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HIstory of the Surfboard

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“He’e Nalu” in Hawaiian, which more or less literally means ‘wave sliding’ or ‘gliding on waves’.

Surfing is one of the oldest continuously practiced sports on the planet. The art of wave riding is a mixture of sheer athleticism, art and culture. Much of what we know about surfing was recorded when Europeans first landed in Polynesia in the late 1700's. However, the intersection between surfing and art is over 3,000 years old. The first depictions of surfers in visual media are found in Peru. As ancient archaeology indicates, surfing can be traced back to 1000 BC on Peruvian Pacific coast. Back then, the inhabitants used hollow, buoyant reeds of the Totora plant to construct surfboards, and would glide atop the water, as portrayed in ancient pottery.

The Peruvians and Polynesians may have surfed, possibly even first, but the ancient Hawaiians made surfing an art form. To the ancient Hawaiians, surfing was much more than just a hobby. It was spiritual. In fact, ancient Hawaiians would pray to the gods for the strength and protection to tackle the giant waves. Priests would be part in the construction of boards and offer their blessing. Ancient building methods consistent with historical practices, including important rituals and offerings that was an integral part of board building.

As might be imagined, the object of all this passionate water activity was held in extremely high regard and the creation of an ancient Hawaiian surfboard was no simple thing. Around the creation of a surfboard, as with anything else made from wood (such as statuettes of gods, canoes, etc.), a very elaborate series of religious ceremonies developed. The right tree had first to be found, a process involving kahunas who would search for the correct wood, invoking the spirits for success in their task. Ceremonies were then conducted (even with relation to cutting the selected tree down) and then much subsequent ceremony would attend the actual shaping and finishing of the wood into the desired board by master craftsmen and artisans who specialized in wood products.

The final ho'okupu offering is made to recognize the new life of the wood, assuring the gods that the original life of the wood is continuing in this new form.

Before it was launched, a surfboard rceived a dedication ceremony. A “kahuna” administered more rites, dedicating it with special prayers. By the time the surfer took the board into the water, it had taken on a personality and significance which enlisted reverence from it’s owner. They use a board, which they call “papa he naru” (wave sliding-board), generally five or six feet long, and rather more than a foot wide, sometimes flat, but more frequently slightly convex on both sides. It is usually made from the wood of the erythina, stained quite black, and preserved with great care. After use, the board was always left in the sun to dry completely, then rubbed well with coconut oil and hung up inside the Hale (house).

The religious significance of the process ranked almost on a par with that attending the creation of a new, seaworthy double-hulled outrigger canoe, the creating of which commanded the utmost respect and religious ceremonial regard from the Hawaiians.

Early Twentieth Century surfer Tom Blake noted that, “The great regard of the ancient Hawaiian for his surfboard, displayed by his care in drying and oiling it and even wrapping it in tapa and hanging it in his house, gives some idea of the value and high place the surfboard had in his life.”