It's hard to believe a plank of wood could engender a whole way of life that includes music, an esoteric vocabulary, even a form of spirituality. But when it's used to ride the waves, that plank becomes a surfboard-companion, conveyance, totem, talisman. And if anyone thinks surfing was invented by The Beach Boys, here's a news flash: Hawaiians have been surfing for hundreds of years. What's more, the pursuit has always held the same mysterious mix of recreational sport and sacred ritual for them as it does for blond-haired, blue-eyed dudes today. It must be something in the water.
Some rudimentary form of surfing was practiced throughout a wide area of the Pacific that triangles from Hawaii at the northernmost point to New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island (Rapa Nui to the locals) in the southeast. Tahitians also partook. But the big Kahunas of the board were the people who, funny enough, invented the term "big Kahuna."
Being blessed with all sorts of coastal features, Hawaii is still the surfers' mecca. These myriad topographical gifts lend themselves to seas that invite beginners and challenge masters. The Papa he'e nalu, forerunner to the iconic longboard, was made from woods such as koa, varying in length and weighing 200 pounds or more. Common folk would ride the waves with an Alaia (about 10 to 12 feet long), while tribal chiefs and royalty paddled out on an Olo (about 14 to 16 feet long).
Yes, even dignitaries would jazz the glass. Surfing enjoyed an exalted status. Ceremonies built up around the construction of a board, prayers were made for ideal conditions. Entire villages would forsake their everyday duties to go frolic in the foam. By the time Captain Cook arrived in the late 18th century (his diary was the first written document to mention surfing), the Hawaiians' boarding skills were already impressive.
Missionaries came in Cook's wake and surfing became a dying art under the influence of dour north European religious views. It wasn't until the early 20th century that a renaissance began. Thanks to modern transportation and communications, the surfboard was about to catch its biggest wave.
George Freeth moved to the mainland, set up home on the West Coast and became the world's first pro surfer. Young Californians embraced the new craze and added their own spin. One archetypal longboard is called the Malibu.
Experiments were made in construction and shape. In many ways, the quest for less weight, more strength, stability and maneuverability mirror efforts in the car industry. Islander Tom Blake drilled holes in redwood to lose bulk, then sandwiched it with marine plywood using new-fangled waterproof glue. This became the template for the first mass-produced surfboard. In 1935, Blake added a fin (or skeg) on the underside at the tail end. Balsa wood became popular; after World War II came the use of fiberglass (Pete Peterson made the first fiberglass board in 1946) and polyurethane foams.
Toward the end of the '60s, longboards fell out of favor to shortboards, even though they are easier for novices (less effort when paddling out to sea and they catch waves better). Shortboards allow for faster transitions, requiring a more strenuous, physical style.
Longboards resurfaced in the '90s, due in part to older guys going back into the water. This created a schism, yet the way of the wave warrior is essentially laissez-faire. Many surfers use both, their choice determined by how the swell is at the time. Think of a longboard as a luxury sedan; there's a gliding quality to it. A shortboard is more like a hyperactive sports car, like a Lotus Exige.