Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul
The World in the Curl
An Unconventional History of Surfing
The Atlantic magazine recently asked its readers to name the greatest athlete of all time. The usual suspects were present among the nominees: Jesse Owens, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, Don Bradman. Given that these were readers of The Atlantic, there were some more thoughtful answers as well: Canadian athlete and cancer-research activist Terry Fox, Czech distance runner Emil Zapotek, and Milos of Croton, the six-time wrestling champion of the ancient Olympics. If we put that question to historians Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul, their likely response would be someone who rarely gets a mention on best-athlete lists, but certainly deserves a place: Duke Kahanamoku. A five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, Duke traveled the world to give swimming exhibitions, drawing thousands at each stop. And wherever there was a beach and a break, Duke also demonstrated the sport he had mastered at Waikiki Beach, where he had grown up. The surfing cultures of Southern California and Australia have their origins in visits by Duke Kahanamoku in the early 1910s. In the words of Westwick and Neushul, the Duke was a combination of world-champion swimmer Michael Phelps and world-champion surfer Kelly Slater (both of whom appeared on The Atlantic’s greatest-athlete list).
Duke Kahanamoku is one of the main characters in Westwick and Neushul’s book The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing (Crown, 2013). Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton also appear, as do Gidget, Kahuna, and the Beach Boys. But as the sub-title indicates, this is a history that goes beyond the great surfers and the sport’s influence on pop culture. As historians of science and technology, Westwick and Neushul look at the developments that have fueled surfing’s popularity, such as the invention of foam-and-fiberglass boards (easier to manage than Duke’s 16-foot-long wooden boards) and the neoprene wetsuit, which has allowed surfers to enter waters around the world. Westwick and Neushul are also scholars of environmental history, and their history of surfing looks at how beaches have been transformed by developers and engineers. A customary part of a vacation at Waikiki is a surfing lesson. But the shoreline and even the waves that tourists encounter today are completely different from those of the Duke’s childhood. As Peter and Peter argue, the changes that took place on the shore are just as important to the story of this sport as what the surfers accomplished in the water.