Coastal North Carolina — and the Outer Banks in particular — has become a hotspot for surfers from all over the world. But unlike other celebrated surfing destinations such as Hawaii, the early history of the sport in this area wasn’t well documented until recently.
Surfing is now an incredibly popular sport for many who visit and live on the Outer Banks, but that wasn’t always the case. While you can still find plenty of people who remember surfing here several decades ago, no one attempted to figure out exactly when surfing became a local pastime until John Hairr and Ben Wunderly of the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort started investigating the history of surfing in this state.
According to the research Hairr and Wunderly have conducted over the past few years, evidence suggests that people have been surfing in North Carolina since the early 20th century, and some may have been familiar with the sport since at least the 19th century. The Outer Banks area in particular has played a large role in this historical narrative for more than a century — starting with records dating back to 1911 of people riding waves at resort hotels around Morehead City and Beaufort.
On the northern Outer Banks, however, it seems as though surfing may have initially began to catch on during the 1920s. In the summer of 1928, Willie Kaiama visited the Outer Banks with a group of other Hawaiian performers who were scheduled to take part in the ever-popular Virginia Dare Day celebrations. A press release for events held at Virginia Dare Shores in Kill Devil Hills noted that, “The program there will begin at 11 o’clock in the morning, and will include a demonstration of surfboard riding by Willie Kaiama, member of a troupe of native Hawaiians now at the shores, as well as foot races, swimming contests and a bathing beauty contest, with a dance that night.”
Though it’s hard to determine how influential Kaiama’s surfing demonstrations were, only a few short years later Manteo native Thomas Fearing became well known for his experiments with the sport. Fearing hand built a large Hawaiian-style surfboard, which suggests he was somewhat inspired by Kaiama’s lessons. But Fearing primarily used his board to go offshore fishing – possibly because he wasn’t able to master the skill of wave riding before he died during active duty in World War II. Regardless, noted historian David Stick claimed that Fearing was one of the earliest surfers in this area.
Beyond these initial forays, surfing didn’t become widely popular on the Outer Banks until the 1960s. Spurred, at least in part, by mainstream movies featuring surfing and the formation of two surf clubs in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head over the course of that decade, the number of local riders and board shapers began to grow exponentially. These days it’s hard to imagine how relatively uncrowded the waves off these shores must have been more than a half century ago, since the Outer Banks now regularly tops many lists for being one of the best surfing spots in the country.