Words by: Tom Pohaku Stone Photography by: David Pu’u
You know, people ask me, “How did you learn to surf?” and, “What was your first surfboard?” Well, that can be a long tale on both ends. My story isn’t so much about who taught me to surf or to make wood boards; rather, it is about those who inspired me to do those things. From a very Hawaiian perspective, I was born to surf. The ocean is in my blood, and my entire life has revolved (both knowingly and unknowingly) around that component of my cultural self. Of course, surfing is nothing new in the Hawaiian Islands. Surfing was (and is) just something Hawaiians did daily. It is as much a part of our life as hula and our language. Hawaiians are an ocean people – it is only natural that we did, and still do, gravitate to the waves.
Change came with the missionary disapproval of such frivolous and lascivious pastimes and was compounded by our great dying. We Hawaiians were willing to give up our native practices to believe in a god that would give us everlasting life, to change the very essence of our way of life for ‘salvation’. Little did we know that we’d be giving up more than our ancient traditions, that our culture would be sold to the highest bidder (tourism), and our lands would be ripped away from us. One could even say that surfing and the Hawaiian lifestyle was the focal point of tourism, and surfing is still what brings people to these islands today. Despite the changes my ‘ohana (extended family), like many other Hawaiians, were still enjoying the happy side of our culture – surfing, unknowingly preserving our way of life for future generations.
Have I come full circle in my surfing? Not really! I feel like I’ve just been reestablishing my connection to my surfing roots, my surfing mo’oku’auhau (genealogy). I believe that when I finally started asking questions about what it meant to me to be Hawaiian I began to understand why I had problems fitting in with the contemporary mainstream of surfing culture. Shoot, anyone who knew me back in the day might say I had trouble fitting into contemporary society in general!
I was never interested in the money or fame that can come from a professional surfing career. I have always been driven by the desire to just surf. That being said, I do live in this world. I’ve got bills and a family, so … you do what you’ve got to do to survive. I’m just striving to create a harmonious relationship between the things I love and the things I need. I’ve managed to create a balance (in spite of the unpredictable) through education, through my work at the University of Hawai’i, through my role as an educator and scholar.
In the days before contact, it was not unusual for Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) to drop everything when the waves came. Our lives revolved around surfing, and that has been no different for me. I am up with the dawn ready to go if I know the waves are there, with all my boards (including at least one koa board) loaded into my van the night before.
My surfing has been a continuous journey of learning, with some things definitely coming full circle. Surfing on 100lb koa (or mango) surfboards or the lightweight wiliwili board is something rooted not just in the traditions of my culture, it also has its origins in my early childhood.
Why, with all the new technology, would anyone want to ride a surfboard that weighs a hundred pounds or more? Well, it’s about the environment you grow up in. I just happened to come into my own in surfing at a very young age and at a time when one era was ending and another beginning. I spent a lot of my younger days on the beach at Waikiki. I was told that, before I could actually surf, I had to be able to carry the surfboard (wooden) from the old lockers there on Waikiki Beach to the ocean.
I remember when I used to stand in front of those lockers and look up at those giant wooden and foam monsters. I can vividly remember the desire I had to ride them, to learn to surf. Everyday, I would come down to the beach and try to lift these huge surfboards, and everyday one of the old-time Waikiki Beach Boys would be standing nearby watching to make sure I didn’t injure myself or the board. As a kid I remember watching the surfers of the time lift the boards from the lockers and walk away to catch the waves, then I would sit down under the hau tree and just stare at the board rack, dreaming, full of longing … until one day I just walked up to one of the great boards and found within me the mana (spiritual power) to lift the board just high enough to slip it out of the rack.
Somehow I managed to slowly drag that board through the sand until I hit the water. Out of nowhere it seemed, a Beach Boy (I think Blue) came running over and grabbed the board from me and said, “Boy, you sure you ready?” I still remember saying the only thing I could: “I going surf now!”
In my memory, it seemed that all the Beach Boys gathered around laughing and helping me, telling me how best to ride dis wooden surfboard, but I neva even hear dem, all I wanted was to go catch da wave.
Eventually I made my way out to a spot between Baby Queens and Canoes, and there I caught my first wave. I learned very quickly that to steer these boards, you had to use the motion of the water and time your directional turn by using one hand or the other, depending on the direction you wanted to go. One great myth that has been perpetuated erroneously is that surfers from that era used their feet to turn the boards, not so. When the foot was used, it was by dropping to a prone position and dragging the entire leg to make the board change direction.
Over the next couple of years, I borrowed boards from everyone on the beach including the famous Hawaiian wrestler Curtis “The Bull” Iaukea. Curtis’ board was the widest board I ever surfed – it was like a sidewalk! Eventually, I started pestering my Dad, Mom, da entire ‘ohana for my own surfboard. It was driving dem crazy, and den my Dad would ship me off to other places in Hawai’I, like the Big Island, Molokai, Maui … just about everywhere. The reasons for this were part cultural; it was so I would learn from the ‘ohana. I was taught about ranching, about fishing, hunting, and family lore. It was all about cultural survival and carrying on the traditions, which has now put me at this point in my life. But, at that time I thought they were just trying to keep me off the beach and away from surfing. So, every time I came back to O’ahu, I would head out to da beach all day, and sometimes I neva come home for days. My Dad always would show up eventually and drag me off da beach, and I would just cry. I neva tink dey knew why I wanted to be dea no matter how much I tried to explain it to dem.
It was one of these times that my Dad came to get me dat he wen stop and talk with Berry Napoleon on da beach before throwing me into the car, but dis time he wen talk to me about surfing. He asked me why I kept coming to Waikiki Beach wen we live over in Kailua and I could surf there. My reply to him wuz, “Cause I can use da surfboards hea. Cause I no got one board of my own fo go surf Kailau.” My Dad just said that we couldn’t afford one, but I neva understand at that time. Today, I know we were very poor (money-wise), but as one kid living and growing up on da beaches and in cars dat wuz da bomb life. Back then finances didn’t matter to me, but I so get it today. Still, some of the best memories of my youth are of growing up living on da kahakai (beach).
Eventually da ‘ohana moved into a small home in Keolu Hills (Kailua), and one day my Dad comes home wit dis log. I neva know wot it wuz about, but he looks at me and says, “You wanna board den you going get one.” Right there in my head I was saying, “Okay, what color and size of surfboard, and most important what brand – Wardy or Hobie?” But dat was not to be. My Dad just worked on dis log almost everyday, and I was always watching him and asking, “Wen we going get my surfboard?” His reply wuz da same every time, “No worry, pau soon.”
Den one day he wen say, “Your surfboard is pau, ready fo you to ride um.” Oh the excitement I felt at his words. I wen outside, and my Dad looks at me and say, “Dis your new surfboard.” I looked at this wooden board and everything in me died. This was not the surfboard I wanted, and I made that clear to my Dad, who did not take my response happily. I hated that board then in the way only a small child can hate something that he thinks isn’t the coolest, newest thing on the block.
How I wish I could take that moment in time back. I wish I could have the wood board in my hands just one more time to admire and to surf. When I think about that board now, I see one of the most beautiful surfboards I had ever seen. But it is gone, and I can’t change that today – one of a few regrets in my life. All I have today is what my father gave me: the knowledge imbued by just hanging with him while he made that board.
I frequently hear from people that my boards are replicas, and that is a true statement for two of them. But the reality is, I don’t copy any other board made before (unless requested specifically); I don’t work from a template, or predetermined dimensions. The boards I make are born of the wood; they are dictated by the grain, the size of the log, and are created in much the same way my ancestors would have made a board – with the resources they had on hand.
The type of board I like to make are the kiko’o style boards out of koa and mango. I do make the alaia boards out of wiliwili for the younger generation, and I did have some 14ft wiliwili surfboards that were just great to ride. I am looking forward to making my first true olo surfboard in the next year since I have acquired the koa wood thick and long enough for this purpose. Now that’s something I have to say about people who are constantly talking about making olo surfboards. There is no true olo surfboard outside of the museum (the Paki collection at the Bishop in Honolulu). It is not about length, rather it is the combination of length, thickness, and style that an olo board is constructed – and the cultural symbolism of the olo to the people, and their relationship to the Ali’I (royalty), the gods, and the ocean.
Making wood boards is what I do it because it calls to me. It is about carrying on what my father gave to me, and the knowledge of my ancestors. It is something I feel that should not be forgotten as surfing becomes more corporate and technologically advanced. I want to put to rest a lot of myths about how you ride a finless wood board and on what type of waves our kupuna could or could not surf. Be clear, my ancestors surfed on almost any type of wave that we ride today, and in places we would not even attempt to ride today.
What carving and riding these traditional surfboards means to me is that I can continue to surf, even if I should ever not have the fashionable boards, and still enjoy the ride, sliding across a wave. I am secure in the fact that I can continue to surf and still enjoy it without it costing me a lot of money. I believe this is important for the generations to learn here in Hawai’i. You don’t need a store to have a surfboard. This is going to help the younger people appreciate what surfing is all about and to know that they can surf on a board from another time and have fun doing it.
It’s also about learning to surf and appreciate how well those who gave us this sport truly surfed. I am amazed at what it really takes to surf any of these wood boards, but it is important to me to be able to carry on the traditions and origins of surfing. It is a practice that originates from these islands. Though people may disagree with me on this, I will always ask: Where are the artifacts to support the idea that surfing started anywhere else in world? We are talking about an implement made exclusively for standing on and sliding across a wave.
Surfing is my life, and I will surf until it is time to check out of this reality.
Tom Pohaku Stone became one of the hottest surfers of the late 1960s and ’70s and an elite rider of Pipeline and other significant waves. His journey to reconnect with and celebrate his Hawaiian surfing heritage has been a great service to all surfers. He is a Professor of Hawaiian Studies at University of Hawaii.