Collected by J.S. Emerson in Kailaua,
Hawaii in 1885
Held by the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Catalogue
Images : Margan
and Finney, page 23
Their navigation skills took them
to the Solomon Islands, around 1600 BC, and later to Fiji and Tonga.
By the beginning of the 1st millennium
BC, most of Polynesia was a loose web of thriving cultures who settled
on the islands' coasts and lived off the sea.
By 500 BC Micronesia was completely
2003 B.C. A Piece of Wood
Recreational wave riding , either body
surfing or assisted by a small board, was practised throughout the
Pacific Islands and probably predates
the Polynesian migration from Asia, which began aroudnd 2000 B.C.
Whatever it's primitive origins, by 400
A.D. when the first settlers reached Hawaii, five principles had been
1. wave riding is fun - the thrill of
the ride in is greater than the effort of the paddle out.
2. wave riding can be dangerous
3. the surfer must paddle in the same
direction as the wave to achieve take-off.
4. the ride is longer and faster if the
surfer rides diagonally across the wave face.
5. a rigid board will improve planning
and paddling - but can also increase the danger factor.
A small wooden prone board used thoughout
the Pacific Islands, primarily as juvenile sport. In Tahiti and
Hawaii the boards were ridden prone, kneeling
and, occassionally, standing. Other Pacific Islands were
restricted to prone riding only.
The origin of these boards is speculative,
but broken sections from discarded canoes, outrigger floats or
paddles (the blades) are possible
sources. Dimensions ranged from 3 feet x 12 inches (the smallest example
in the Bishop Museum, Honolulu. Catalogue
Number :C.5966) to 6 feet x 9 inch boards in Aotearoa (New
With the development of an adult surfing
culture, prone boards became essential in acquiring basic surf skills.
Pre- Hawaii - Conjecture.
Exodus from Asia about....
Initial migration by small groups across
small distances in crude craft.
Travell would be directed at observable
land masses, that is approximately 5 kilometres.
Craft could vary from a simple single
log to a timber raft.
As distances between islands became longer,
larger rafts would be required to carry larger numbers of passengers and
On occassion rafts could possibly be wind
driven by a simple square sail.
The development from this crude base to
sophisticated sailing canoes was concurrent with the use of a simple board
for personal transport over short distances.
The use of a small paddleboard was
to have two significant impacts on Polynesian culture....
1. It was adapted as a tool of recreation
(exhilaration?) with the development of surfriding.
2. Originally a floatation devise,
board paddling became the basis for Polynesian swimming, incorporating
an overarm stroke of the arms and a sissor-like kick by the legs.
Shooting on a board and in a canoe
must have started further back than body shooting.
- Duke Kahanamoku, The Sun, Friday
8th January 1914.
Interview by W. F. Corbett.
At the start of the 20th century, the Polynesian
style (often mis-labeled the Australian Crawl) was becoming the
dominant competitive swimming stroke.
It was emphatically demonstrated by Duke
Kahanamoku's 1908 Stockholm Olympic performance.
By the end of the 20th century surfing
had spread to across the world's oceans (and Lakes!) and surfing culture
had global significance
The Polynesians arrived in Hawaii circa
1000 B.C. with an unequalled maritime knowledge and skills to the finest
surfing location on the planet.
Not only was there consistant swell and
a tropical climate, but a previously untapped store of timber. Unihabited
for X0000 million years, the Hawiian Islands had produced a massive store
of surfboard building materials - trees large enough to build sixty foot
The main timbers were...
Willi Willi (Erythrina sandwicenis) -
a light timber similar to balsa wood and used for outrigger floats.
Breadfruit or Ulu (Artocarpus altila)
- also light
Koa.(Accacia koa) -a fine grained hardwood.
Some reports suggest that Breadfruit or
Wilii Willi were preferred timbers (particually for the longer Olo) for
their lightness (and ease of shaping?), however the only existing
examples of these boards are in Koa wood. Probably the lightweight
nature of these timbers was the cause of their disappearance.
Some small (Paipo) examples exist in Breadfruit.
A tree was selected and felled, sometimes
with religous ceremony or offerings, and a board was roughly shaped by
a stone adze on site.
The board was then moved to a Canoehouse
or beach site where the shape was completed progressively with adze, various
coral heads and an oahi rubbing stone.
Several staining agents were availaible...
Root of theTi plant (Mole ki)
Juice of pounded Kukui bark
Soot of burnt kukui nuts
Charcoal from burnt pandanus leaves
Juice from banana buds
Ashes of burnt cane leaves
Usually several agents were mixed to produce
a glossy black finish.
One account quoted by Tom
Blake states that a willi willi board was immersed in mud to seal
the timber grain (page 45).
The finishing process was completed with
the addition of kukui nut or coconut oil to assist waterproofing. These
contruction processes were not exclusive to surfboards - they were standard
practice in canoe building.
Further coatings of oil were regularly
applied as ongoing maintainence.
After use boards were dried and stored,
sometimes wrapped in cloth.
Dimensions vary between 6 feet and 12 feet
in length, average 18 inches in width, and between half an inch and
an inch and a half thick.
The nose is round and turned up, the tail
The deck and the bottom are convex,
tapering to thin rounded rails.
This cross-section would maintain maximum
strength along the centre of the board and the rounded bottom gave directional
stability, a crucial factor as the boards did not have fins.
Any discussion of the performance capabilities
is largely speculation.
Alaia and Surfer, Waikiki 1890
Surfers and Alaia, Hilo Bay, Hawai'i
Cropped from Lueras,
page 56 and 57
Contemporary accounts definitely confirm
that Alaia were ridden prone, kneeling and standing; and that the riders
cut diagonally across the wave.
Details of wave size, wave shape, stance
and/or manouvres are, as would be expected, overlooked by most non-surfing
Most early illustrations of surfing simply
fail to represent any understanding of the mechanics of wave riding. Modern
surfing experience would suggest that high performance surfing is limited
more by skill than equipment.
It is a distinct probablity that ancient
surfers rode large hollow waves deep in the curl - certainly prone, and
on occassions standing.
By 1000 A.D these principles were confirmed...
Standing Rider on Paipo/Belly board,
Kuhio Pier, Waikiki, circa 1962
Photograph by Val Valentine
facing page 192.
13. Large waves are faster than small
waves.- a larger board is easier to achieve take off.
14. Steep waves are faster than flat waves.-
a smaller board is easier to control at take off.
15. Control is more important than speed
16. Surfboards are precious.