Steve Mathias decorates his house with surfboards the way you or I might decorate our houses with furniture, paintings, or plants. They line his driveway, border his shrubs, greet you at the front door. Rotting noses, tails, and bodies of ancestral boards are strewn in the flower beds like mulch. Some of them have found their way to the roof, where they turn to yellow and finally brown, decaying like ritual sacrifices to the Great Kahuna. Inside the house surfboards hang from the rafters and from the walls. They fill closets, corners, and floor space as if they were freeloading relatives who've come to stay. Wild, experimental models of yellow and red with tubular fins, beak noses, and notched rails occupy a corner that looks like it might be the prop storage for some science-fiction movie. Steve simply likes surfboards.
"How do you explain why you do something?" he says, standing over the kitchen stove where he's melting the ends of three-foot nylon ropes and tying them onto rubber handles. At this moment he's at work on a new attachment for skateboards that he has dreamed up: fasten the rope through the center of the board, hold the handle about waist-high, and you can hop onto curbs and over obstacles, execute perfect in-flight 360s, or do almost anything else you can imagine on a skateboard with a handle. "I guess I've been accumulating foam boards ever since I started surfing, about 1960, but it's these old boards I'm interested in now, and I haven't been collecting them very long," he says, interrupting his work.
"I started reading about the old-timers — Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Joe Quigg — and about the huge planks they rode. I guess I realized that something as large as those old boards doesn't just disappear, but I had no idea they were lying around in people's garages. I checked around in people's garages. I checked around with some of the old surfers and with my friends, and I found that some of the old boards were still around, but there was no value placed on them. Nobody could ride them because they were too heavy and hardly anybody had thought of them as collector's items. By this time I knew what to look for, and one thing just led to another."
The first surfboards, from Hawaii of course, were made out of whole trees — Koa if you could get it, because it's so light and strong. The technique was to burn and scrape it with stone tools until you got the shape you wanted. The royalty rode full-length boards called Olos, which were 12, 16, even 20 feet long. The commoners rode short, flat boards that were really no more than an aid to body surfing, something like a bellyboard, they were called Alaias. The royalty were said to have competed in surfing contests in which gambling became quite heavy, and they frequently offered human sacrifices in the hope of gaining surfing skill.
Steve owns an Alaia, a commoner's board, which represents this early era. He acquired it from a man who had bought it some time ago in a junk shop in Hawaii along with a tiki of monkeypod wood which he also wanted to unload. Steve was only interested in the Alaia.
Upon seeing this board, you're immediately struck by the crudeness of it. You can still see the gouges, burn marks, and other irregularities in its surface. On the bottom is chiseled a curious washboard pattern that leads you to wonder if maybe the board didn't degenerate into a mere utilitarian household item in its later days.
Sometime in the early 1800s, the Hawaiians began making their boards from redwood and mahogany which they acquired from trade ships crowding their harbors. If they couldn't get enough redwood or mahogany, they used whatever was on hand, laminating the pieces into long, beautiful, square-tailed boards fashioned after the old Olos. For many years this was the only surfboard, the kind Duke Kahanamoku and everybody else rode. They had no fins, sometimes a V-shaped bottom, and weighed 130 pounds. They weren't varnished either, but were rubbed with coconut oil.
Steve came across one of these boards through another collector. It's a 12-footer made in 1915. One day, contemplating the thing hanging there one his wall, he received an inspiration to try it out in the water.
"You wouldn't believe the gawks I got just carrying it down the stairs to Grandview. It was a mild day, glassy, with a two-to-four foot swell. I didn't use any wax, because they didn't use any back then. When I paddled out I realized it had tremendous momentum. It was hard to get the thing moving, but then it really cruised. When I came to a wave on my way out, it didn't ride over the top like boards do now, but punched right on through the trough and out the back of the wave.
"When I was outside the surfline, I paddled almost to the kelp, turned around and caught a wave twice as far out as the other guys in the water. The wide tailblock seemed to catch the wave by itself, lifting the board and driving it forward. I dragged one arm in the water and it turned easily. I stood up and moved to the back of the board with nearly 12 feet of redwood, rockerless plank in front of me. I had to yell ahead to the other surfers to stay out of my way. I found that because of the V-bottom I could climb and drop on the wave at will. Finally I couldn't control it, and the board started to pearl. It is impossible to stop one of these boards once it starts its pearl. I bailed out, the board hit bottom and cracked the nose slightly. I have no doubt that many redwood boards were blasted to shreds like that.
The first real innovation in surfboard design came in the late '20s and early '30s when Tom Blake developed the hollow paddleboard, called a "coffin" or "Kuk-box," with a ribbed inner construction covered with plywood, held together by screws, and caulked with string. Its major advantage was that it only weighed 100 pounds, and almost immediately surfers began switching to them.