Surf culture, SurfboardsThe History of Surfboard Design: Alaia 

-Words by Mat Arney, images by Clara Jonas (illustration), Nathan Fletcher (blueprint),

Among the first wave-riding craft developed by ancient Hawaiians (besides the Paipo and the Olo), the Alaia was the seed of what we now consider a surf-board – both in terms of aesthetics and due to the way in which it was ridden standing-up. Observed by Captain Cook when he landed in Hawaii over two centuries ago, these square-tail, round-nose, fin-less planks were shaped out of single pieces of wood and were the most versatile and widely used of the three classic. Thus, the Alaia represents a starting point of surfboard design – as well as of modern surfing as a widely practised pastime.

The Historical Context

Polynesians are known to be the first people to deliberately practice wave riding with craft that either resembled modern surfboards or at least had the catching of waves (as opposed to fishing or transportation) as their primary function. When Polynesians first landed in Hawaii, around 300 AD, bringing with them their culture of he’e nalu, they also pollinated the act of riding waves and, consequently, board-making. Although several other Polynesian colonies at the time are believed to have been engaged in the practice, only inhabitants of Tahiti and Hawaii (mostly Tahitians who had arrived during resettlement missions beginning in 1100 ad) expanded the concept of board design beyond unshaped pieces of wood or dried palm leaves, developing full-length boards that could be ridden standing up.
These first surfboards developed in Hawaii were not much more than planks made out of local wood (Koa, Ula, WillyWilly, and sometimes breadfruit). They took a long time to be built and eventually came to carry great significance within Hawaiian society, requiring a series of rituals over the course of their construction. These designs are generally divided into three groups – Paipo, Olo, and Alaia – according to their design and role in the kapu system. Out of the three models, the most widely used and the one that stands-out in the history of surfboard design was the Alaia, which surfers (both peasants and royalty alike) used to ride wave faces. With Captain Cook and his crew being the first westerners to witness the act of surfing (on an Alaia) back in 1778, and the subsequent colonization of Hawaii by the United States, the Alaia would come to be the main prototype for the ensuing developments in surfboard design, up until its very own revival after the turn of the millennium.

Why Was This Development Necessary?

Being one of the first surfboard designs ever developed, we understand that the primary reason behind their specifications, in terms of design, was primarily to ride waves, since features of the Alaia allowed surfers to ride an unbroken wave by sliding sideways across the face. Although the origins of this pass time are unknown, buy the time of European contact at the end of the 18th Century, riding waves was an important part of Polynesian life, and was practised by a large percentage of the population. Moreover, the creation and riding of surfboards were embedded in the kapu (a social code that formed the structure of Hawaiian society) and their use, beyond simply riding waves, was seen in rituals and conflict resolution. While the Paipo bellyboards were more often ridden by children, and the huge Olo boards were reserved for use by royalty only, the shorter, lighter Alaia was the board of the people. A craft versatile enough to be easily paddled through the impact zone and able to manoeuvre swiftly enough to catch waves before they crashed, these boards were the go-to design for nearly a millennia.

Who Was Involved?

Ancient Hawaiians, making the most of and readapting the cultural traditions of their Polynesian predecessors, are credited for giving birth to the concept of stand-up surfing across the face of the wave, and crystallising surfing as a culture more than just a pastime. As a monarchic system guided by the code of kapu, hierarchy was important in Hawaiian society, but in the practice of surfing all social classes were free to ride waves (with some minor restrictions here and there which often related to the use of a particular type of board or break). Likewise, board-making was carried out by all classes of people, and while theoretically this practice was laden with rites and prayers, many commoners approached it in a more unrefined manner. This accessibility to all, together with the number and variety of spots and other less tangible factors (such as a barter-based economic system) rendered a communal aura to surfing and board-making, consequently causing it to seep into all spheres of life.

Design Details

The Alaia was the point of origin for nearly all subsequent surfboard models ever created, and this position at the root of surfboard design explains why its features are overly simplistic. Adzes (simple axe-like tools) were used to rough-shape the wood into a plank, which was later “sanded” down with coral heads and pumice stones until reaching the desired shape and size. the wood of choice was either fine-grained hardwood Koa, the lighter-weight canoe-building WilliWilli, and, in some occasions, Ula or Breadfruit. To make the finished boards waterproof, coconut oil was used, or in some cases a process of burying a board in mud to seal the pores in the wood.

Normally around 7 or 8 feet in length, perhaps the most salient features of the design were its nearly straight outline, with a rounded nose, squared tail and an average thickness of around 1 inch. While the deck of an Alaia was flat, and rocker very rare, its bottom sometimes featured a slight rail-to-rail convex. Although not as fast to paddle as its big brother the Olo, the Alaia was easier to handle in the impact zone and provided enough floatation to reach the line-up and catch waves, with the upside of it being more responsive and easier to direct across the face of the wave. With no fins, the boards produced very little drag, and this combined with their heavy weight (45lbs where most modern boards weigh less than 10lbs) creates a sense of effortless gliding. Without fins, the Alaia relied on its hard-edged rails to maintain control when biting into the wave, and recent studies of old boards have revealed surprisingly refined shaping in this area. Never the less, rides consisted more of sliding sideways in what is now known as the “Lala” technique than the modern style of arcing curves down the line.


Avg Minimum Avg Maximum Length 6’ 10’ 


Nose Midpoint 15” 19” Tail Thickness 1/2” 2” Weight or Volume? 45lb 100lb

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