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polynesian surfriding : hawaii, 1778 

chapter 5 : hawaii, 1778-1779.

A number of reports of surfring and/or surfboards were recorded by member of James Cook's crew on the expeditions two visits to Hawaii, 1978-1979, however none can be directly attributed to Cook.

5.1 An early description by Charles Clerke, Captain 'Resolution' (1) recorded at Waimea, Kauai or Kamalino, Ni'ihau between 19th January to 2nd February, 1778 notes:

"...a thin piece of Board about 2 feet broad & 6 or 8 long, exactly in the Shape of one of our bone paper cutters; upon this they get astride with their legs, then laying their breasts along upon it, they paddle with their Hands and steer with their Feet, and gain such Way thro' the Water, that they would fairly go round the best going Boats we had in the two Ships, in spight of every Exertion of the Crew, in the space of a very few minutes." (2)

Although Clerke does not indicate the use of the boards for surfriding, but rather notes their effective use as paddleboards, no doubt they served both purposes.
The use of, even a small, board is a significant advantage to paddling speed relative to swimming speed.
Furthermore, employed as a floatation device a board can significantly reduce fatigue.
Generally, the larger the volume of a board, the greater the improvement in padding speed and distance.
Also note that if the board's volume allows the rider to sit above the water line while stationary, there is a marked improvement in their field of vision.

A 18th century bone paper cutter was a thin straight blade with bevelled edges and rounded at both ends.
Unlike the later pointed letter opener, the 18th century item was designed to break the wax that sealed correspondence, and not cut the paper. (3)
In modern parlence, the shape of a wooden ice-confection stick.

To summarize Clerke's description: a thin timber board about 24'' wide and with length varying between 6 and 8 feet, the template is essentially parrallel with rounded nose and tail.

5.2 A second report describing boards used for paddling is by William Ellis, Surgeon's Mate, 'Discovery', at Waimea, Kauai, January 1778.

"Besides these, they have another mode of conveying themselves in the water, upon very light flat pieces of boards, which we called sharkboards, from the similitude the anterior part bore to the head of that fish." (4)

In contrast to Clerke, Ellis describes the boards with a a semi-pointed nose, similar to the profile of a shark's head.
Ellis's comment on the boards' weight ("very light"), is either based on him personally handling an example or he has noted a similar report by another crew member.
The boards may have been built from willi willi (Erythrina sandwicensis) or breadfruit (ulu) (Artocarpus incisus).
These timbers will further discussed at length, below.

5.3 George Gilbert, midshipman 'Resolution', also observed Hawaiians paddling boards as an alternative to transportation by canoes.
In February 1779, Gilbert reported from Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i:

"Several of those Indians who have not got Canoes have a method of swimming upon a piece of wood nearly in the form of a blade of an oar, which is about six feet in length, sixteen inches in breadth at one end and about 9 at the other, and is four or five inches thick, in the middle, tapering down to an inch at the sides." (5)

Gilbert's description, while indicating a length at  the bottom range of Clerk's account, varies in the narrow width and a tapered template ("sixteen inches in breadth at one end and about 9 at the other").
Modern surfboard designers describe this as a foil template. (6)
The board possibly  features a rounded nose: "in the form of a blade of an oar".

The report of the board's thickness ("four or five inches thick") is significant and not indicated in the other contempoary  reports.
The convex cross-section, "tapering down to an inch at the sides", indicates a bevelled rail -probably not square and possibly either a round or a chine rail. (7)
Subsequent commentators regularly report this feature and it may be implied by Clerke's "exactly in the Shape of one of our bone paper cutters", 2.1 above.
The account later implies that members of the crew attempted to paddle the boards, without success.

"These pieces of wood are so nicely balanced that the most expert of our people at swimming could not keep upon them half a minuit without rolling off." (8)

This is consistant with Ellis' comment (above) that indicates the boards have been examined closely by some crew members and must have been held to report the weight.

5.4 Apart from the written accounts, Cook's artist, John Weber in "A View of KaraKakooa, in Owyhee" illustrated a Hawaiian paddling a surfboard for transportation as an alternative to canoes, as described by Clerke, Ellis and Gilbert, noted above.
An engraving by W. Byrne, based on an original drawing at Kealakekua Bay, 17 January 1779, was printed in the official account of the voyage, Plate 68.
The board and paddler is depicted in the image below, cropped from the much larger work.

First drawing of a surfboard, circa 1779.
 detail from 
"A View of KaraKakooa, in Owyhee."
John Webber.

An engraving based on an original drawing at Kealakekua Bay, 1779.
Printed in the official account of the voyage published in 1784, Plate 68. (9)

While it does not indicate any significant details of the board's template (unless the nose template is said to be square), the estimated dimensions closely correspond with Samwell's Kealakekua Bay report of "a thin board about six or seven foot long & about 2 broad" .

5.5 The first report of surfboard riding activity in Hawaii, is by David Samwell, Surgeon's Mate 'Discovery', at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i, dated January 22, 1779.
Samwell describes the board as:

"a thin board about six or seven foot long & about 2 broad" (10)

This is similar, if a little shorter, to the dimensions as estimated by Clerke, above.

5.6 Another journal entry descibing board riding is from Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i, March 1779, by Lt. James King of "Resolution" .
Following Cook's death on the 14th February 1779, King was promoted to first lieutenant and his duties included continuing Cook's log.
King describes the board as:

"an oval piece of plank about their Size & breadth" (11)

This appears to indicate a board approximately 6ft long and 20'' wide with a rounded nose and tail template.
The description is consistant with that of Clerke, above.

5.7 Following the return of Cook's third Pacific expedition to England on the 4th October 1780, the Admiralty selected the Reverend John Douglas to edit the logs and journals to prepare them for publication.
The first edition was published in 1784. (12)
In an entry for Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i, March 1779, a surfboard is briefly described as:

"a long narrow board, rounded at the ends" (13)

Despite the similarity in the two surfboard descriptions, there are significant differences between the two accounts of surfriding activity attributed to James King.
Finney and Houston(1996) caution that
"... the official publication ... was heavily edited by  ... Douglas ... adding marterial of his own and from other accounts of the voyage."  (14)

5.8 It should be noted that these reports provide a limitted perspective of Hawaiian surfing at the time.
Although the reports only indicate prone surfriding, undoubtedly native skills far surpased this activity and there was a greater range of board designs than those observed.

In total, the ships of Cook's third pacific expedition were anchored in Hawaiian waters for 49 days.
The longest stay was at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai'i (30 days) but much of the return visit would have been
preoccupied with Cook's violent death and its aftermath. (15)
It would appear that the most observations were probably at, or around, Kealakekua Bay.
Note that there are no reports from Hilo Bay on Hawaii or Wakiki on Ohau, apparently the two major centres of
ancient Hawaiian surf-riding. (16)

Also note that at this time of the year the predominant swell direction is the famed winter swells originating in
the North Pacific, and the extended anchorages were all on the southern coasts.
Generally, the southern coasts best surfriding conditions are with the summer swells from the southern ocean,
although some may also be exposed to winter swell from the west. (17)
If the Kona coast surfriders had been questioned as to the suitability of the conditions, their response may have
translated approximately:

  "You really missed it - you should have been here six months ago!" (18)

The one northern anchorage, at Waimea Bay on the island of Ohau, was only for one night (27 - 28 February
Given the modern reputation of this location for big wave surf-riding at this time of the year, it appears that
Clerke's decision to relocate to Waimea Bay on Kaui was sensible.

For a dramatic account of Polynesian sufriding on a coast explosed to seasonal swells, see James Morrison's account on Tahiti in 1788, 3.8.

5.9 It is important to note that all hand shaped surfboards are unique and any general reports of a board's characteristics as these would not indicate specific individual features.
Also note that craftsmen working in timber are likely to be guided to some extent by the specific chracteristics of a particular tree or piece of timber, for example splits, knots or woodrot, that may determine a board's dimensions.
Furthermore, board design could be significantly restricted if, as previously suggested, "the recycling of damaged canoes into smaller craft may have been practised in the formative era of ancient surfboard construction". (3.4)
Finally, board design may fluctuate with local conditions and/or local precedents.

5.10 The reports by Cook's crew are summarized in the following tables.

4.1 Clerke
4.2 Ellis 
4.3 Gilbert
4.4 Webber
piece of Board
blade of an oar
6 to 8 feet
6 feet
6 feet*
24 inches
16 inches
20 inches*
4 to 5 inches
Very light
Paper Cutter
Round ?**
9 inches
Bevelled ?***
Bevelled to1 inch

* Estimated from Webber's illustration.
** "nearly in the form of a blade of an oar" .
*** "exactly in the Shape of one of our bone paper cutters"
4.5 Samwell
4.6 King
4.7 King (ed)***
thin board 
oval piece of plank
long narrow board
6 to 7 feet
6 feet
24 inches
 20 inches

* King as edited by Douglas, 1784.

5.11 The accounts of Hawaiian surfboards detail four cases of their use for transportation (Clerke, Ellis, Gilbert and Weber) and three cases of prone surfriding (Samwell, King and King as edited by Douglas).
Undoubtedly, the boards observed as 'paddleboards', were also used, if not intended, for surfriding.

In all cases, the reports refer to adult (on one occassion, tandem) paddlers or riders and those that indicate an empirical length, record a consistent six foot or longer, one indicating a maximum of eight feet.

Three reports indicate a width of about 24 inches, one at 20 inches.
Since maximum board width is essentially determined by the width of the paddler's shoulders, these boards probably fell in the range of 20 to 24 inches.

Two reports indicate the board is ''thin'' , one as ''flat'' and one notes the lightweight of the timber.
The latter feature may indicate the use of willi willi, see below.

The nose is reported in four accounts as "round", and the tail as "round" in three accounts.
Samwell's distinct description of the nose profile as "the similitude the anterior part bore to the head of that fish (a shark)", resembles some early examples held by the Bishop Museum.
Ellis implies the nose and tail have identical profiles, but in the other cases both ends may be "rounded" but with differrent profiles.

5.12 Gilbert's account contrasts substantially to the other reports yet, as the most detailed, it cannot be discounted.

While the length conforms to other accounts, the width measurements may be in dispute.
It is difficult to know whether the 16 inch width ("sixteen inches in breadth at one end") indicates a measurement at the nose, and the maximum board is somewhat wider, or 16 inches is the maximum board width.
Certainly the dimensions ("and about 9 at the other") indicate a foiled template which is not recorded by the other observers.

Gilbert's dimensions certainly indicate the board in cross-section is convex, at least on one side if not both.
This feature is possibly infered by Clerke (3.1) who noted "exactly in the Shape of one of our bone paper
cutters" (my emphasis), but is not indicated in the other reports.
A convex cross-section is a noted feature of many examples of ancient Hawaiian paddles. (see 2.3, above)

The noteable difference is the  thickness.
Many later reports, and most known examples, of boards of this length note their thinness, with measurements of one and a half inches or less. (19)
Gibert's specific report "four or five inches thick, in the middle, tapering down to an inch at the sides" , contrasts markedly with (the more the general term) "thin", as used by Clerke (2.1) and Samwell (2.5).
The difference is significant and  it is hard not to conclude from the sum of the reports that there are two distinct designs identified.
One design is wide and thin, the other a narrower and thicker board.

The rationale for two distinct designs may be the result of a number, or a combination, of factors.

i. The specific chracteristics of a particular tree or piece of timber may determine a board's dimensions.(2.9)
In this case it might have been difficult to source trees of desirable width, and the volume was adjusted by shaping a thicker board.
Alternatively, if the source timber was a lighter and structually weaker variety than the common koa (that is willi willi or breadfruit), such a thickness may have been considered necessary to retain strength.
Furthermore, a lighter or structually weaker timber may be more susceptible to impregnation by seawater and a thicker board may have reduced the possibility of wood rot.

ii. board design may fluctuate with local conditions and/or local precedents. (2.9)
The narrower and thicker design may have been deemed more suitable to specific wave riding conditions.
A narrower board may be more suitable for riding in a prone position, but it is speculation if the thickness was preferred for waves with a gentle or a steep sloping face.

Note that later commentators (20) have determined  thickness (in excess of three inches) as a distinct feature of the olo board, the largest known design that reportedly extended to 18 feet in length.

polynesian surfriding : chapter 6
1. The rank and vessel allocation of Cook's crew are based on their postions up to Cook's death in 1779.
Following Cook's death, Charles Clerke assumed command of the Resolution and the expedition, with adjustments in the chain of command requiring some transfers between the two ships.

Beaglehole, J.C.:  The Life of James Cook.
Stanford University Press Stanford, California. 1974, page 675.
Original publisher : A. & C. Black, Ltd. London, 1974.

A further re-allocation of duties followed the death of Clerke in the Nothern Pacific in August 1879.
Beaglehole: Cook (1974), pages 682-683.

2. The (unaccredited) quotation was contributed in a personal email by Patrick Moser, Drury University, July 2006.
Sincere thanks to Patrick Moser for his substantial contribution to this subject.

3. Conversation with Scott Carlin, Curator, Vaucluse House, Sydney, March 2006.

4. Ellis, William : An Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke, in his Majesty's Ships Resolution and Discovery, During the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779 and 1780; In Search of a North-West Passage Between the Continents of Asia and America.
Including a Faithful Account of all their Discoveries, and the Unfortunate Death of Captain Cook, Illustrated With a Chart and a Variety of Cuts.
G. Robinson, J. Sewell and J. Debrett, London.
Two Volumes. 1782. Page?

The quotation was contributed in a personal email by Patrick Moser, Drury University, July 2006.
Sincere thanks to Patrick Moser for his substantial contribution to this subject.
The publication details were prepared by Alan Twigg,

5. GeorgeGilbert, quoted in:
Dela Vega, Timothy T. (editor):  200 Years of Surfing Literature - An Annoted Bibliography
Published by Timothy T. Dela Vega.
Produced in Hanapepe, Kaui, Hawaii. 2004 (ed, 2004), page 15.
Note, however, the quotation omits the final phrase "to an inch at the sides."
The full quotation was contributed in a personal email by Patrick Moser, Drury University, July 2006.
Sincere thanks to Patrick Moser for his substantial contributions to this subject.

The original quotation is possibly in
 Holmes, Christine(editor): Captain Cook's Final Voyage: The Journal of Midshipman George Gilbert.
Caliban Books, Horsham, Sussex.
University of Hawaii Press. 1982. Page?

6. Surfboard rails, the left and right edges of the board’s template,  blend together the deck and bottom shapes.
Rail shape is basically determined by the board thickness at any given point and in many examples the rail profile subtlely varies through a range of shapes longitudinally from the nose to the tail.
They are the most difficult feature of surfboard design to describe and/or measure.
There are three basic rail shapes:

Most common on hollow timber boards, c 1935-1955.
A continuous curve 
from deck to bottom.
Deck and bottom profiles 
meet at a distinct edge.

* The double chine rail is a common feature on modern body boards, generically termed Boogie boards.

Rail profiles also vary in elevation, relative to the centre of the board's profile between the deck and bottom.

Mid Rail. 
High Rail.
         Low Rail.

7. There are three basic template shapes, essentially determined by the location of the widest point.
Adjustment of the wide point varies the ratio of nose area to tail area.
template / plan shape / outline / profile
1. The two external curves that proscribe the outer dimensions of a board when viewed in plan, either the deck or the bottom.

Standard (or Common).
The wide point (Wp) is located close to the mid point (Mp) of the board. (Wp = 0)
Most obvious in the Double Ender, but the nose and tail templates do not have to be, and often are not, similar.

The wide point is located towards to the nose of he board, forward of the mid point. (+ve Wp)
Also commonly called a Gun template, the template was classically associated with high speed on large waves.

The wide point is located towards to the tail of he board, rear of the mid point. (-ve Wp)
The template was classically associated with high manoureability on small waves.
The name first used commercially by Dale Velsey, circa 1956.

www.surfresearch.com.au glossary

These three basic designs were possibly first identified has having different hydrodynamic proprties by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1515.

Image right:
"Hydrodynamic design of Boats and Fishes",
based on Institut de France, Paris, 1510-1515.
Fig 83. page 306

From the top: Foil, Pig and Double-Ender.
The additional markings on the Foil (top) represent the water vortexes created by the drag of the hull.


8. Gilbert in  Dela Vega et. al: Surf Literature (2004), page 15.

9. Cook, James and King, James: A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean Undertaken by Command of his Majesty For Making Discoveries in The Northern Hemisphere Performed Under Captains Cooke, Clerke, Gore in Years 1776, 1777, 1778, and 1780, being a copious and Satisfactorary Abridgement.
Douglas, Reverend John (editor)
G. Nicholl and T. Cadell, London, 1784. Plate 68.

The image may also apear in subsequent editions, see publishing details below, point 10.
The full and/or the cropped image have been extensively reproduced, including:

Beaglehole, John C. (editor) : The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776 - 1780.
Cambridge Hakluyt Society, Two Volumes.
Volume 1, 1967. Plate/page???

Finney, Ben and Houston James D.:  Surfing – The Sport of Hawaiian Kings.
Charles E. Tuttle Company Inc.
Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan.1966.  Plate 1, between pages 14 and 15.

Margan, Frank and Finney, Ben R.: A Pictorial History of Surfing.
Paul Hamlyn Pty Ltd, 176 South Creek Road,
Dee Why West, NSW 2099. 1970.  pages 20 - 21.

Young, Nat with McGregor, Craig: The History 0f Surfing.
Palm Beach Press, 40 Palm Beach Road,
Palm Beach NSW 2108. 1983. page 33.

Lueras, Leonard: Surfing - The Ultimate Pleasure.
Workman Publishing
1 West 39 Street New York, NY 10018. 1984. pages 44 - 45 and 47.

Kampion, Drew:: Stoked : A History of Surf Culture.
 General Publishing Group
Los Angles. 1997. Second edition 1998. page 32.

Finney, Ben and Houston, James D.: Surfing – A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport.
Pomegranate Books
P.O. Box 6099 Rohnert Park, CA 94927,1996,  Appendix B, page 12.

Dela Vega et. al: Surf Literature (2004), page 15.

10. Quoted in:
Aughton, Peter : The Fatal Voyage - Captain Cook's Last Journey.
Arris Publishing Ltd. 12 Main Street, Adlestrop, Moreton in Marsh
Gloustershire GL56 0YN.  2005. Pages 146 and 147.
Referenced as "Samwell page 1164".

11. Beaglehole: Voyages(1967) Volume 1, 1967, page 268.

The quotation is reprinted in
Finney and Houston: Surfing (1996) Appendix B. Page 97.

12. Alan Twigg details the history of the publication of Cook's journals on his web page, The British Columbia Bookworld Author Bank:
"The British Admiralty published an edited account of Cook’s voyages in three quarto volumes and a large atlas in 1784-1785, now generally known as 'A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean'.
The journals were heavily edited by Dr. John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury.
As commissioned by the Lords of the Admiralty, Douglas embellished much of Cook’s original journals with material gleaned from Cook’s officers.
In particular, Douglas extrapolated from Cook’s reports of ritualistic dismemberment among the Nootka, beginning the belief that the Indians engaged in cannibalism when Cook had, in fact, described them as “docile, courteous, good-natured people.”
Some of the more sensational revelations added to the text were designed to encourage the spreading of “the blessings of civilization” among the heathens and to help sell books.

For almost 200 years Douglas’ version of Cook’s writings was erroneously accepted as Cook’s own.
Cook’s journal, with its bloody ending supplied by James King, proved popular.
Within three days of its publication in 1784, the first printing was sold out.
There were five additional printings that year, plus 14 more by the turn of the century.
Translations were made throughout Europe.
The original version of Cook’s journal was edited by J.C. Beaglehole and finally published for scholars in the 1960s.
It reveals that Cook was a somewhat dull reporter, more interested in geography than anthropology."

13. Cook and King: Voyage (1784) pages 145 to 147.

A second edition compiled by another editor followed.
Cook, James and King, James: A New, Authentic and Complete Collection of Voyages Round the World, Undertaken and Performed by Royal Authority. Containing an Authentic, Entertaining, Full, and Complete History of Capt. Cook's First, Second, Third and Last Voyages.
Anderson, George William (editor).
(London, 1784-1786).

Several translations were published, one example being
Neueste Reisebeschreibungen; oder, Jakob Cook's dritte und letzte Reise . . . in den Jahren 1776 bis 1780.
Nuremberg, 1786.

The quotation is reproduced in
Finney and Houston: Surfing (1996) Chapter 3. pages 36-37.

14. Finney and Houston: Surfing (1996)   Footnote, Page 32.

15. Robson, John: Captain Cook's World -  Maps of the life and Voyages of James Cook R. N.
Random House New Zealand
18 Polard Road, Glenfield, Auckland, New Zealand. 2000.

Information specifically relevant to Hawaii is on pages 154 to 155, pages 159 to 160 and the
maps 3.12, 3.23, 3.24 and 3.25.
This is a unique work with a wealth of information in the form of maps, providing a wonderful geographical
context to Cook's voyages that is simply not possible from written accounts.

16. Finney and Houston: Surfing (1996)  pages 28 to31.
Eight ancient surfing locations are identified at Waikiki and Honolulu on Oahu (page 30), seven at Hilo, Hawai'i (page 28).

17."Winter (November-February) swells are born from fierce storms in the north and west Pacific.
These powerful swells generate strong surf along the NORTH, WEST, and EASTERN shorelines.
During summer months (May-August), waves are generated from storms located in the south Pacific where winter is in full force.
These warm, blue swells will cause surf along any shoreline with a southerly exposure."

Wright, Bank (Wright Jr, Alan B.): Surfing Hawaii
Mountain and Sea
P.O. Box 64 Redondo Beach, California 90277. 1971 Page 9.

"Common swell directions, Hawaiian Islands."
Illustration by Bill Penarosa.

Wright, Bank (Wright Jr, Alan B.): Surfing Hawaii 
Mountain and Sea 
P.O. Box 64 Redondo Beach, California 90277. 
1971 Page 9.

18. Noted surf movie producer, Bruce Brown used the, now classic, surfing comment "You really missed it, you should have been here yesterday!" throughout his ground breaking surfing film The Endless Summer (1966), but on one occassion (speaking for Rodney Sumpter at Bells Beach, Australia) the line was adjusted to "You really missed it, you should have been here six months ago!" .
Californian surfer Phil Edwards featured in Brown's films and incorporated a version of the line into the title of his 1967 book.

Edwards, Phil with Ottum, Bob: You Should Have Been Here An Hour Ago
-  The Stoked Side of Surfing or How To Hang Ten Through Life and Stay Happy
 Harper and Rowe 49 East  33rd Street New York, NY 10016.1967

19. Circa 1878, extremely thin boards were noted by John Dean Caton, who estimated a thickness of "about three quarters of an inch thick."
Caton, John Dean: Miscellanies.
Houghton, Osgood & Co. Boston,1880, page 243

20. The earliest account that identifies the two distinct surfboard designs (one "broad and flat", the other "narrower")  is by the native Hawaiian historian David Malo, circa 1838.
Malo, David: Hawaiian Antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii).
Bernice P. Bishop Museum,
1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Originally composed between 1835 and 1838.
Translated from the Hawaiian by Nathaniel B. Emerson, 1889.
First published 1901.
Second Edition:  Special Publication 2, 1951.
Reprinted 1971, 1976, 1980, 1991, 1992, 1997, 2005, page 223.

The two designs are identified by their Hawaiian names by another native historian John Papa I'i, circa 1870:
"The 'olo' is thick in the middle and grows thinner toward the edges."
"The 'alaia' board, ... , is thin and wide in front."

I'i, John Papa: Fragments of Hawaiian History.
Bernice P. Bishop Museum,
1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, Hawaii. 968117
Originally printed in a series of articles 1866-1870, written and published in the native Hawaiian language.
First English translation printed 1959.
Second printing 1963, Third printing 1973.
Revised edition 1983 as Special publication 70.
Second revised edition 1993. Sixth printing 1995, page 135.

Note that I'i also identifies a third design ("The 'kiko'o' reaches a length of 12 to 18 feet") although its status is questionable and it may be a long vesion of the olo.
For an expanded discusion of John I'i's account, see 7.6 below.

polynesian surfriding : chapter 6

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