You are on page 1of 18

Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 85

Hawaiian Surfboards
Chapter 3
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 87

Above: Board comparisons courtesy of Finney and Houston.


D epending on your source of information, the ancient Hawaiian surfboard – or papa he’e
nalu (pa-pa HAY-ay NA-lu)1 – came in two-to-four basic types. For the sake of inclusion
and to differentiate between the two different commoner’s boards, I consider there to be a total of
four distinct boards and plan shapes of pre-European contact Hawaiian surfboards. Listed in order
of length, from longest to shorest, these are:

• The paipo (pipe-oh) or kioe – a body board, or belly board, from 2-to-4 feet long, usually used
by children in the prone position;

• The alaia (ah-LAI-ah) – a mid-sized board, usually 8 feet or longer;

• The kiko‘o (key-CO-oo) – a mid-range board larger than the alaia, but not as big as the biggest
boards. The kiko‘o’s length was between 12 and 18 feet. It was good for bigger surf, but was hard to

• The olo (O-lo) – a very long surfboard reserved for royalty that could be as long as 18-to-24
feet in length.2

“It is significant,” wrote Muirhead, “that boards greater than five feet in length were found
only in New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawai`i, and it is in Hawaiian chants alone that we find frequent
reference to the positions of sitting, kneeling, and standing...”3
There are additional Hawaiian terms for different types of surfboards, including: paha (PAH-
ha), pu’ua (poo-OO-ah), and papa he’e nalu (pa-pa HAY-ay NA-lu – literally, “A board for sliding
waves”).4 There were also special terms for handling surfboards, including ha’awi papa he’e nalu,
which meant to loan a board with the understanding that it would be returned. Boards were
apparently loaned but rarely given away.5
Early European accounts of the late 1700s and early 1800s mention long boards specifically in
only two island groups – Hawai‘i and Aotearoa.6 The boards in New Zealand were described as
reaching six feet in length, but only nine inches in width!7 Boatswain’s mate on the Bounty, James
Morrison wrote that boards of “any length” were used in Tahiti. Four-foot boards were known in
the Marquesas, but in Melanesia, Micronesia and Western Polynesia, boards were only a few feet
long – a maximum of four feet.8 Reed bundles were ridden prone off the coast of Rapa Nui.9
“The Hawaiians, however,” wrote Finney and Houston, “possessed boards sometimes eighteen
feet long, two feet wide, five inches thick, and which might weigh a hundred and fifty pounds. Such
boards are still preserved in Honolulu. They were buoyant enough to support the rider and allow all
the riding positions: prone, sitting, kneeling and standing... This variety of skills, on long boards,
together with the widespread participation of all classes was unequaled in any other Pacific island
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 89

Hawaiians were not the only Polynesians riding Pacific surf. “Tahitian surfers,” wrote Finney
and Houston, “came the closest [to the Hawaiians]... that both men and women and particularly the
chiefs of Tahiti enjoyed the sport, suggests its high development there.”11
William Ellis, one of the few Europeans to view surfing in both Hawai‘i and Tahiti in the 1800s
noted of Tahitian surfers, however, that “Their surf-boards are inferior to those of the Sandwich
Islanders (Hawaiians), and I do not think swimming in the sea as an amusement, whatever it might
have been formerly, is now practiced so much by the natives of the South, as by those of the North.”12
Nevertheless, the development of surfing in both Tahiti and Hawai‘i was more likely part of a
connection as opposed to a parallel development. Many legends describe voyages between Tahiti
and Hawai‘i. The legend of Mo‘ikeha (see Chapter 5), a Tahitian chief who later traveled to the
island of Kaua‘i and lived and died by the famous surf break of Maka‘iwa is a good example.13
Archeological discoveries even support the theory of a pre-modern era of contact between the two
groups. While it’s probable that surfing came to Hawai‘i via Tahiti, the reverse is certainly possible.14
To confuse the matter further, although it is logical to assume that surfing traveled with the
Polynesian migration, this is not at all certain. “One might ask,” concluded Ben Finney, “whether
the sport developed first in some central area and spread from there to the rest of the Pacific, or
whether it arose independently in several island groups. It is difficult to say conclusively.”15
The Father of Modern Surfing, Duke Pua Kahanamoku (1890-1968) told the co-writer of his
autobiography, World of Surfing, that “Two kinds of boards were used to ride the forward slopes of
high waves; there was the shorter one called the alaia, and the longer one termed the olo.”16 Duke
no doubt discounted the paipo for the same reasons bodyboards, today, are not included in discussions
of surfboard design. Bodyboards require riding waves in prone position versus the stand-up riding
possible with larger boards. As for Duke’s lack of mention of the kiko‘o, these boards are sometimes
thought of as either being a shorter olo or a longer alaia board.17
For the most part, the two main types of boards were the olo and alaia and they were both used
under different surfing conditions and by different classes of people. According to Abraham Fornander
(1812-1887) in Hawaiian Folk Lore, the alaia averaged 9 feet long. It was best suited for kakala, “a
curling wave, terrible, death dealing.” That is, a wave that broke quickly and had a hollow curl
section to it. The olo, averaging 18 feet long, was ideal for opuu, “a non-breaking wave, something
like calmness.”18 Waves like this are typical at Waikiki on days when the surf is not big.
The average length of the olo and alaia, however, are mostly speculative. No one knows for sure.
On display at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, in Honolulu, there are two olo boards made from
koa – not the usual building material for this size Hawaiian surfboard. The boards belonged to
legendary surfer High Chief Abner Paki. Duke Kahanamoku wrote that Paki, “was reputedly a 300-
pound man, six feet four inches tall, and had prodigious strength. He passed away in 1855, but he
had used those long olo boards during the early missionary days.”19 One board is over 15 1/2 feet in
length, with a thickness of 6 1/2 inches, and weighs 160 pounds. The other one is 14 1/2 feet long,
with a 5 3/4-inch thickness in the middle, and a weight of 148 pounds. Each of the two boards
required at least two men to move it to the museum. According to analysis done on the boards –
primarily by early Twentieth Century surfer/innovator Tom Blake who restored the boards in the
late 1920s – they are older than Paki, pre-dating his birth in 1808.20
In their landmark history of surfing, Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, professor Ben
Finney and writer James Houston, noted that in both the olo and alaia, “the top and bottom were
convex and tapered to thin rounded edges, so that either side seems to have been suitable as a riding
surface.”21 Thirty years later, Finney and Houston added that this common feature between the
boards in their lenticular cross-section meant that both top and bottom of the boards were convex,

tapering to thin rounded edges. Otherwise, the two boards were “radically different in form… [and]
in function.”22 It should be noted that the kiko‘o also shared this convex characteristic.
Three different kinds of wood were generally used for the four types of Hawaiian surfboard.
The kiko‘o, alaia and paipo boards were made from either koa, a fine-grained hard wood (Acacia
koa), or ulu (breadfruit), a soft wood (Atrocarpus altila). Although Abner Paki’s two olo boards were
made of koa, Duke Kahanamoku noted that usually the “olo boards were constructed from the
much lighter wood of the wiliwili.” This more preferred softer, lighter type of wood (Erythrina
sandwicensis) was also used for outrigger canoes.23

The Olo

T he olo was the more impressive of the Hawaiian boards and is considered by most historians
to have been reserved exclusively for the ali‘i, the Hawaiian ruling class, in accordance
with the kapu (taboo) system. Twentieth Century surf pioneer and innovator Tom Blake, however,
believed “that while the wili wili board of olo design was reserved for the use of the chiefs, the koa
board of olo design was not restricted to the alii (chiefs), but was for general use because of the
scarcity of wili wili wood and plentiful occurrence of koa.”2 4
The kapu system helped assure the ali‘i their position of privilege. This class system, like other
Hawaiian laws, applied only to the common people – the maka‘ai-nana. Used in relation to surfing,
it prohibited commoners from using the onini (o-NEE-nee) and owili (o-WE-lee) types of olo boards,
both of which were made of wili-wili.25
The kapu system held other restrictions, as well, as we noted in Chapter Two.
In the cross-section, the olo was thicker than the alaia and could weigh up to around 160 pounds.
Some early European writers described boards that were even heavier. These Europeans claimed
surfboards up to twenty-four feet long, “a size,” Finney and Houston understated, “which would
make their handling and paddling a remarkable feat in itself,”26 and weigh the boards in at well over
200 pounds.
The longest olo in the Bishop collection (one of three) measures just over seventeen feet and is
approximately 16 ½ inches wide, 5 ¾ inch thick and weighs more than 150 pounds. The board came
from the collection of Prince Kuhio, Hawaii’s delegate to the U.S. Congress immediately following
annexation in the late 1800s. It is made from imported pine.27
The other two olo boards at the Bishop were the two owned by high chief Abner Paki.
Presumably, the olo was designed and shaped for moderate rolling swells which hit in only a
limited number of surf spots in the Hawaiian Islands – the most notable being Waikiki, on the south
shore of O‘ahu. The olo ride could be very long, but maneuverability extremely limited. During the
late 1920s, Tom Blake and Duke Kahanamoku built 16-foot redwood boards according to olo
specifications, testing them at Waikiki. The riding styles they found necessary to maneuver their
replicas helped reconstruct what we now know of the earlier olo riding technique.
“An olo’s length and bulk allowed it to catch a swell long before it broke and much farther out to
sea than was possible with shorter boards,” wrote Finney and Houston thirty years after Duke’s
and Blake’s discoveries. “Once on the wave, a surfer could slide with ease until long after the wave
had crested and begun to flatten out, while fellow-surfers, having lost the swell, would be paddling
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 91

back to the kulana nalu. An olo might even catch a wave that began to peak but never broke, as
often happens at Waikiki when the swell is weak. Once on a wave, however, with the ride’s angle set,
the surfer had difficulty making fast turns, especially when the wave grew steep. Also, the huge
board was hard to paddle through broken waves and sometimes had to be carried by canoe around
the rushing waves to the breaking place.”28
John Papa Ii wrote, “The `olo is thick in the middle and grows thinner toward the edges. It is a
good board for a wave that swells and rushes shoreward but not for a wave that rises up high and
curls over. If it is not moved sideways when the wave rises high, it is tossed upward as it moves
In the Hawaiian Annuals of 1896 there is the following account of ancient olo surf riding, by a
native of the Kona district of the island of Hawai‘i and translated by Nakoina, another surfer. “In
riding with the olo or thick board on a big surf, the board is pointed landward and the rider mounting
it paddles with his hands and impels with his feet to give the board a forward movement and when
it receives the momentum of the surf and begins to rush downward, the skilled rider will guide his
course straight or obliquely, apparently at will, according to spending character of the surf ridden,
to land himself high and dry on the beach or dismount on nearing it as he may elect. This style of
riding was called kipapa. In using the olo great care had to be exercised in its management lest from
the height of the wave if coming in direct the board would be forced into the face of the breaker
instead of floating lightly and riding on the surface of the water in which case the wave force being
spent reaction throws both rider and board into the air.”
The Kona native and Nakoina confirmed the olo paddle-out procedure. “In the use of the olo,
the rider had to swim out around the line of surf to obtain position or be conveyed thither by canoe.
To swim out through the surf with such a buoyant bulk was not possible, though it is sometimes
done with the thin boards, the alaia. The latter are good for riding all kinds of surf and are much
easier to handle than the olo.”30
Tom Blake wrote in his book Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, originally published as Hawaiian
Surfboard, that he found the late 1800’s Kona native’s description of pre-European contact surfing
to be the best he ever read. Blake, however, found fault with some of the dimensions listed in the
account and raised a question about materials. “That writer says the olo board of wili wili was ’two
or three feet wide.’ This makes the board too wide to paddle comfortably and also too wide to give a
good performance. The width of the olo board was from one to two feet wide, instead of from two to
three. I also infer, from that error, the writer to be unfamiliar with the wili wili, or chief’s board. It
is also evident from his writing that the olo, or long thick board, was not made of koa and ulu, but of
only wili wili. Therefore, Paki’s boards of olo design and made of koa are an exception and not the
rule. They really are too heavy to please the average surfrider.”31 Having said this, Blake went on to
point out, however, that 1930s surfer Northrup Castle had a board weighing more than Paki’s.
Castle’s was in the 200-pound range “and he likes it.”32
Owili (o-WE-lee) and Onini (o-NEE-nee) are the two names given to the thick olo board made of
wiliwili.33 These were of particular interest to Blake who, in part due to his research into the old
Hawaiian boards, went on to invent the hollow board. Blake pointed out that wiliwili is, “a porous
light wood like balsa. In fact, wili wili is Hawaiian balsa, just as koa is Hawaiian mahogany, of which
there are sixty-seven different kinds in the world. An alaia designed board of wili wili would not be
strong enough. Therefore, the olo type was about six inches thick maximum, down the center of the
board, and made of convex top and bottom so the edges beveled off to about one-half inch all around...
Duke Kahanamoku’s answer to the reason for the old wili wili boards being reserved for the chiefs
is that it was a very scarce and valuable wood. Therefore, the chiefs had wili wili boards for the same

reason that a man has a Rolls-Royce automobile today, that he is wealthy and can afford it.”34
Because of the olo’s limitations, it’s tempting to dismiss it as simply a curiosity, something
mostly the ali’i rode but never in really large surf. Yet, this somewhat ignoble status for the royal
board is open to a good deal of speculation. Both Duke and Blake rode their olo replicas at Castle
break and Papa Nui (outside Cunha) on big days. Also, it is no accident that the big wave boards of
today are quite narrow and, compared to all other surfboards, very long. “Perhaps in its extreme
length and narrowness,” Ben Finney speculated in 1960, “lies the secret for riding the as yet untested
fifty-foot monsters that crash into Kaena Point on Oahu. With modern boards, which measure
eleven feet or so, one might catch one of these waves, but only just before it crested, and when the
wave broke, the rider would almost certainly be killed. Some experienced surfers believe that a long,
narrow olo-like board might solve this problem. It would enable the rider to catch such a giant wave
while the swell was still comparatively flat, whereupon he would stand, take an angle, then ride
across out of the wave before it reached its critical steepness and crashed over him.”35
No one has tested this theory of basing big wave surfboard design on traditional templates. This
is probably due to what we’ve learned about big wave surfing since the 1930s and especially after
the mid-1950s. It appears there is a length too short and a length too long for boards in big surf.
Were Finney’s speculations ever proven to be true, however, it would indicate that the ancient
Hawaiians surfed waves as big as those attempted by modern hellmen, today. Finney, himself, admits
this speculation is on the wild side and that, “between the biggest surf and the low easy swells of
Waikiki, there were not many waves suited to the big olo boards. Consequently, limited
maneuverability usually restricted their use to those few suitable areas with ample space for their
characteristically long rides. Waikiki is such an area. But Waikiki’s combination of long, low swells
and sandy shore is not common in Hawaii. Along the Kona coast, for example, one finds more
often... rocky terrain... with steep walls of water breaking closer to shore. These latter conditions
seem to have allowed only the use of the smaller alaia.”36

The Kiko‘o

T he kiko‘o was similar in shape to the olo, but shorter and used freely by commoner and ali‘i
a like. It is most often considered to be a long alaia.
The Hawaiian chronicler John Papa Ii (1800-1870) is the primary source of information on the
kiko‘o. “The kiko‘o reaches a length of 12 to 18 feet,” wrote Ii, “and is good for a surf that breaks
roughly. This board is good for surfing, but it is hard to handle. Other surfers are afraid of it because
of its length and its great speed on a high wave that is about to curl over. It can ride on all the risings
of the wave on its way until they subside and the board reaches shore.”37
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 93

The Alaia

C ompared to the olo and kiko‘o, the alaia was shorter, broader, less convex and more plank-
like in its thinness. Legendary Hot Curl surfer John Kelly observed that, “Today’s guns
and light short boards have basic features including shapes, contours and breakaway edges handed
down from or similar to the ancient alaia boards.”38 The largest alaia boards in the Bishop Museum
collection range from 7-to-12 feet long, average 18-inches in width, and are from a half-inch to an
inch-and-a-half thick. Alaia boards were used by the common people, but the ali’i were also known
to ride these shapes. One particularly representative alaia board was collected by J. S. Emerson, in
Kailua, Hawai‘i, in 1885, and later donated to the Bishop. It is made of koa, is six-and-a-half feet
long, a little over a half inch thick at its center, and weighs eleven pounds. The bow end is curved in
a convex shape and the stern end is cut off square. Its widest point toward the bow is 14 3/4 inches
and the narrower stern end is 10 3/4 inches.39
Another alaia in the Bishop quiver is Princes Ka‘iulani’s board numbered 10400, of which
esteemed Hawaiian surfer Wally Froiseth made a replica in 2001.40
“On 10400,” admitted Betty Kam of the Bishop Museum, “the recorded information is brief.
This is said to be the surfboard of Princess Ka`iulani. This item, as well as many others, came to the
Museum from the Estate of Archibald Cleghorn, father of Princess Ka`iulani.”41
“I measured the thickness at the center,” Wally told me, describing his measurements for the
template, taken from the original alaia, “which was 5/8th of an inch and the edge is a half-inch. The
tail thickness was 3/8th of an inch. Center of the bow was 1/8th of an inch. So, I made a little
template with 1/8th of an inch curve. You know, so that I would come up with a ¼-inch on the edges.
A little more than an eighth.”42
According to the Kona native translated by Nakoina in the late 1800s, the alaia board was
sometimes called an omo.43 It was the preferred shape for steeper, faster-breaking surf. “The board’s
thinness and shorter length,” wrote Finney and Houston, “gave it much greater mobility on the
sheer faces of fast surf. The technique of sliding at an angle to the moving swell, which alaia surfers
had obviously mastered, was called lala.”44 The alaia ranged from a child’s board of approximately
six feet to about twelve feet long for adults. The adult board was about one-and-a-half inches thick
through the center, leveling off on both top and bottom to about one-quarter inch at the edges. The
comparatively small size of the alaia board made it easy to handle in waves that wall-up quickly and
form tubes or hollow sections in the process.45
“The alaia board,” wrote John Papa Ii, “… is 9 feet long, is thin and wide in front, tapering
toward the back. On a rough wave, this board vibrates against the rider’s abdomen, chest, or hands
when they rest flat on it, or when the fingers are gripped into a fist at the time of landing. Because
it tends to go downward and cut through a wave it does not rise up with the wave as it begins to curl
over. Going into a wave is one way to stop its gliding, and going onto the curl is another. Skilled
surfers use it frequently, but the unskilled are afraid of this board, choosing rather to sit on a canoe
or to surf on even smaller boards.”46
The alaia – like the other Hawaiian boards – is a round-nosed plan shape, with a squared-off
tail. It is very thin; thinner than most surfers, today, can imagine a surfboard to be. This thinness

presents its own challenges, as underscored by Kelli Ann

Heath, when she rode Wally Froiseth’s Ka‘iulani replica in
small Queen’s surf, in 2001. “Riding this board was like
trying to surf a snowboard in the water,” Kelli Ann recalled.
“The board had no buoyancy, so when I laid down on it, the
board would sink. It was very challenging to get enough
momentum to catch a wave, so I had to be pushed into the
waves, which were less than a foot high. The trick was to
stand up very quickly, and even then, I could only ride the
wave for a short distance before it would sink. It took me
several tries just to get to a halfway standing position.”47
“One instantly dashed in,” a non-native observer
reported, after seeing a Hawaiian surf rider on a seven foot
alaia board at Hilo, in 1878, “in front of and at the lowest
declivity of the advancing wave, and with a few strokes of
the hands and feet established his position; then without
further effort shot along the base of the wave eastward
with incredible velocity... his course was along the foot of
the wave, and parallel to it... so as soon as the bather had
secured his position he gave a spring and stood on his knees
upon the board, and just as he was passing, us... he gave
another spring and stood upon his feet, now folding his
arms on his breast, and now swinging them about in wild
ecstasy in his exhilarating ride.”48
The alaia shape made it possible for ancient riders to
avoid getting worked on close-out sets and kept them from
pearling, despite the thin edges. “It was the board most
suitable along the frequent rugged coasts,” wrote Finney
and Houston, “and it is no wonder that most of the ancient
boards remaining (ten of thirteen in the Bishop Museum
collection [in 1965]) are of the alaia type.” As to who rode
these boards, Finney and Houston believed that, “whereas
the olo was reserved exclusively for the ali’i, it seems obvious
that the commoners had no such exclusive rights to the
alaia. The greatest number of early reports tell of surfing
alaia style, and many legends mention chiefs surfing along
rocky shores where an olo board would be difficult to handle.
These two board types, then, allowed the separation of chief
and commoner if desired, but never to the point of depriving
the ali`i of the faster and more hazardous surf.”49

Alove: Koa alaia, 8-feet, 4-inches. Collected by Arning in 1887, Hilo, Hawai’i.
Photo courtesy of Mark Blackburn.
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 95

The Paipo

T he Hawaiian paipo board was the ancient equivalent of today’s bodyboards or “boogie

Examples of the Hawaiian paipo exist at the Bishop Museum and as specimens L-120-373 and
P5019 in the Oceanian Collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University
of Pennsylvania.51
Oceanian Collection Board L-120-373 was obtained by Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885), who
appears to be the first surfboard collector in the continental United States. Peale, a naturalist and
painter, served aboard the Peacock under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes during the
Wilkes Expedition to the Hawaiian Islands and South Pacific. The Peacock was in Hawai‘i between
September 30th and November 23, 1840 and also between June 14-21, 1841. It was during this time
that L-120-373 was collected. The board was donated to the University of Pennsylvania in 1856.52
L-120-373 is made of either breadfruit or wiliwili. It measures 12 1/2" at the nose, 9 1/2" at the
tail and is 56 1/2" long. Its bottom is convex, with shaped rails, nose rocker and slightly concave
The other board in the University of Pennsylvania Museum is P5019. Its origins are sketchy. All
that really is known about where the board came from is that it was a gift to the museum by Dr.
Judson Daland in 1918. It is constructed of California redwood, is 16 1/2" at the nose, 12" at the tail,
and is 65 3/4" long. Its shape is similar to the board in the Bishop Museum photograph collection of
a Hawaiian native in loin cloth, holding a shortboard horizontally. Waikiki and Diamond Head are
in the background and the photo was taken in the late 1800s.54 It’s possible it may even be the same
The first written description of paipo surfing was made by Lieutenant James King, anchored at
Kealakekua Bay, off the Big Island in 1778: “...a diversion most common is upon the Water, where
there is a very great Sea, & surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the
Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plank about their Size and breadth,
they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us’d to guide the plank...”

Wood Types, Collection, Shaping and Ritual

O f the three main types of wood used to make ancient Hawaiian surfboards – wiliwili, ulu,
and koa — commoners were, “denied the use of the lighter, and more satisfactory, wiliwili
wood for the making of surfboards,” confirmed Duke Kahanamoku. “They had to settle for the
heavier, less buoyant, koa wood. It stood to reason then that the alii became the greatest surfers of
those times. They certainly had every advantage. A man’s board became a mark of his standing in

society – sort of a status symbol.”55

Tom Blake quotes another source as substantiating that the olo – specifically the owili – was a
“very thick surfboard made of wili wili.”56 Confusing the matter somewhat, Brigham, in Preliminary
Catalogue, wrote that “Surfboards were usually made of koa, flat with a slightly convex surface,
rounded at one end, slightly narrowing towards the stern, where it was cut square. Sometimes the
‘pa-pa’ (surfboard) was made of a very light wili wili and then made olo (narrow). In size, they
varied from three to eighteen feet in length and from eight to ten inches in breadth, but some of the
ancient boards were said to have been four fathoms long.”57
“In ancient times,” Duke Kahanamoku made a point of saying, “the Polynesians lay great spiritual
importance to their surfing. The stages involved in selecting a proper tree, cutting it down, preparing
the wood, treating it, and finally launching it as a finished surfboard, added up to a process that was
fraught with labor, complexities and ceremonies.”58 This was confirmed by the Kona native previously
mentioned, who testified in the late 1800s that “Before using the board, there were other rites or
ceremonies to be performed for its dedication. As before these were disregarded by the common
people, but among those who followed the making of surfboards as a trade, they were religiously
observed.”59 He went on to describe the selection process:
“Upon the selection of a suitable tree, a red fish called kumu, was first procured, which was
placed at its trunk. The tree was then cut down, after which a hole was dug at its root and the fish
placed therein, with a prayer, as an offering in payment thereof. After the ceremony was performed,
then the tree trunk was chipped away from each side until reduced to a board approximately of the
dimensions desired, when it was pulled down to the beach and placed in the halau (canoe house) or
other such suitable place convenient for the finishing work.”60
Duke Kahanamoku agreed. “After proper blessings and incantations by the kahuna (priest), the
tree was brought down and then trimmed of its branches preparatory for the final shaping. With
only the assistance of stone or bone tools, the natives painstakingly shaped the wood into the desired
proportions, then hauled it to their helau (canoe shed),61 where the prolonged, exacting work really
“Days of tedious scraping and cutting followed in order to obtain the wanted shape, depth,
width and length. They strove for perfect balance, and sought to make the board fit the individual
for whom it was intended. Each board was veritably custom-built and tailored to suit ‘wearer.’”62
“Coral of the corrugated variety termed pohauku puna, which could be gathered in abundance
along the sea beach, and a rough kind of stone called oahi, were the commonly used articles for
reducing and smoothing the rough surfaces of the board until all marks of the stone adze were
obliterated,” related the Kona native of the late 1800s.63
Duke put it this way: “After countless hours of chipping with stone or bone adzes, the board
gradually took on the desired shape, and was then smoothed and polished by hand to the slickness
that promised minimum traction and maximum maneuverability. The wood was then rubbed down
with rough coral to erase the adze marks, and finally it was polished with ‘oahi stone rubbers, all in
the same way that the hulls of canoes were polished.
“Kukui nuts were then gathered and burned to a soot, and subsequently made into a dark stain.
When applied to the wood, it brought out the fine grain and made the board a thing of shining
beauty. In some instances the boards were stained a dark color with the root of the ti plant (moke
ki). In others the natives resorted to making a stain from the juice of banana buds and charcoal
from burnt pandanus leaves. In either case, when the stain became thoroughly dried, a preservative
of kukui oil was rubbed in by hand, giving the surface an even glossier finish.”64
A little more detail was provided by Thrum in the Kona native’s account as translated by Nakoina.
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 97

“As a finishing stain the root of the ti plant (Cordyline terminalis), called mole ki, or the pounded
bark of the kukui (Aleurites moluccana), called hili, was the mordant used for a paint made with the
root of burned kukui nuts. This furnished a durable, glossy black finish, far preferable to that made
of the ashes of burned cane leaves, or amau fern, which had neither body nor gloss.”65
Nathaniel Emerson, in a 1892 article entitled “Causes of Decline of Ancient Polynesian Sports,”
mentioned the protective finish of the canoe and surfboard. “This Hawaiian paint had almost the
quality of lacquer. Its ingredients were the juice of a certain euphorbia, the juice of the inner bark of
the root of the kukui tree, the juice of the bud of the banana tree, together with a charcoal made
from the leaf of the pandanus. A dressing of oil from the nut of the kukui was finally added to give
a finish.”66
Tom Blake was told by Cottrell, who witnessed this procedure, that a surfboard made of wiliwili
was sometimes, “buried in mud, near a spring, for a certain length of time to give it a high polish...
the mud entered the porous surface of the wili wili board acting as a good ‘filler’ for sealing up the
surface. When the board was then dried out the mud surface became hard and was polished and
oiled to a fine waterproof finish.”67

Board Consecration and Ceremonies

A s evidenced by the care taken in wood

selection and preparation, surfing was

significantly more than a popular recreation.
In fact, surfing was, “a rather serious affair.”68
This was especially true when it combined with
other vital elements of Hawaiian culture. “In
this sense,” wrote Finney and Houston, surf
riding “was connected with the ancient religion
of the islands. Although surfing was not
specifically a religious observance, it was like
other aspects of Hawaiian life, integrally
involved with the gods and spirits of the day.”69
Religious importance was bestowed upon
all aspect of surfing – he’e nalu (Hay-ay NA-
lu). 70 For instance, surfboard dedication
ceremonies did not end with the production of
the finished product. Duke Kahanamoku
related that, “With the board ultimately ready
for launching, the native kahuna administered
more rites, dedicating it with special prayers.
By the time the surfer took the board into the
water, it had taken on a personality and
significance which enlisted reverence from its

owner. After use in the surf, the board was always left in the sun until wholly dry, then rubbed well
with coconut oil, and hung up inside the hale (house). In fact the more exacting surfer even wrapped
the board in tapa cloth to further protect and preserve the wood.”71
It is probable that the dedication and rituals surrounding surfboards were similar to the dedication
of canoes, especially if the board belonged to a chief. According to David Malo, translated by Emerson
in 1898, “The building of a canoe was an affair of religion. They took with them to the mountains as
offerings, a pig, coconuts, kuma (red fish), and awa. Having come to the tree they sacrificed these
things to the gods with incantations and prayers and there they slept. The kahuna alone planned
out and made the measurements for the inner parts of the canoe. The inside was finished off by
means of the adze (made of lava or other stones). The ceremony of lolo, was consecrating the canoe,
in which the deity was again approached in prayer. This was done often after the canoe had returned
from an excursion at sea.”72 When one considers the vast distances Polynesians sometimes traveled
in their canoes, the dangers of the journey and the need for all possible good fortune in completing
them, no wonder there was great solemnity in their consecration.
No matter how good the board and how auspicious the ceremonies conducted around it, as
Finney and Houston remind us, “Once completed, a board is of little use to the surfer unless the surf
is running. When the ocean was flat the Hawaiians took measures to address the return of rideable
waves. If a group of surfers wanted to address the ocean, they might gather on the beach, find
strands of pohuehue (beach morning glory; Ipomoea pescaprae), swing them around their heads
together and lash the surface of the water chanting in unison.”73 One such surf chant was recorded
by Thrum, in the Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1896:

Ina‘a ‘ohe nalu, a laila aku i kai,

Penei e hea ai:
Kumai! Kumai! Ka nalu nui mai Kahiki mai,
Alo po‚i pu! Ku mai ka pohuehue,
Hu! Kai ko‚o loa.

(If there is no surf,

invoke seaward in the following manner:)
Arise! Arise, you great surfs from Kahiki,
The powerful curling waves.
Arise with pohuehue.
Well up, long raging surf.74

Even though “Some Hawaiians will swear that the ancients could make the surf rise with such
a chant and using a vine to whip the water,” Tom Blake attributed successful kahuna surf making
more to, “their power of keen observation of the weather signs, which take on certain definite
characteristics before the big surf. Such as seeing the iwa, a species of albatross, flying over land.
They come in from the sea to escape storms, which often accompany the coming of big surf... Also a
powerful surge is given by the small swells before the coming of big waves. Big surf, that is fairly
continuous, seems to run in cycles every five or seven years. Undoubtedly, the ancient kahunas who
wanted to make big surf had nothing much else to do but study these prophetic signs of coming surf
and were, no doubt, far superior to anyone today in interpreting them.” Blake added, writing in the
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 99

1930s, “Some beach boys today, occasionally make kahuna for surf, but usually miss and get chided
about their powers.”75
It’s questionable whether or not a pohuehue chant could work for us today, in Duke and Tom’s
day, or in the Hawai‘i of long ago. More certain, however, is that “wave sliding” – he’e nalu – is
thousands of years old and the boards – papa he’e nalu — we ride, today, are direct successors to the
olo, kiko’o, alaia and paipo.

THE ENDThe End of Chapter 3: Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards

Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Sources

Chapter 3 Endnotes

1 Blake, 1935, pp. 17-18.

2 Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 32.
3 Muirhead, 1962, pp. 1-2.
4 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 32.
5 Cralle, Trevor. The Surfin’ary: A Dictionary of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak, ©1991, published
by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, p. 168.
6 Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 32.
7 Finney & Houston, 1996, p. 24.
8 Finney & Houston, 1966, pp. 32-33. See also Morrison, James, p. 226. See also Finney &
Houston, 1996, p. 24.
9 Finney & Houston, 1996, p. 24.
10 Finney & Houston, 1966, p. 33.
11 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 33.
12 Ellis, William. Polynesian Researches I-IV, London, published 1831. Quoted in Surfing, The
Royal Sport of Hawaiian Kings, by Finney & Houston, ©1966, p. 33.
13 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “Moikeha at Makaiwa,” Kauai Magazine, Spring 1995, ©1995 by
H & S Publishing, Kapa’a, Kauai. Peter Buck has Moikeha at 1250 A.D.
14 Finney and Houston. See also O.B. Patterson, in Surf-Riding, ©1960. Patterson claims,
however, that surfing originated in Hawaii, p. 120.
15 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 24.
16 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 19.
17 Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe. World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New
York, NY, p. 18.
18 Fornander, Abraham. Hawaiian Folk Lore, quoted in Hawaiian Surfriders 1935, by Thomas
E. Blake, ©1983, Mountain and Sea, Redondo Beach, California. Originally titled Hawaiian Surfboard,
by Thomas E. Blake, published in 1935 by Paradise of the Pacific Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, p. 17.

Used by permission.
19 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 18. See Finney & Houston, 1996, Paki picture on page 44.
20 Kahanamoku, 1968, pp. 18-19. See also Blake, 1935, pp. 37-38.
21 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, ©1966, C.E.
Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont, p. 48. See also diagrams in Kahanamoku, 1968.
22 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport,
©1996, Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco, p. 42.
23 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 18.
24 Blake, 1935, pp. 17-18.
25 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 48. See also Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 18. Duke has the heaviest
board at 174 pounds.
26 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport,
©1996, Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco, p. 42.
27 Finney, Ben R. and Houston, James D. Surfing, A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport,
©1996, Pomegranate Artbooks, San Francisco, p. 42.
28 Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 48-49. Kulana nalu (Ku-LAH-nah NA-lu) refers to the spot
where a surfer paddles to catch a wave; the take-off spot; usually the most distant line of breakers
[Surfin’ary, p. 167, ref. F&H].
29 I‘i, John Papa quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 41.
30 Blake, 1935, pp. 46-47.
31 Blake, 1935, p. 47.
32 Blake, 1935, p. 47.
33 Surfin’ary, 1991, p. 168 references F&H.
34 Blake, 1935, pp. 17-18.
35 Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 49-50.
36 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 50.
44 I‘i, John Papa. Fragments of Hawaiian History, translated by Mary Kawena Pukui, edited by
Dorothy B. Barrer, ©1959, Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu. Quoted in Lueras, Leonard. Surfing,
The Ultimate Pleasure, ©1984, Workman Publishing, New York, NY, p. 41.
45 Browne, Bud. Surfing The 50’s, a videotape collection of the best of his films of the 1950s,
©1994. John Kelly narration.
46 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 19.
47 See Gault-Williams, Malcolm. “The Ka‘iulani Board.”
48 Kam, Betty. Email to Malcolm Gault-Williams, April 4, 2001
49 Gault-Williams, Malcolm. Interview with Wally Froiseth, May 30, 2001.
50 Hawaiian Annuals, 1896. Kona district native translated by Nakoina. See Blake, p. 44.
Pronounced O-mo. It is possible there was some confusion between references to the alaia and the
olo and that “omo” is a mis-translation of olo.
51 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 50.
52 Blake, 1935, p. 17.
53 I‘i, John Papa quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 41.
54 Heath, Kelli Ann. Fax to Fran, July 28, 2001.
55 Caton, John D. Miscellanies, published in 1880, Boston, pp. 243-244. Quoted in Finney and
Houston, 1966, p. 50.
56 Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 50.
57 Newell, Skip. “Paipo, It’s Not How Long You Make It…” from Surfing, Vol. 3, No. 1, Jan/Feb
Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards - Chapter 3 101

1970, pp. 56-59.

58 The Surfer’s Journal, “Collector’s Corner: Indiana Seymour in the Temple of Oceanian,”
Volume 4, Number 3, Fall 1995. See photos of L-120-373.
59 The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, Fall 1995.
60 The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, Fall 1995.
61 The Surfer’s Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, Fall 1995.
62 Young, Nat. History of Surfing, ©1983, Palm Beach Press, 40 Ocean Road, Palm Beach,
N.S.W. 2108, Australia, p. 31. See also Hawaiian Annuals 1896, in Blake, 1935, p. 45.
63 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 22. See also Andrews, in Blake, 1935, p. 48.
64 Blake quoting Andrews, 1935, p. 48. Andrews also offered two other names for surfboards: o-
ni-ni, a “kind of surfboard,” and pa-ha.
65 Blake quoting Andrews and Brigham, 1935, p. 48. A fathom is a measurement of 6 feet,
usually used in stating water depth.
66 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 19.
67 Thrum, Thomas G. “Hawaiian Surf Riding,” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual for 1896. Kona
native translated by Nakoina, from a Hawaiian manuscript, pp. 106-113, quoted in Blake, 1935, p.
68 Thrum, quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 41. See also Blake, 1935, p. 45.
69 Halau is the correct Hawaiian spelling for long house, as for canoes or hula instruction;
meeting house.
70 Kahanamoku, 1968, p. 20.
71 Thrum, quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 41. See also Blake, 1935, p. 45.
72 Kahanamoku, 1968, pp. 20-21.
73 Thrum, quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 41. See also Blake, 1935, p. 45.
74 Emerson, Nathaniel B. “Causes of Decline of Ancient Polynesian Sports,” The Friend, L, viii,
published 1892, pp. 57-60. Quoted in Blake, p. 45.
75 Blake, 1935, pp. 45-46.

Above: Surfer/Innovator Tom Blake with his quiver of boards, late 1920s.
Blake was the first person to help restore the original Hawaiian boards in
the Bishop Museum collection, mid-1920’s. The board directly in back of
him is an olo replica made from redwood. On Tom’s right are two alaia
replicas made from redwood and pine. The other boards are non-
traditional Blake-innovated hollowboards.