Pacific Polynesians are credited with being the first to surf and were behind the development of the first wooden surfboards which were made from solid wood. As it is today, Hawaii was the epicentre of the surfing world. The most commonly used wood surfboard was the same finless ‘alaia’ board that is making a comeback today, but wood surfboards for larger waves could be up to 18 feet in length. According to www.woodsurfboards.com, the old wood boards looked like “big elongated tomb stones”, weighing in excess of 100 pounds.
A significant innovation was the Tom Blake Hollow Surfboard, first produced in the late 1920s – early 1930s. It was still a wood surfboard but because of the hollow construction it was lighter. Blake is credited as making the “single largest leap forward for the art of surfing in hundreds of years”, but the introduction of the first foam boards in the 1950s, which were lighter and more manouvorable, put an end to the era of the wood surfboard.
In South Africa, surfing began on wood surfboards. Muizenberg was a centre of the surfing culture at the turn of the last century. One interesting piece of trivia is that Agatha Christie (author of 80 novels and believed to be the best-selling writer of books of all time) learnt to surf on wood surfboards at Muizenberg beach.
According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, research by Pete Robinson, founder of the Devon-based Museum of British Surfing, suggests Christie and her first husband, Archie, may have been among the first Britons to learn how to surf standing up. In January 1922, says the report, the couple left their young daughter in the care of Agatha’s mother and sister. They arrived in South Africa in early February and were introduced to surfing at Muizenberg beach.
Christie wrote at the time: “The surf boards in South Africa were made of light, thin wood, easy to carry, and one soon got the knack of coming in on the waves.
“It was occasionally painful as you took a nosedive down into the sand, but on the whole it was an easy sport and great fun.” Seems like nothing’s changed, hey?
Interestingly, this matches with another historical snippet from around this time that I picked up in the book Bay Between the Mountains by Aderne Tredgold. I read it some time ago, but the book is a history of False Bay and from what I remember Tredgold writes that early surfing pioneers at Muizenberg beach actually wrote to Hawaiian royalty in the early 1900′s asking for advice on how to make the best surfboards. Apparently, he claims, they received a reply and used the information they were given to build surfboards that they rode at Muizenberg.
Fast forward to the 1950s and wood surfboards were still very much a part of South African surfing. In search of anti-nuke stickers on an epic surf trip to J-Bay I was stoked to stumble across a classic hollow wooden surfboard in the Country Feeling surf shop. It was built by the legendary John Whitmore, widely considered to be the father of surfing in South Africa.
It’s likely that the board dated back to the 1950s. The story on Legendary Surfers is that Whitmore was paging through South Africa’s skindiving magazine Findiver when he saw a photograph of three surfers on a wave at Makaha – now thought to be the Woody Brown, George Downing and Buzzy Trent and dating back to 1953. The story goes that Whitmore wrote to Findiver asking for information on surfboard materials and shapes, following which he built hollow wooden plywood boards, which had earlier been invented by Tom Blake.
And then came foam and the end of era of wood surfboards for nearly 50 years.
But wood surfboards are making a comeback though. There’s a thriving subculture in hollow wooden surfboards all around the globe. Hobbyists are making wood boards in their garages or living rooms. And around the world, builders have launched companies building and selling hollow wooden surfboards. Probably best known are Grain Surfboards in Maine US, but they are joined by Cedar Surfboards in Ireland, Grown Surfboards in Australia and Siebert Woodcraft Surfboards in Brazil. These efforts are joined by Burnett Surfboards in South Africa.
It’s debatable what has led the return to wood, but there’s a few factors to consider. Climate change has become a key global issue and raised awareness about environmental issues and the fact that the surfboard manufacturing industry isn’t exactly green. This has sparked interest in alternative materials. This has gone hand in hand – or perhaps been a result of – a greater degree of experimentation in surfboard riding and a willingness to look to surfboard shapes from bygone eras for inspiration and innovation.