While tandem surfing is technically defined as any two people riding the same board at once, it's generally recognized as a particular surfing subgenre involving opposite-sex partners, with the man hoisting the woman into a series of lifts and poses. Pre-20th-century Hawaiians likely practiced some form of two-to-a-board surfing, but tandem riding was more or less created in the 1920s by the tourist-serving Waikiki beachboys, who paddled visiting women into the gentle nearshore surf, then rode toward shore with the passenger either propped up in front, nestled in their arms, or sitting atop their shoulders. When Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku gave wave-riding demonstrations in Australia, in late 1914 and early 1915, he impressed the audience by riding tandem with a local girl. California surfers Lorrin Harrison and Pete Peterson introduced tandem riding to the mainland after visiting Waikiki in the '30s, and it was soon practiced by small numbers of devotees at places like San Onofre, Doheny, and Malibu.
A tandem division was included in the 1954 Makaha International Surfing Championships, the era's most prestigious surf event; it was also part of the inaugural West Coast Surfing Championships in 1959, as well as the 1964-founded United States Surfing Championships. A tandem demonstration was included in the 1964 World Championships, and a tandem division was added to the Worlds in 1965.
Custom-made high-buoyancy tandem boards were first produced in the early '50s, and by the end of the decade the average two-person board was 11 feet long, 25 inches wide, and five inches thick. Tandem surfing was generally practiced by older, huskier men, and their young, light, limber partners. First-generation tandem champions included Pete Peterson (West Coast Championships winner in 1960 and 1962 with Patti Carey; U.S. Championships winner in 1964 with Sharon Barker; U.S., Makaha, and World Championships winner in 1966 with Barrie Algaw) and Mike Doyle (winner, with Linda Merrill, of the Makaha and West Coast Championships in 1963, and the U.S. Championships and World Championships in 1965). Tandem surfers of the period had about eight standard lifts, including the knee mount, the swan, and the shoulder stand, which were usually performed one or two per ride.
While nearly all surfers at one time or another try riding two to a board, just a tiny fraction have made a practice of formal tandem surfing; the surfing mainstream has in fact regarded tandem with a combination of amusement and disdain. But tandem was popular in the '60s with nonsurfers, who watched it during network coverage of the U.S. Championships and the Makaha Invitational. A Life magazine feature in 1964 described tandem surfing as a "sea-going version of an adagio dance." Tandem surfing all but disappeared during and after the late-'60s shortboard revolution: Surfer magazine described it as "a dying sport" in 1969, and tandem flubs were gathered for comedy sequences in surf movies like Evolution (1968) and Waves of Change (1970). "By 1970," recalled Southern California tandem surfer Steve Boehne, "you couldn't walk across Huntington Beach with a longboard without dying of sheer embarrassment." Boehne and his wife, Barrie Algaw, stuck with tandem, winning the 1970 Makaha, the 1971 U.S. Championships, and the 1972 World Championships, and helped keep the form alive through the '70s and early '80s, when there were fewer than a half-dozen tandem teams worldwide and virtually no tandem contests.
The '80s-launched longboard revival eventually brought a mild renewed interest in tandem surfing, with much of the attention going to flamboyant tandem daredevils Bobby Friedman and Ana Schisler, California surfers who took on high-risk breaks like Pipeline and Waimea Bay in the '90s, assuming a four-footed spoon-stance on their 13-foot flame-airbrushed tri-fin. Meanwhile, trying to sort out point valuations between acrobatic lifts and board-turning maneuvers became a pressing issue in the limited world of competitive tandem surfing. (As of 2014, there were roughly 85 distinct tandem lifts.) Since 2006, the World Tandem Surfing Championships have been held at various breaks around the world by the International Surfing Association. Winning teams include Clement Cetran and Dhelia Birou, and Rico Leroy and Sara Burel.
The Art of Tandem Surfing, an instructional video featuring Steve and Barrie Boehne, was released in 1997. Tandem Surfing, a video documentary, came out in 2006. Another documentary, Tandem Surfing: the Love Story, was released in 2009.