Story by Tom Stevens | Photographs by Bob Bangerter, and courtesy of the Bishop Museum & Surfing Heritage Foundation
Lieutenant James King of His Majesty’s British Navy was stoked.
He had just witnessed something no other English speaker had ever seen or imagined—people using wooden planks to ride upon the waves. Now he hastened to record it on parchment.
The year was 1779. Captain James Cook had been killed, but HMS Discovery lingered at Kona long enough for Cook’s lieutenant to observe Hawaiians at play in the surf.
“When there is a very great sea and surf breaking on the shore,” King wrote, “the men, sometimes 20 or 30, go without the swell and lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plank about their size and breadth. They keep their legs close on top of it, and their arms are used to guide the plank. They wait the time of the greatest swell that sets on shore, and altogether push forward with their arms to keep on its top, and it sends them in with a most astonishing velocity.”
Seemingly as an afterthought, he added: “They seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives.”
The “planks” King saw were likely alaia boards; ridden by commoners, they were the most popular of four types of old Hawaiian boards. The alaia were wide and flat, measured five to nine feet in length, and weighed as much as 100 pounds. They could be ridden prone or standing. The shortest boards, called paipo, were two to five feet long and were ridden prone.
Kikoo boards were twelve to eighteen feet long and were designed to be ridden on deep-water swells. At the top of the hierarchy were narrow, immensely heavy olo boards eighteen to twenty-five feet long, reserved strictly for the alii (high-born) class.
How the Hawaiians managed to catch and ride waves on the heavy wooden planks King saw in 1779 has long puzzled surfers and board shapers. In recent years, many have built replica boards to try to unlock that mystery.
“The really good surfers want to see how good they are compared to the ancients,” observes alaia builder Tom Wegener of Australia. Compared with modern foam boards, alaia are like “hovercraft,” he says. “They’re really quick. They’re very fast on the water, and they just glide.”
New Zealander Roger Hall also builds and rides alaia replicas, but he’s less sanguine. “Long, thin, finless and made from wood, alaia surfboards are neither practical nor easy to master,” he cautions.
So, who’s right? That could depend on the waves.
Master Lahaina shaper Bob “Ole” Olsen knows a thing or two about wooden surfboards, having built his first one in 1948. Because they have no fins, he says, replica boards lose purchase and “slide out” on turns, a liability on steep waves. The old-style boards, he says, work best in “soft” crumbly waves like those at Launiupoko on West Maui, Waikiki, and Malibu. “Pipeline, forget it!”
Just down Front Street from Ole’s Lahaina shop, UH–Maui College students have been using power tools to shape replica boards out of albizia wood. Now in its third semester, Kiope Raymond’s class on Hawaiian surfing history challenges students to research, design, build and surf a replica of an ancient board. It’s the sort of “back engineering” process that created the Hokulea double-hulled voyaging canoe thirty-five years ago.
“Part of the fun of reestablishing a relationship between ancient and modern Hawaiian ocean sports,” Raymond says, “is the need for practical application and experiential education.” He underlines that point with a Hawaiian saying: Ho ae ka ike heenalu i ka hokua o ka ale. (“Show your knowledge of surfing on the back of the wave.”)
Raymond says he was inspired by fellow educator Tom “Pohaku” Stone, who builds Hawaiian surfboards in even more traditional fashion. Eschewing power tools, Stone uses hand-made axes, adzes, coral scrapers and sharkskin sandpaper to fashion his replica boards.
Before that work even begins, Stone follows ancient protocols to locate the proper tree for each board. In pre-Contact times, Hawaiian boards were hewn from koa, ulu (breadfruit) and wiliwili trees, with koa reserved for the alii. Stone seeks these same trees today, although board-length koa has become rare.
Once the proper tree has been located, Stone makes a hookupu (offering), asking the ancestors for permission to take the tree. After the tree is felled, prayers are chanted and a fish is placed in the stump hole as an offering. A kahuna (priest) then blesses the timber.
The work of shaping the board can then commence, with its own set of protocols. After the plank is rough cut, an awa offering is made to “find the spirit of the wood.” A second blessing follows carving, shaping and sanding, and finally the board is ready to receive its name.
Stone, Raymond, and, to an extent, Olsen are part of a “back to the roots” revival that has spurred worldwide interest in the wooden boards that first made surfing possible.
The revival is extensive. On any given day, eBay offers more than 300 vintage wooden boards for sale. Another current website lists 106 wooden-board builders on four continents. Their products range from modern “chambered” and “honeycomb” models to full-size replicas of nineteenth-century Hawaiian boards from the Bishop Museum’s collection.
Along with the boards has come research suggesting Pacific cultures from Peru to Palau have enjoyed some form of wave riding for millennia. Incan pottery shards from 1,000 B.C. depict people riding waves in “surf boats” made from buoyant totora reeds. Oral traditions indicate canoe surfing was popular in New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti and Micronesia. Surfing in single-hull canoes was also practiced in Samoa, where the sport was called faa see or seegalu. Only in Hawaii, most sources claim, did people stand up and ride waves on wooden boards.
It’s difficult to know how those pre-Contact boards looked, felt and performed, because few of them survived the Calvinist missionaries who suppressed surfing after 1820. One of the few non-Hawaiian surfers of that era was author and journalist Mark Twain. Touring the “Sandwich Isles” in 1866, he tried surfing at Lahaina, but “made a failure of it.”
“The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo,” Twain quipped, “And I struck bottom at about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”
By century’s end, the sport clung to a last slender beachhead at Waikiki, where, in 1907, the legendary Irish-Hawaiian waterman George Freeth gave a surfing lesson to another American writer, novelist Jack London.
Waikiki is also the site of a famous pre-Contact surf spot called Kalehuawehe—perhaps best known today for a 1917 ride by the legendary Hawaiian waterman Duke Kahanamoku. He reportedly caught a huge wave in the “steamer lane” off Diamond Head and rode it nearly a mile to the beach. This, on a 125-pound board that had to be turned by dragging a foot in the water!
What modern surfers might term Duke’s “quiver” of boards ranged from modest alaia shapes to massive twenty-footers with rounded bottoms and tapered rails. Given the size and heft of the equipment, it’s no surprise surfing was limited to the few and the buff.
That all changed in 1929, when Waikiki welcomed Tom Blake, a young Wisconsin man who had met the globe-trotting Kahanamoku in Chicago. Brimful of Midwestern pluck, Blake hollowed out an old olo board until it was just a sixteen-foot frame. Paneling the frame with plywood and waterproof glue, Blake created a “cigar box” hybrid—a board with classic Hawaiian lines that was also (relatively) light and buoyant. Mass-produced by the Los Angeles Ladder Company, Blake’s hollow Catalina became the world’s first production board.
It also spelled the end of the old Hawaiian boards. The solid-body leviathans of Duke’s youth ended up in museums, and surfers eventually forgot how to ride them.
Now, nearly a century later, surfers all over the world are again riding traditional Hawaiian boards. And they still seem to feel, as James King put it, “great pleasure in the motion which this exercise gives.”