surfing, sport of gliding on a breaking wave. Surfers originally used long, cumbersome wooden boards but now ride lightweight synthetic boards that allow a greater degree of maneuverability. Boards are typically from 4 to 12 ft (122 to 366 cm) long; the larger surfboards have a stabilizing fin in the rear. The surfer begins at the point where the waves begin to form, then, facing shore, paddles toward the beach with an oncoming wave. When the wave catches the board, the surfer stands up and glides along the wave's crest—or, in the case of a large wave, in the "tube" formed by its overhead curl. Standing waves in rivers and tidal bores can also be surfed.
Although the origins of surfing are obscure, it is clear that it developed in Hawaii, where it was popular during the 19th cent. It spread to the California coast during the 1920s and became very popular with youth in the United States, Australia, and other countries by the 1960s. Since the late 1990s aerial tricks similar to those done by skateboarders and snowboarders have become an accepted part of competitive surfing. With lifestyles and regimens freer than those of most athletes, surfers comprise a unique sporting subculture.