religion and surfing

Religion played a significant role in the surfing lives of ancient Polynesians: tree trunks were prayed over before they were shaped into surfboards, surf-dedicated temples were built (suggesting that there was a god unique to surfing, although the deity's name remains unknown), waves were called forth with chants and prayers, and competing surfers always made offerings prior to entering the water.

Calvinist Christianity trumped native religion in Hawaii in the 19th century as the islands came under the influences of American and British missionaries, and surfing was discouraged (although not banned outright) as an act that encouraged sloth, gambling, and sex.

Religion didn't come much into play during the early decades of modern surfing, but returned in the 1970s as surfers by the thousands converted to born-again Christianity. Surf magazines featured advertisements with Jesus "fish" symbols and psalm quotes (a San Fernando Valley surf shop offered free bibles to new customers), and published articles like "Surfing as Prayer"; the Jesus Classic surf contest was inaugurated in Australia, and the Christian Surfing Association was formed in Southern California. Tales from the Tube, a 1975 surfing movie, ended with a group of top surfers discussing the apocalypse, the Second Coming, and salvation. "Surfing," four-time world champion Margo Oberg of Hawaii told a surf journalist, "is a way of humbling ourselves before God and praising Him for such an abundant life." (Surfing magazine satirized the surfing born-again movement in its 1974 Comedy Annual, offering the Guide to Sacred Surf Spots book, which guaranteed to show each buyer the "silver stairway to heaven-sent tubes.")

Born-agains continued to make up a small but active percentage of surfers, quietly led by three-time world champion Tom Curren of California, who guided the Calvary Chapel surf team to an upset victory in the 1981 Katin Pro-Am. Curren spoke before 40,000 believers at the Harvest Crusade at Anaheim Stadium in 1997, and signed bibles afterward. Other well-known born-again surfers have included Brad McCaul, Yancy Spencer, Joey Buran, Chris Brown, Tony Moniz, Dave MacAulay, Mike Lambresi, Brian Jennings, Tim Curran, CJ and Damien Hobgood, and Bethany Hamilton; in 2004, boardmaker Al Merrick bought a full-page ad in Surfer extolling readers to see the just-released Mel Gibson-produced Passion of the Christ.

Walking on Water surf camps, a non-profit Christian surf instruction organization started by Jennings, began operating in Southern California in 1995. Tim Curran, Tom Curren, and CJ and Damien Hobgood have served as instructors.

While nonevangelical religions and sects count surfers among their members, few have tried to establish any kind of beachhead within the sport. "Why Don't Jews Surf?," a 1980 H2O magazine article, noted that surfing was the preserve of "the young, blonde, tanned, be-muscled Gentile. No others need apply; few do." (Jewish surfers are in fact not uncommon; South Africa's Shaun Tomson flew to Hawaii in 1969 as a bar mitzvah present, and eight years later won the world title; Nachum Shifren, the "surfing rabbi," was profiled in People magazine and the L.A. Times in the '90s.) Australian surfer Ted Spencer, two-time winner of the Bells Beach contest in the late '60s, became a follower of Swami Bhaktivedanta in 1970 and later said, "When I surf, I dance for Krishna." Sixties pointbreak stylist Bob Cooper, a lifelong Mormon originally from California, said in 1999 that he still "got a buzz" from surfing, but that he was more interested in "things that sustain the spirit." Pioneering big-wave surfer George Downing of Hawaii meanwhile saw no reason why surfing and spirituality couldn't be more closely fused, and suggested in the early '90s, only half-jokingly, that wave-riding itself could serve as the basis of a religion.

Religious-based surfing groups in 2013 included Christian Surfers USA, Christian Surfers Australia, and Christian Surfers U.K. Religious-themed surf videos include Son Riders (1988), Changes (1999), The Outsiders (2002) Noah's Arc (2004), The Seven Mile Miracle (2008), and Promised Land (2011). Books on religion and surfing include The Surfer's Bible: New Testament (2002; later versions of The Surfer's Bible came with a waterproof, zipped cover), Devotions for the Soul Surfer (Bethany Hamilton, 2006), and Walking on Water: The Spirituality of the World's Top Surfers (Jeremy Jones, 2006).

In a 2010 Surfer magazine survey, 63% of readers said they believed in God, 15% didn't, and 22% weren't sure. In 2016, Pope Francis, following a speech at the Vatican, received a new surfboard as a gift from nonprofit Surf Resource Network. The Pope smiled, held the board for a moment, signed and returned it.