The Alaia, an ancient wavecraft which the native Hawaiians used for surfing, has been enjoying a resurgence in modern day surfing. Being that it is one of the earliest forms of surfboard, top surfers from all over the world are using it to test their skills to see how they measure up to their predecessors, the ancient Hawaians, who called surfing 'he'enalu' (roughly translated, 'wave sliding'). But what is the story behind the Alaia and when was it first discovered?
For a start, it may be interesting to you to read one of the first written accounts of surfing. It was recorded in the journal of Captain King (one of Captain Cook's contemporaries), kept in Hawaii, and dating back 230 years. The following exerpt is dated, 'March 1779':
'But a diversion the most common is upon the Water, where there is a very great Sea, and surf breaking on the Shore. The Men sometimes 20 or 30 go without the Swell of the Surf, & lay themselves flat upon an oval piece of plan about their Size and breadth, they keep their legs close on top of it, & their Arms are us'd to guide the plank, thye wait the time of the greatest Swell that sets on Shore, & altogether push forward with their Arms to keep on its top, it sends them in with a most astonishing Velocity, & the great art is to guide the plan so as always to keep it in a proper direction on the top of the Swell, & as it alters its direct.
If the Swell drives him close to the rocks before he is overtaken by its break, he is much prais'd. On first seeing this very dangerous diversion I did not conceive it possible but that some of them must be dashed to mummy against the sharp rocks, but jus before they reach the shore, if they are very near, they quit their plank, & dive under till the Surf is broke, when the piece of plank is sent many yards by the force of the Surf from the beach. The greatest number are generally overtaken by the break of the swell, the force of which they avoid, diving and swimming under the water out of its impulse. By such like excercises, these men may be said to be almost amphibious.
The Women could swim off to the Ship, & continue half a day in the Water, & afterwards return. The above diversion is only intended as an amusement, not a tryal of skill, & in a gentle swell that sets on must I conceive be very pleasant, at least they seem to feel a great pleasure in the motion which this Exercise gives.'
Doesn't sound too different from today's surfing does is it? But it becomes even more impressive when you take into account that the boards which these pioneers of surfing were riding were nothing more than flat, finless, waxless and leashless wooden cutouts. Also, take into account the ferocity of Hawaii's surf and you begin to develop a huge respect for those wave riders of old.
Here is the breakdown of the different types of boards which were used by the Hawaiians back in the day:
- The Olo, which was a very long surfboard reserved for royalty that could be as long as 18-to-24 feet, and was made from the more lightweight and buoyant Wiliwili tree. The wood of this tree was out of bounds to the commoners.
- The Kiko`o, larger than the Alaia, but not as big as the Olo; between 12 and 18 feet; good for bigger surf, but requiring deft wave riding skills to handle it. These were made from Ulu or Koa wood.
- The Alaia, a mid-sized board, about 8 feet or longer, normally crafted from the denser Koa tree and used by commoners.
- The Paipo, used for prone surfing (the predecessor of bodyboarding), from 2-to-4 feet long, usually used by children, and fashioned from Koa or Ulu.
It's safe to say that most of the commoners (that would be me and you) would more than likely have used the Alaia. Let's face it, in today's world, what with space rocket board design, state of the art fins, wax and launch-me-ten-feet-out tail pads, we've got it easy!
You may be asking how the modern resurgence of the Alaia came about. The answer is that it is largely due to one man: Tom Wegener. One of Australia's top board shapers, Tom started to go all retro (in a big way) a few years ago and did a lot of research on early surfboards. One of the results is that we've got hot surfers like Tom Curren, Dave Rastovich, Dan Malloy and Rob Machado, to name a few, taking to the slide as ony the Alaia can offer.
Don't try the Alaia if you're addicted to throwing huge rooster tails of spray off the back of the wave - but if you wonder what pure slide and glide, zero friction and getting back to your roots might feel like, you may enjoy it.
The Alaia is all about edge control in that the rail is the only part of the board which grips the wave - having no fins means that you can spin til the cows come home, and then some. Of course, being a flat-bottomed board with no fins also means that this board has close to zero friction = super fast.
To get an idea of what it's like to ride one of these, take a look at Kai Sallas riding a 6'0 alaia in Hawaii (I thought it'd be fitting to have modern day footage from the homeland, if you know what I mean):
I'll leave the parting words to Rob Machado, which pretty much sum up the Alaia experience: "The most glide you can get in a board" - Rob Machado.