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"From Polynesia, With Love"

A good overview of the history of surfing is Ben Marcus' "From Polynesia, With Love: the History of Surfing from Captain Cook to the Present" - posted at the "Surfing For Life" website. I recommend it.

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When Surfboards Defined A Society

Marion Stratford has a Surfing column called "Surfing Examiner" at Los Angeles' Examiner.com. Second in his series includes some neat artwork from Ron Croci. To view the original article, along with some comments, please go to: When surfboards defined a society

When surfboards defined a society

by Marion Stratford, April 12, 2010, Examiner.com

Imagine your surfboard defining your place in society.

In Ancient Hawaii, it did.

Under the kapu system of laws, the ali’i was above all others. The ruling class surfed on one type of board, and the commoners used another. Even the type of wood used determined social classification.


Commoner surfboards came in three lengths and were mostly constructed of wood from the koa tree. The introductory board to wave riding, or he'e nalu, was the paipo. 2’- 6’ in length, the finless paipos were much like today’s bellyboards and mostly ridden by children.

Once accustomed to the rhythm of riding waves, surfers would move on to the alaia. Suitable for standup, an alaia ranged 6’ to 12’ in length and was the forerunner of today’s surfboard.

After mastering the art of surfing, commoners would advance to the kiko’o, a board 12’ to 14’ in length, and, as you can imagine, much more difficult to ride. To master one of these definitely demonstrated one’s proper place at the top of society.


The ruling class had its own board made of its own wood, the olo. 14’ to 18’ in length, not only was the olo a bigger board, but it was constructed of the more buoyant wood of the wili wili tree and further defined the class separation of kapu.

The ali’i even has their own breaks, and under kapu, any attempt by a commoner to paddle out among the elite was punishable by, among other things, death.

Surfboards were sacred, their construction ritualistic. Kahuna would search for just the right tree, sacrifice fish as an offering to the gods and stand guard over the specimen overnight under prayer.

Only after successful completion of the ritual, could the tree be felled, and once it was cut down, more sacred behavior was practiced by the kahuna.

Finer shaping was done with blocks of coral and stone..

First the board was rough-shaped with an adz. Then, the wood was shaped and planed with blocks of coral or stone. Once shaped, it was applied with a finish, such as the root of the ti plant or the stain from banana buds. The board was then treated with kukui oil to give it a glossy finish.

When the surfboard had met the kahuna’s approval, it underwent a final ritual of dedication, and only then was it offered to the sea.

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The 1800s

Aloha and welcome to this chapter of Volume 1 of LEGENDARY SURFERS.

"The 1800s: Surfing's Darkest Days" is the story of when surfing nearly died out in Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia, before it was adopted elsewhere on the planet.

The chapter itself is part of LEGENDARY SURFERS: Volume 1, (c)2005 and still in print:

LS Volume 1

About Volume 1

Although this chapter was previously only available as part of the print edition, earlier versions of it were available here in the 1990s. This iteration is the best thus far.

In the long history of surfing, the 1800s is the period most misunderstood. Many writers have boiled it down to a simple story of Christian missionaries suppressing native past times. The real story is much more complicated.

Please read and/or download the full story:


Additional Resources:

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