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.
Splitting a Koa log.
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.
Shaping the Koa blank with an Adz.
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.
Special thanks to Ron Croci for his brilliant illustrations. Check out more of his art by visiting his website.