As part of the #tuesdaysdetabla project and the application of the “deliberate practice” concept, I bought a book titled The History of Surfing, by Matt Warshaw. Five hundred pages, give or take, dedicated to one of the most captivating activities ever. It not only became a sport, but also (and above all) developed its own culture. A culture that nowadays extends way beyond the world of waves.

The book format is large, almost encyclopedic. Hardtop with amazing photos. And once we pass the prologue and other introductory comments, we encounter the first chapter: origin of surfing. Peruvian Theory vs. Hawaiian Theory. Let’s repeat the last sentence because, dear (Peruvian) reader, you were not ready for it. PERUVIAN THEORY vs. Hawaiian Theory.

In all fairness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to any perucho (real Peruvian) who grew up or lived at some point in the coast. There are waves -mostly lefts-, and surfers everywhere. The World Surf League (WSL) includes two peruchos in its list of world champions. Remarkable feat in a sport that has been dominated by Australians, Hawaiians, and Americans… and now that I’m taking on surfing, we may up the count to three.

Last December, at Playa Makaha in the Costa Verde in Lima, the renowned Alberto López of #SurfPeru and www.teamsurfperu.com declared “Peru has a solid surf culture.” He didn’t say emerging, exciting, extraordinary, or anything that could suggest exaggeration or excessive eagerness. No. The word he chose was “solid”, something that is acquired and refined with the passage of time and the lineage of many generations.

Alberto paused, and then continued: “Peru has a solid surf culture and is the only country where a surfer’s surfboards are worth more than his car or even his house!”

“… only country where a surfer’s surfboards are worth more than his car…”

Origins

Let’s come back to the main topic of this post. Origin of Surfing. All the evidence suggests that the activity of using an artifact to ride waves (i.e., “surfing” and not “bodysurfing”) originated more than 5000 years ago in the north coast of what currently constitutes Peru.

(Huanchaco, Chicama anyone?)

Five thousand years ago local fishermen built small canoes made of totora (a species of sedge) and, helped by a small paddle, rode waves. They didn’t ride whitewater but green water, like real surfers. Five thousand years ago the islands of Hawaii were uninhabited, and there would need to elapse three millennia before humans from Polynesia arrived at the islands.

The ceramics depicted below are from Cultura Mochica, a culture that developed in the north shore of Peru (100-700AD). We can clearly see the pioneers of surfing!

The Peruvian Theory was presented to the world by Felipe Pomar in 1988 in an issue of Surfer Magazine. Unfortunately, surfers simply shrugged. I think that in 1988 our culture was not prepared to accept the irrefutable evidence that lay in front of it. Matt Warshaw writes:

“Surfers choose their collective past, and when it comes down to Hawaii or Peru, the tropics of the desert, the sport of kings or the sport of fishermen – well, that’s hardly a choice at all.”

Well, it sometimes takes a while to accept the evident. It’s been 160 years since Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species and there’s still many who do not “believe” in evolution.

Website: Historia de la Tabla en el Peru

To those who would like to dig deeper on this topic, I recommend the book and website www.historiadelatablaenelperu.com (available in Spanish and English).

If you visit the website, please let its editors know that they should drop “en el peru” and leave it at historiadelatabla, period.

Peru vs. Hawaii

My hypothesis is that the Hawaiian Theory is more appealing than the Peruvian Theory due to three reasons: 1) Hawaii has better and more famous waves, 2) surfing was always an activity enjoyed by the entire Hawaiian community, not only by fishermen, and 3) the political proximity of Hawaii and the United States.

Better waves, famous waves

This simply is a matter of oceanography (or topography, or whatever the appropriate term is). The Hawaiian islands are located at the perfect distance from the South Pacific storm system. Neither too close to it that the swell arrives with excessive disorder, nor too far from it that the waves break without sufficient violence. (Note: some dissidents claim that it is not Hawaii, but Indonesia the archipelago situated at the right distance from the storms). Another score for Hawaii: coral reefs surrounding the islands.

Surfing was an activity of the entire community

Riding waves wasn’t any ordinary activity, it was rather celebrated by everyone. Surfing is an important element of the mythology of the South Pacific islands. One myth tells us the story of a tribal female chief named Mamala, who surfed and turned into a giant lizard. One day, Mamala was ordered to wed the king. Her true love, the surfer Ouha, heartbroken turns into a shark god.

“There is my dear husband Ouha
There is the shaking sea
There is a good surf for us
[But] my love has gone away”

Drawing from El Mundo En La Mano, published in 1878

Political proximity to the United States

Hawaii being a state of The Union naturally serves as a springboard to the diffusion of surf culture from the archipelago to the mainland and, from there, to the rest of the world. It’s a little more difficult for Peruchos to export their products, and it was even harder in the reality of the 20th century when the personal computer wasn’t even conceived.

The summing up

It’s certainly understandable that the Hawaiian Theory is more appealing or sexy than the Peruvian Theory for several reasons. It originates in the tropics and not in the foggy and cold desert, it’s the sport of kings and not of fishermen… but the sexiness of a theory does not make it true.