The First SurfboardsAlthough there has been some debate as to the true birthplace of the surfboard as there is documentation in surfboard history of Peruvian fishermen riding waves on primitive boats as far back as 3000BC, the surfboard concept as we know it was developed in Hawaii. As early as 1777, explorer Capt. James Cook recorded in his journals the sight of native Hawaiians streaming across waves on giant wooden boards. As “civilization” settled in the islands, surfboards didn’t change much. The first Alaia and Olo surfboards were made of solid wood, which made them extremely heavy. They were flat with a square tail. Surfboards were constructed using the native wood of the area. The heavy weight made boards unwieldy for anyone but the strongest and most athletic riders.
Tom Blake and the Hollow SurfboardThis general approach to surfboard construction was the norm up to 1926 when the solid construction was replaced by hollow construction which freed up crucial weight and helped increase performance to a degree. This first big step was made by Tom Blake, an innovator and waterman, who designed the first hollow surfboards using waterproof glue and plywood frame construction (called a “cigar box”). This was a quantum leap in surfboard history and development, ushering in a new era in surfing, cutting weight by as much as 20 pounds. Fred Hemmings refers to Blake as one of THE great names in surfing history while Matt Warshaw takes it a step further in his Encyclopedia of Surfing:
“While Tom Blake can’t be placed ahead of Duke Kahanomoku as the world’s most influential surfer, his contributions to the sport – in terms of board design, wave-riding technique, competition, surf photography, and literature – are in many ways more tangible.”
Besides initiating the great shift to hollow surfboards, Blake also affixed the first fin to a surfboard, which enabled greater stability and maneuverability. A direct line can be traced from the surfboards of today to these early boards created by Tom Blake. By the mid-30’s Blake’s hollow, finned boards were still heavy and sluggish by today’s standards but the momentum had begun. General board construction didn’t change again until Bob Simmons gave some curvature to the bottom of the surfboard called rocker which like a boat enabled the surfboard to flow over the surface of the ocean without catching its edges and dipping under the water. Simmons’ spoon design was the first to really utilize this concept and it soon became standard in the industry. Surfboards at this point in history were still made of balsa wood.