The modern history of competitive surfing begins with the International Surfing Association (ISA). The sport’s roots reach back centuries, but on a summer day in 1964 the first ever World Surfing Championship was held at Manly Beach, Australia. In the new sport’s first major upset, Australian Midget Farrelly edged out America’s Mike Doyle and Hawaii’s Joey Cabell to take the win.
Holding the first world championship wasn’t the only pivotal event that year for the sport. In Hawaii, Greg Noll and Mike Stange took on outer reef Pipeline for the first time. Bruce Brown released his seminal film, The Endless Summer. And of course, “The World Contest” at Manly. Organized by Bob Evans, and with surfers in attendance from Australia, Hawaii, the United States and Peru, more than 65,000 people found their way to the beach to watch Farrelly hot dog his way into history. Up to that point it was the largest crowd to ever attend a surf contest. During the competition, the foundational meeting of the ISA (then called ISF) was held, and Eduardo Arena, from Peru was elected its first president. Arena also committed to organizing the second World Championship, the next year in Lima, Peru.
“A few things happened in surfing simultaneously to make it suddenly popular around the time of the contest,” recounted Farrelly years later. “It came from nowhere almost.”
Immediately following the success at Manly, the momentum continued to build. The very next year Felipe Pomar put Peru and Club Waikiki on the map with his win at the second World Surfing Championship at Punta Rocas, Peru.
In 1966, Australian wunderkind Nat Young came to San Diego for the third World Surfing Championship armed with “Magic Sam,” a thin-railed 9’4” board that utilized a George Greenough-designed fin to great effect. His performance would usher in a new, radicalized era in surfing as surfers witnessed the benefits of progressive equipment in action. With over 80,000 fans packing Ocean Beach, surfing’s popularity was reaching a crescendo.
Australia’s Nat Young, 1966 World Surfing Champion in San Diego, California, USA. Photo: Tom Keck
“I think Nat’s performance at San Diego in ’66 was a benchmark in the world of surfing,” noted Hawaiian Jeff Hakman, one of the sport’s top stars in the ’70s. “It was the last of the longboard contests, and seeing what Nat could do on a board that was basically a log, made us all realize what was possible if we had better equipment.”
Meanwhile, the organization’s structure continued to evolve. At a meeting in Hawaii in November 1976, the members of the ISF changed its name to officially become the ISA. The world’s greatest surfers, who had joined together that year to the launch the IPS, the first professional surfing world tour, gave full written support to the organization. From 1978 until 2002, the ISA ran the ISA World Championship every other year. In 1980 the ISA would add a junior division to its program, and again, history would be made.
A copy of the original letter that was signed by all of the surfers in the recently formed International Professional Surfers (IPS) in 1978 giving full written support to the ISA.
Winning the first-ever ISA World Junior Surfing Champion title in Biarritz, France, a young Tom Curren would go one better two years later, winning the ISA World Men’s Champion title. It was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary careers the sport as ever known.
With the continuing growth of surfing worldwide, as well as in junior surfing performances and participation, in 2002 the ISA wisely decided to hold the Junior division of what was then called the ISA World Surfing Games as its very own annual event. The former Junior division of the World Surfing Games, along with what used to be the annual Quiksilver ISA World Grommet titles, was consolidated into a new event, the Quiksilver ISA World Junior Surfing Championship, which was first hosted in 2003 in South Africa and held yearly since. It has become the most coveted title in junior surfing in the world for boys and girls.
In 2007, the ISA created the ISA World Masters Surfing Championship, to provide a path for competitive surfers over 35 years of age. The event has been held every year since, except in 2009.
In response to the growing popularity of StandUp Paddle (surfing and racing) and prone Paddleboard, the ISA held the inaugural ISA World StandUp Paddle and Paddleboard Championship in 2012 and, again, in 2013 in Peru. Most of the ISA’s 86 Member Nations have developed SUP programs and National Championships, as the sport can be held on any body of water – lake, river, dam, stream, sea and ocean. SUP has opened up surfing and the surfing lifestyle to hundreds of millions of landlocked enthusiasts around the globe.
The ISA World Bodyboard Championship was launched in 2011 in the Canary Islands, Spain, as a spin off of the World Surfing Games. It has been held every year since.
The ISA World Bodyboard Championship was first held in the Canary Islands, Spain in 2011 and then held at the warm and beautiful beaches of Playa Parguito in Margarita Island, Venezuela in 2012 and 2013, followed by two years in Iquique, Chile in 2014 and 2015.
To expand the sport into the world’s most populous country, the ISA launched the Hainan Wanning Riyue Bay International Surfing Festival in 2012 with a historic partnership with Womei Media, one of China’s largest media conglomerates. The Festival included two events, the ISA China Cup, a National Teams event, and the Hainan Classic, a 4-Star Men’s ASP event on the pro-tour. This was the first event collaboration between the ISA and the Association of Surfing Professionals, ASP.
Riyue Bay, Hainan Island, China, home of the ISA’s annual Hainan Wanning Riyue Bay International Surfing Festival, first held in January 2012 as part of the ISA’s mission to develop surfing in Asia and globally.
The ISA World Longboard Championship, since 1988 held as a division within the ISA World Surfing Games, was held for the first time in 2013 in the legendary point break in Huanchaco, Peru. The Peruvian town is home to the Caballito de Totora, the famous reed boats built more than 3,000 years ago by local fisherman to be used in their daily work, and which were designed to ride the surf to shore while standing on the vessel, often with a paddle to help the fisherman propel himself through the ocean.
The ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship was held for the first time in September of 2015. 69 surfers from 18 countries took to the water, marking the largest international Adaptive Surfing competition of its kind to date. The ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship compliments Surfing’s inclusion in the Pan Am Games with aspirations for inclusion in the Parapan Am and Paralympic Games. The ISA’s goal in hosting this World Championship is to unify global efforts for the advancement of Adaptive Surfing by creating an event that serves as the preeminent platform for physically challenged surfers to display their talents in competition.
Of significant importance, and since 1996, the Sands of the World Ceremony has been held during the Opening Ceremony of all ISA World Championships plus the Surfing Festival in China, to symbolize the true fraternal spirit and world peace through surfing, that bonds together all members of the global surfing tribe. An original idea of the ISA, created in 1996, by a recently elected president, Fernando Aguerre, symbolizes the union of the countries of the world through the mixing of the sands from the shores of all participating delegations, showcasing the ISA’s work and hopes for a better and more peaceful world.
Symbolizing the fraternal spirit and world peace through surfing, that bonds all members of the global surfing tribe, the traditional ISA Sands of the World Ceremony, is pictured during the Opening Ceremony of the 2013 ISA World Junior Surfing Championship in Nicaragua. (Left- representatives from Team Jamaica and Right- ISA President Fernando Aguerre)
ISA President Fernando Aguerre worked on developing surfing in his native hometown of Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he led the successful struggle to legalize surfing, after being banned by the 1970s military dictatorship. After representing his country as the longboarder of the Argentinean National Surfing Team in the 1992 ISA World Surfing Championship, he decided it was time to put his heart and skills to work on a global effort. Aguerre ran for and was elected as the ISA President in 1994 and has been reelected 7 times since, and continues to serve as ISA President today.
A young and entrepreneurial Fernando Aguerre shaking hands with his brother Santiago during the first Surfing Championship organized by Fernando in Argentina in 1978 to have the surfing ban by the military lifted.
During his tenure, Aguerre has unfurled a dramatic expansion of the World Championships, set a path to achieve Duke Kahanamoku’s dream of Olympic Surfing, expanded the delivery of educational courses globally, developed the ISA Scholarship Program in 2007 and continues his volunteer work with the ISA for a better surfing future. In 2013, he was awarded the SIMA Waterman of the Year Award, for his continued efforts to promote surfing around the world, an award given to the most influential surfers in history, including Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton and legends Greg Noll and Gerry Lopez.
After winning his swimming Gold Medal in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, the legendary founder of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, expressed a dream that his first sport be included one day in the Olympic Games. President Aguerre continues to carry the Duke’s dream to the IOC today.
Under Aguerre’s vision and leadership, in 2007, the ISA Scholarship Program was created. It has awarded 192 scholarships to under-18 male and female surfers, many who would have otherwise not been able to complete school or compete in surfing without financial assistance. Some of these surfers have gone on to become National and World Champion athletes.
To this day, the ISA continues its activities as the World’s Governing Authority for Surfing, as officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1995 for all waveriding sports, including Surfing, StandUp Paddle, Paddleboard, Longboard, Bodyboard, Kneeboard, Tandem Surfing, Skimboard, Wakesurfing and Bodysurfing. The ISA governs these sports and works for their development through its 86 Member Nations and the establishment of the sport of surfing in new countries.
The ISA promotes its World Championships as the true “Olympics” of surfing. By awarding Gold, Silver, Bronze and Copper medals to National Team and individual champions, the athletes compete for the honor to represent their countries and national colors, in the true nature of surfing’s aloha spirit and fair play.