One of the coolest aspects of surfing is that it is a literal embodiment of the past in the present. It is one of the few sports that existed hundreds of years ago that is not only still enjoyed today, but which has seen its popularity only continue to grow.
As best we know, the sport started with Polynesian islanders sometime in the sixth century; it was a sport for one and all, but back then, size mattered. Chiefs and nobles would ride massive, 25-foot wooden boards whereas common folk would be limited to puny 7 footers. In either case, the boards were ridiculously heavy, ranging from 70 to upwards of 150 pounds.
Polynesians saw surfing as a highly spiritual affair, a means for everything from communicating with deities to resolving earthly conflicts. In Hawaii, there were two main types of boards, the Olo (for chiefs and noblemen) and the Alaia (for commoners).
How They Were Made
The boards were fashioned from the wood of the Willi Willi, Ula, and Koa trees, using something called an Adz blade, a razor sharp piece of basalt tied to a wooden handle with coconut Senet. When the Hawaiians would make canoes, they would use the Koa log, but during the canoe shaping, they would split the sides off the log and it was this Koa wood that would be used for surfboards.
After they split off the Koa wood for the board, they would shape the board using the Adz blade. The board would then go through a long smoothing process, beginning by scraping the board with coral before moving on to using various grades of sand. Finally, the board would be smoothed using water and shark skin. Finally, a coat of Kukui nut oil was applied to the board and voila, the Hawaiians were ready to hit the waves.
These solid wood boards, with no fins or rocker, were the ones being used when Captain Cook made landfall on Hawaii in 1777 and became the first European to partake in the ancient art of surfing. After Cook’s arrival, the surfboard would change little in the next 200 years (despite the European presence on the islands all but eradicating the sport), with solid wood boards still being used well into the 1930s.
The Evolution of the Wooden Surfboard
In 1926 however, surfing experienced a revolution when national swimming champ Tom Blake introduced the hollow wooden board to the world. While still heavy (hollow wood boards weighed around 40 pounds), Blake’s new boards quickly replaced their solid counterparts, if for no other reason than the fact that they were lighter.
The hollow boards were still finless and as a result hard to control; that is until Blake forever changed surfing again by adding a fin to his hollow board. According to Blake, he immediately noticed that adding a fin allowed him to paddle in a straighter line and exercise more control over the board while surfing, although at first he thought he was imagining it. His invention really paid off in 1949 however, when Bob Simmons introduced the rocker to the surfboard and officially inaugurated the era of modern surfboards.