Ancient Olo Surfboard
Wood surfboards of some type may have been used in different parts of the world several thousand years B.C. However, for purposes of this discussion, we'll focus on the wood surfboards of the Pacific and in particular the ancient Hawaiian surfboard.
It is widely accepted that the first Polynesians of the Pacific were the first to surf on a wave and the first to make major advances in surfboard design and the art of surfing.
The early Polynesians from as early as 2,000 B.C. were able to not only negotiate the seas, but also able to locate a small dot (island) in the middle of the largest ocean on the planet.
Because of the early Polynesians' intimate knowedge of the ocean, it is not a surprise they developed all manner of ocean going vehicles including the earliest wood surfboards.
The first recorded accounts of surfing came from the journals of Captain James Cook in 1776. Many other written accounts followed.
Various type of wood surfboards and styles of surfing were witnessed in New Zealand, Marquesas, Melanesia, Tahiti, Micronesia and of course, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
It was also observed and noted in the early experts journals that the Hawaiian surfboards and surfers were superior to all others.
Wood surfboards built throughout most the Pacific, outside of Hawaii were generally under 6' in length and also quite narrow; probably used for riding in a prone position.
Only in Hawaii were the old wood surfboards made in all sizes to accomodate all sizes of riders, style of riding and type of wave. The small 'paipo' was in the 2'-5' range and used for riding in the prone position. The most commonly used wood surfboard was probably the 'alaia' board that was usually between 6'-12' and could be ridden in most of the waves being ridden in the day.
The wood surfboards built for the larger waves were known as 'Kiko'o' and would be 12' to 18' and possibly larger.
The largest of the Hawaiian wood surfboards, reserved for royalty was the 'Olo' board. These were the giants of the day at 18' and believed to have reached lengths of 25 feet.
Pre-contact Hawaiian wood surfboards were probably made of any wood large enough to construct a surfboard. However, the three primary woods used were Ulu (bread-fruit), Koa (Hawaiian Mahogany) and Wili-Wili (Hawaiian Balsa). Wili-Wili was reserved only for royalty and was kapu to commoners.
It's also possible that other woods like the giant California Redwood may have washed up on the shores of Hawaii and would have probably been used to make canoes and surfboards.
Hawaiian wood surfboards were the grandfathers of todays modern foam & fiberglass boards.
Surf History Preservation Collection
P.O. Box 5637 Hilo, Hawaii 96720
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Different styles of early wood surfboards :
Ancient Hawaiian Olo Breadfruit
Ancient Hawaiian Alaia Koa
1890's Hawaiian Plank w/ metal
Waikiki Redwood Plank
Balsa, Redwood & Pine
Tom Blake 'Catalina' Hollow
Makaha Redwood Hot Curl
Hawaiian 'Aloha' bellyboard
Bob Shepherd Sunset Beach Balsa
Greg Noll Balsa
Pat Curren Balsa & Redwood Gun
Velzy - Jacobs Balsa Pig
Surfboards Hawaii Balsa Gun
Diffenderfer Chambered Balsa