From surfing’s early beginnings as the “Sport of Kings” in Hawaii, it has held a certain sway over spectators and participants alike. While estimates of the number of surfers world wide vary wildly (from 5 million to 23 million), there are a select few that, for one reason or another, have left an indelible mark on surfing. The interesting thing is that in most cases, it’s not so much for the actual act of surfing, but for what they did to significantly alter the course of things to come. From the Duke to Gidget, this is a list of a ten of surfing’s most influential people.
#1. The Duke
Duke Kahanamoku is hailed as the father of modern surfing. A full-blooded Hawaiian from Honolulu, Hawaii, the Duke is responsible for spreading a view of surfing that has since soaked into the masses and stuck fast. Born in 1890, the original Beach Boy was the first of five children, all of which turned into extraordinary watermen in their own right. Kahanamoku however, was head and shoulders above them all. At the young age of 20, he broke the American short-distance swimming record for the 50-yard sprint and the beat 100-yard world record by almost five seconds. The next year, in 1912, he set another world record at the Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1920, he won gold in the both the 100 and 400-meter freestyle relay.
All this acclaim brought him–and his surfing–to the forefront of the public’s perception of watermen.
After a disc jockey from Honolulu became his manager in 1961, the Duke became the face of a litany of businesses that used his surfer image paired with the now-popular Hawaiian lifestyle.
At the age of 77, Duke Kahanamoku died of a heart attack, after a lifetime of piling the building blocks that would become modern surfing. He was named Surfer of the Century in 1999, and the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him in 2002.
#5. Laird Hamilton
Despite the grumblings of a few in the surf community that Laird’s contributions to surfing have done more harm than good, the mark he’s left on it is undoubtedly a large one: his innovations have shaped the way people surf.
Born in San Francisco halfway through the ’60s, Laird Hamilton‘s father left the family to join the Merchant Marines when Laird was five months old. His mother took him to Oahu and married a man named Bill Hamilton. Laird began surfing at a very young age, largely in part to his mother’s new husband. Sometime in the early ’90s – accounts vary on the matter – former world tour pro Buzzy Kerbox and Laird Hamilton decided to try towing into waves from behind Kerbox’s boat. Tow surfing was born, and in a short period of time, Laird, along with a group of wildmen, had started a PWC-powered revolution, with its headquarters at Maui’s Jaws.
Hamilton excelled at much more that surfing, though: in 1990, he and Buzzy Kerbox crossed the English Channel in just under six hours. He held a European speed record in the mid-’80s after reaching a speed of 36 knots on a sailboard. He invented foil-boarding – which was not exactly an original idea, but the application to surfing was. Although foil-boarding never really took off, it is an reminder of Laird’s dedication to breaking boundaries.
On August 17, 2000, Hamilton broke more of those boundaries when he surfed what was then the thickest, heaviest wave ever ridden. Dubbed the Millennium Wave, his ride at Teahupoo cemented his already solid roll as surfing’s premiere big-wave surfer and rocketed him to an almost legendary status.
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