Hawaii, specifically Waikiki, is known as the birthplace of modern surfing. Depending on who you talk to, surfing in Hawaii dates back 500-1000 years. Some of the history is recorded from the Hawaiian tradition of using chants to share knowledge. Although it is undeniable that Hawaii is to thank for the development of surfing, Hawaiians weren’t the first to surf. Polynesians originally used surfing over 2,000 years ago as a means to get to shore. When Polynesians settled in Hawaii in the fourth century A.D. they began to use surfing as play, not work. The first recorded accounts of recreational surfing dates back to the late 1700’s. After a decline in surfing and an actual ban in Hawaii, surfing didn’t become popular worldwide until the early to mid 1900’s when Duke Kahanamoku, born August 24, 1890, elevated surfing to an international sport. As a three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer, a world-class surfer and a well-traveled actor, Duke succeeded in spreading the sport to mainland U.S. and Australia. In the 50’s and 60’s, surfing took off in the U.S., Hawaii, and Australia. By the time the 70’s rolled around, surfing was an industry. Today the surfing industry is strong and surfers are continuously pushing the sport to new levels.
The first surfboards were shaped from the trees of Koa, Wili Wili, and the Ula. The gods blessed the people of Hawaii with fine woods for making high quality surfboards. A sacrificial Redfish (Kumu) was buried at the foot of the tree that was chosen as pa-ha. The boards were sanded with coral (pokaku puna) and rough stones (oahi). Kulkui bark juice, Ti plant root, banana bud juice, burnt Pandanus and Kukui nut oil were used to treat, color and preserved the board. Some of the first surfboards were up to 15’ -18’ long and weighed over 100 lbs. Surfboards originally did not have fins (or skegs) therefore maneuverability was limited. The skeg was introduced in the 1930’s and gained popularity in the 50’s and 60’s with the rapid advancement of surfboard technology.
Surfboards are as unique as surfers themselves. Today, the varieties of shapes, styles, materials and designs are endless. Each board is made for a particular purpose – big waves, speed, advanced maneuvers etc. – and many times a surfboard is even designed for a specific break and/or surfer. Although every board has its own story, several types of boards have been invented and reinvented throughout surfing history that provide the basic templates for the countless variations seen in the ocean today.
Arguably, the first and original surfboards were the “longboard” and the “bodyboard.” Although neither term was used until the 1970s, ancient Hawaiians were riding wooden boards up to 12 feet (up to 24 feet for royalty) long before travelers from the western world saw their first surfer. The four original types of boards were the olo, kiko‘o, alaia (larger boards reserved for royalty) and paipo (for prone riding or “bodyboarding”). The original Hawaiian surfboards were made of solid planks of wood and were a centerpiece in religious as well as recreational practices. Using these heavy wooden boards, surfers could enjoy the momentum of the waves, but had limited ability to maneuver in the water. As the popularity of surfing grew and efforts were made to enhance the “ride,” the original styles of surfboards faded into the background of surfing.
Over time, surfers from around the world worked relentlessly to develop suitable equipment for riding bigger waves and for improving their ability to maneuver in the water. One of the first surfboard designs that enabled surfers to ride bigger waves and have more control of a board in the water is a board now known as a “gun.” Although the term “gun” did not emerge until the 1950s, the effort to ride bigger waves started in the 1930s, with the invention of the finless “hot curl” design. The hot curl design reduced the back end of the wooden plank and made it narrower, which reduced the tendency to lose traction and allowed for a tighter angle when riding a wave. This design initiated the movement toward “big wave” surfing, which has grown in popularity and prestige and is currently one of the major draws of modern-day surfing.
One of the most dramatic changes in surfing history was the introduction of the “shortboard,” which emerged in the 1960s and exploded in the 1970s, creating the “shortboard revolution.” The shortboard was substantially shorter and lighter than previous generations of surfboards, and its lighter synthetic materials, pointed shape and tri-fin base enabled surfers to navigate waves and execute moves in ways they had never done before. As technological advances in design and materials progressed, emphasis on “high-performance” boards and surfing grew. Other elements that drastically changed surfing as we know it are the leash, fins and Clark Foam.
Although high-performance shortboards dominated the waters for about a decade, the reinvention of the “longboard” in the late 1970s rejuvenated interest in straighter and smoother rides. The term “longboard” was given to boards of considerable size (generally over nine feet long) with rounded noses, in response to the plethora of shortboards (averaging just over six feet long).
Around the same time that longboards returned to fashion in surfing, a reinvention of prone-riding boards or “bodyboards” emerged as well. These boards were soft and pliable and meant to be ridden by lying on the belly, rather than in a standing position. Bodyboards quickly grew in popularity, especially with tourists and non-surfers, because they were cheaper and easier, and safer to ride.
In addition to these different types of surfboards – longboards, guns, shortboards and bodyboards – there are a number of boards used for hybrid sports such as windsurfing and wakeboarding. One recent spin off of the surfboard is the stand-up paddle (SUP) board. This form of surfing originated in the 1960s with surf instructors and “beach boys” who would stand up on boards and either manage large groups of people or take pictures of tourists. John “Pops” Ah Choy is known as the father of stand-up paddle surfing. SUP began with the use of standard longboards and a one-blade paddle, but its recent popularity has developed SUP into an industry of its own, being promoted as a flat-water as well as ocean sport with specially designed boards and accessories.
The adaptation of the surfboard is a reflection of a culture and industry in a constant state of change. The drive to surf bigger waves and have better rides continues to drive the evolution of surfing and propel the development of the activity, sport and culture of surfing into places we can only imagine. A look back at the stories behind the surfboards indicates that although many changes have occurred over the years, one thing remains the same; regardless of what you are standing, kneeling or laying on, it’s all about the ride.
With the advancement of plastics, fiberglass, polyeurethane, foams and epoxies, technology has played a large roll in the advancement of surfing. Surfboards have gone from a slab of wood to a product that is easily available custom-made for your size, technique, skill level, surf spot, material of choice and skin design.