves.

All these threads are stitched into historical context, as these academics delve into delicate matters of colonialism, racism, sexism and violent localism. The authors even plow into the ecological history of filling wetlands, damming streams and building jetties and seawalls in Hawaii and California — all designed to protect real estate often sold with advertisements featuring romantic surfing images. In the end, though, the dramatic reengineering of the coastline has ruined many of the best waves that surfers loved to ride.

The authors clearly share “the stoke” with an estimated 20 million other wave riders around the world. In the acknowledgments, they ‘fess up to the familiar struggle between their leisure-time passion and their profession: “The irony of writing this book is that we often had to skip surfing itself in order to finish it.”

Weiss, a former environmental writer for the Los Angeles Times, lives, writes and surfs in Carpinteria, Calif.

The World in the Curl
An Unconventional History of Surfing

Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul
Crown: 416 pp., $26