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Compare-Contrast-Connect: The Origin and Diversity of Surf Crafts

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts

The first written accounts of surfing in the Pacific ocean basin came from the journals of Captain James Cook in 1769. Although the exact origin of surfing is unknown, European explorers documented people riding waves throughout the Pacific ocean basin, including in New Zealand, Marquesas, Melanesia, Tahiti, Micronesia, and Hawai‘i. Most of the early documented surfboards were made of wood. These wooden boards were generally less than 2 m in length and narrow, and were probably used for riding mostly in a prone or lying down position.


SF Fig. 4.1. A Hawaiian surfer with an alaia board on Waikiki Beach, O‘ahu, in 1898

Image by Frank Davey, courtesy of Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum

In Hawai‘i, 18th century European explorers also documented a range of early surfboards made for different styles of riders and different types of waves (SF Fig. 4.1). The small paipo was about 1 m long and used for riding in the prone position. The alaia was slightly larger, 2–4 m, and could be ridden ina standing position in a variety of waves. In larger waves, the Hawaiians surfed boards known as kiko‘o, which were about 4–6 m long. The largest of the traditional wood surfboards were called olo. These boards are believed to have been 6–8 m in length, and they were reserved under penalty of death for the exclusive use of Hawaiian royalty. Modern day surfers have quivers with a range of board lengths (SF Fig 4.2 A), construction, and shape (SF Fig 4.2 B) for various conditions.

SF Fig. 4.2. (A) The quiver of a professional surfer, Evan Valiere. He models his quiver of high-performance short boards (from 5’10" tall) and longer boards (up to 10’5”). The longer ones, also known as “guns”, are made for catching large, outer reef waves (such as those that break at Waiamea Bay on Oahu, Hawaii). Notice also the variety of tail shapes, from blunt “squash”, to rounded pin, to v-shaped “fish” tails.

Photo by Brittney Valverde

SF Fig. 4.2. (B) A versatile surf quiver can include many types of crafts, for example the quiver shown here includes a 14’ prone paddleboard, a 12’6” standup paddleboard and paddle, a 9’ long board, a 8’ gun surfboard, a 5’8” tow surfboard with straps, a 5’8” fish surfboard, s 5’9” shortboard, s 3’6" body board, s 6’ retro fish surfboard, s 1.5’ mini body board, orange surf fins, s wooden hand plane for body surfing, s 6’5” foam fish surfboard, s 3’1” bodyboard, and yellow surf fins.

Photo by Kanesa Duncan Seraphin

Early Hawaiian wooden surfboards were probably made from any tree large enough to construct a surfboard, including ulu (breadfruit), koa (Hawaiian acacia), and wiliwili (Hawaiian coral tree). An alaia board might weigh as much as 45 kg yet float easily.


SF Fig. 4.3. Surfboard features outlined in this diagram, including the nose, rails, fins, and tail shape, all contribute to the overall design of the board.

Image courtesy of K. D. Schroeder, Wikimedia Commons

Today, people around the world catch waves on a wide variety of surf craft, including handplanes, body boards, surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes (SF Fig. 4.2 B). These surf crafts are made from materials such as wood, foam, fiberglass, epoxy, and rubber. Surf crafts also have a variety of features that enhance surfing performance and enjoyment. Features include nose shape, rail (side) shape, bottom contour (e.g., concave, convex, double concave), tail shape, and deck contour (SF Fig. 4.3). In addition, surf craft have fins of various types (e.g., long, short, curved, or straight) in various orientations (e.g., fixed or moveable) and in varying numbers (e.g., one, two, three, four, etc.). The variety of surf crafts is as diverse as the people who ride waves and as diverse as waves themselves; people surf waves of all different shapes and sizes, from 1 m spilling breakers to 20 m plunging breakers.


Question Set
  1. What do you think are some of the pros and cons of using different materials such as wood or fiberglass for surfboards?
  2. Research how features like nose shape and bottom contour affect how boards perform in different surfing conditions.
  3. What size board do you think is best for beginners? What size board is best for small waves? Large waves? Explain your answers.
Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.