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.
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.
"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.
Steve has a board to represent this era, too. It's a very special 1925 model made and owned by Tom Blake himself. It features a solid half-inch mahogany deck. "You can't even get that stuff anymore," Steve says. "I checked." It also has a brass plug at the nose of the board, which seems like it should be the tail, so it can be drained when it takes in water." He came to the board through an old character in a rest home who brought me the board from Hawaii, where it was being used as a bar in a Waikiki hotel. "This board was never varnished like most paddleboards, but was oiled with linseed oil. Check the metal deck patch. They had to add those to keep them from wearing through."
The disadvantage of paddleboards was that because of their construction they only had square rails, and therefore wouldn't turn easily, or else bit the water too quickly. So, for a while in the 1940s, the old heavy redwood planks came back into popularity, mass-produced by an outfit in California called Pacific Systems. They could sell you a board for under $39.
Then Joe Quigg developed the double-ended balsa board — the big gun shape, for big waves. The balsa was more buoyant, and was far easier to shape. Still there was no fiberglass, only varnish, and the surfers liked the soft feel of the deck — it was easy on their knees and had a good grip for their feet.
About the same time, they were beginning to experiment with fins on surfboards. When Quigg put a long fin on his gun, he complained that it made the board track out too much, it was too stiff, and it had too much directional control. In fact, they say he was dissatisfied with the whole balsa board. He said it was too fast, rode too high in the wave, and he couldn't control it. Nothing at all like the security of a 12-foot plank. Apparently, surfers weren't ready for the speed yet, and Quigg gave up on balsa boards. Steve's best specimen of a balsa board is actually a child's board, less than seven feet long. He has several balsa boards of a later era, but this is the only one without fiberglass in his collection. There's nothing very impressive about its shape, but its fin is striking. The design is so advanced that many people think this must have been added later, until they see what it's made of. It's fashioned out of some kind of cloth, mixed with wood pulp and resin, and pressed into a kind of cross between fiberboard and fiberglass. What it is, is the forerunner of modern fiberglass.
Fiberglass came into its own after World War II. Bob Simmons, whose name is still spoken with reverence among surfboard shapers, was the first to apply fiber glass to a balsa board. This genius with a crippled arm dating from a childhood bicycle accident was also the first to foil a fin hydrodynamically, the first to laminate balsa boards, the first to develop concave and convex bottoms, the first to apply rocker to the nose of a board, and the first to try many other feats of garage-style engineering wizardry. Most of the elements we think of as standard surfboard design were unheard of before Bob Simmons. We can only imagine what he might have created had he not been killed at WindanSea in 1956, when he was struck on the head in massive surf by one of his own boards.
Hanging in the center of Steve Mathias's den, where it's impossible to miss, even among all the dozens of other boards assaulting you from every direction, is his Bob Simmons spoonbill. One of the earliest fiberglass-on-balsa surfboards ever made, it was a wide tailblock, a small, foiled keel fin, and an amazing spoonbill that looks more like a wooden Chinese puzzle than any conceivable, functional, lamination job. It consists of several layers of interlocking wooden blocks laminated on top of the balsa, with the spoon-shape carved out of the mass. This board has a special indefinable quality, almost as if it had a soul crafted right into it.
Later on Bob Simmons made the first foam board, with balsa rails plywood decks, and a solid Styrofoam core. They say it amazed the surfers of the time, its light weight seeming an impossible luxury.
After Simmons, the design of surfboards passed down to experiments like Dale Velzy and Hap Jacobs who came up with the "pig" model, a fiberglassed balsa board with a wider tail than nose for easy pivoting. It became very popular and made a good name for them in the surfing world. Fins became deeper and narrower, and it wasn't long before somebody or other began fooling around with polyurethane boards. Some of them didn't work out too well, but others did, and that led to our modern boards.
"I'm not really interested in the history of foam boards," Steve says, shaking his head, "even though I ride one myself. Those old boards — they have something out foam boards don't have. Like that redwood plank. Somebody made that with his own hands. He sat down and designed it and made it with his own hands. You can look at it and see where it was worked by hand tools. Nobody but a fool would try to do that now."
But there seems to be something about that spirit of invention, begun in the days of the old-timers, which continues today, right on through to the most modern surfboard — the winger-stinger-humdinger, or whatever the gimmick of the day might be. And that spirit manifests itself again in the very thing Steve Mathias is working on now as he perfects his skateboard-with-a-handle idea.
"Come and look at this," he urges, and he grabs a skateboard with one of the homemade handles, just a crummy old piece of twine attached to a cutoff broom handle. We pass through the house, through all the eras of surfboard evolution, beyond the futuristic era of failed designs sulking behind the front door, down the driveway lined with ancient surfboard carcasses, and out into the street. There, Steve takes off on his skateboard, hopping curbs, spinning 360s, a grown man as happy as any kid could ever be.