The Olo and the Alaia~Part One

‘Let’s go surfing now, everybody’s learning how, come on and safari with me…’  Those iconic words from the Beach Boys began beckoning the American public in June 1962 to experience what was then depicted through Hollywood as the ultimate California pastime.  Unknown to most at the time, and even many today, is how much surfing and the surfboard had evolved from it’s first known existence in the 6th century.   

To the early Polynesians, surfing was not just a sport or pastime it was an integral part of their culture.  Surfing was a deeply spiritual activity and surfboards were created with great ceremony honoring not only the activity but also those that rode the boards.  Those first boards were made from native woods and though simple to look at indicated the social class of the rider depending on the size and material used.  The ‘Olo’ was 14-25 feet and ridden by chiefs and the Alii or noblemen, and most of these boards were made from the Wili Wili tree.  The ‘Alaia’ was a mere 10-12 foot surfboard, ridden by the commoners and made of wood from Ula and Koa trees.  Surfing was also used as a training exercise for the Hawaiian chiefs and used in conflict resolution.  

Surfing and the surfboard didn’t make it to California until 1907 when Hawaiian George Freeth became the first professional surfer, demonstrating his skills as a publicity promotion for the Redondo-Los Angeles Railway and using his new board design. Freeth had been experimenting with the traditional surfboard design and found by cutting the board in half to a mere 8 feet it was much lighter and more maneuverable, leading the way to the solid redwood Hawaiian board of that time that ranged in size from 6 to 10 feet in length.  These redwood boards were commonly referred to as ‘planks’ due to their straight, flat shape and while lighter than the longer boards were still quite heavy compared to today’s standard.  

Ironically it was Tom Blake, a native Wisconsinite who had moved to Hawaii, who effected the next major changes in surfboard construction.  In 1926, in an effort to reduce the weight of the board and keep the 15 feet of length, he drilled hundreds of holes into a redwood surfboard and encased it with a thin board of wood on the top and bottom.  The fifteen foot surfboard now weighed a mere 100 pounds and was nicknamed the ‘Cigar Board’ by the local Hawaiians.  Initially ridiculed, the new design was quickly adopted by other surfers after witnessing the increased speed in the water and the ‘Cigar Board’ became the first mass-produced surfboard in 1930.  Not done innovating, Blake also created the first ‘fixed fin’  in 1935 which lead to more stability and maneuverability while riding a wave.   During this same time frame, Balsa wood, a much lighter wood from South America began being used in surfboard construction.  The center of the boards would be constructed of Balsa to reduce the weight of the surfboard and the rails, nose and tail would be made of Redwood for increased strength and durability. The woods were bonded together with a newly developed waterproof glue and then varnished.  With this new construction the weight of the average surfboard was further reduced to an unbelievable 60 pounds.  

It wasn’t until after World War II and the advent of new technologies the modern surfboard of today was born.  Fiberglass, plastics and styrofoam were new materials introduced through the needs of war and adopted into surfboard manufacturing.  Of these three new materials, fiberglass became the most significant for surfing. Initially, Balsa boards covered with fiberglass were created commercially before being replaced in the late 1940’s with boards made of styrofoam and thin layers of marine plywood, Balsa wood, or a Redwood stringer and then coated with fiberglass.  

The late ’50’s brought the advent of the first ‘foam’ boards and more innovation in shape, size and fins but that is a story for another day when we continue our exploration into the evolution of the surfboard.  For now, as the Beach Boys proclaimed in 1962, the surfing safari can be a reality, fueled by dreams, hope, initiative and the aloha spirit.  


‘The Complete Guide to Surfing’ by Peter Dixon

‘A Brief History of the Surfboard’ Popular Mechanics, June 12, 2012 by Erin McCarthy