Imagine your surfboard defining your place in society. In Ancient Hawaii, it did.
Because surfing, or he’e nalu, was of such a spiritual magnitude in Ancient Hawaii, everything from praying for waves to the art of making boards was ritualistic. And the board you rode determined your place in the society’s pecking order.
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 further determined social classification.
Commoner surfboards came in three lengths and were mostly constructed of wood from ula and koa trees. The introductory board to he’e nalu was the paipo. 2’- 6’ in length, the finless paipos were much like today’s bellyboards and mostly ridden by women and children.
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.
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. These surfboards were very difficult to maneuver 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 very ritualistic. Kahuna would search in earnest for just the right tree. Once found, they would sacrifice a fish as an offering to the gods and then 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 and prayer was practiced by the kahuna.
First the board was rough-shaped with a tool made of hardened basalt, called an adz. Then, the wood was shaped and planed with coral or stone. Finer shaping was done with various grades of sand. Once shaped, the root of the ti plant or the stain from banana buds was applied as a form of sealant. 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 its final ritual of dedication, and only then was it offered to the sea.
Special thanks to Ron Croci for his brilliant illustrations. See more of his artwork on his website, http://www.roncroci.com.