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by Nanea Kalani, ‘06

Surfing is a sport enjoyed worldwide, with an estimated four million surfers hitting the beach every year in the United States alone, according to a 2002 study by National Public Radio (NPR).

Like most sports, advances in technology in recent decades has had a large influence on surfing. In the last century alone, surfboards have evolved from traditional solid-wood planks, to lightweight foam boards that allow surfers to launch high above waves.

Surfing was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands around 400 A.D. by ancient Polynesians who brought the sport with them when they migrated to Hawai‘i. Surfing soon became both a sport and a way of life for Hawaiians, according to the Web site, about.com.

An integral part of this Hawaiian lifestyle was the surfboard itself. The two main boards of that time, the olo and alaia, were made of solid wood, making them virtually uncontrollable in big surf, according to thesurfingmuseum.com. Olo boards were used only by chiefs and royalty and were shaped out of Hawaiian balsa. They were usually 18 to 24 feet long and weighed up to 200 pounds, the Web site continues.

Shorter in length, the alaia board was for use by the commoners and made of koa wood.
In the 1800s, surfing in Hawai‘i was threatened by the arrival of European missionaries who viewed many Hawaiian traditions as “immoral,” including surfing.

But the sport was reintroduced to the world at the beginning of the 20th century by Olympic swimming champion and Hawaiian native, Duke Kahanamoku.

Already a surfing legend on O‘ahu, Kahanamoku traveled to California and Australia to demonstrate the sport. Kahanamoku also shared how to build the boards, inspiring new surfers to experiment with surfboard shapes and materials. Those experiments would significantly alter the sport.

Instead of standing tall and riding straight down the face of a wave in the traditional surfing stance, the smaller, lighter boards, made of foam cores covered in fiberglass, allowed surfers to change directions with ease and perform tricks on waves.

In recent decades, surfboard designs have mirrored trends in fashion and lifestyles. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, surfers rode short one- and two-finned boards and adopted a mellow groove in the water. During the early 1980s into the 90s, a three-fin design allowed riders to make more aggressive moves on waves. The next generation of surfboards are even lighter and faster. Computers are being used in the shaping process and board designs are becoming more advanced.

While surfboards have undergone a lot of changes since its beginning in ancient Hawai‘i, surfing itself hasn’t changed much. The ancient Hawaiians would drop everything to ride good waves, and for many surfers today, that attitude persists.


Above: Surfboards designed during the early 1900s were long, heavy wooden planks made of a combination of woods. A typical board was formed using white pine for the frame, Sitka Alaskan spruce for the top and sides, and fir plywood for the bottom. The large size of the boards and the lack of fins, made them virtually impossible to manuever in large surf.

Web photo


Designs over the years

Web Photo

1. Ancient Hawaiian olo board: These boards were very long, about 18 feet, and weighed up to 200 pounds, making them very difficult to control on waves. They were made of Hawaiian balsa and only for the use of royalty.
2. Ancient Hawaiian alaia surfboard: These were for use by commoners. They were usually 6 to 12 feet in length and made of koa wood.
3. Ancient Hawaiian paipo board: These boards were also made of solid wood and measured 3 to 6 feet in length. They were ridden either lying down, on the knees, or sitting. Becasue these boards were small, skill was required to ride standing up.
4. - 5. In the 1960s and 70s, surfboards were no longer made of wood, but instead were built of foam cores covered in fiberglass and designed with one or two fins to help surfers manuever the boards.
6. - 7. In the early 1980s into the 90s, a three-fin design allowed riders to make more aggressive moves on waves.





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