An alaia (pronounced: ah-LIE-ah) is a thin, round-nosed, square-tailed surfboard ridden in pre-20th century Hawaii. The boards were between 7 and 12 ft (2.1 and 3.7 m) long, weighed up to 100 lb (45 kg), and were generally made from the wood of Acacia koa. They are distinct from modern surfboards in that they have no ventral fins.
Modern alaias are 5’ to 12’ long and are the larger version of the Paipo board, used for knee or belly surfing, and the smaller version of the Olo board, generally between 18’ and 24’ long. All of these board types are similar in that all are made of wood and are ridden without a fin/skeg.
The alaia’s roots span back a thousand years. Lala is the Hawaiian word describing the action of riding an alaia surfboard. Lala is a word found in the Hawaiian dictionary meaning ‘the controlled slide in the curl when surfing on a board.'
“In Hawaii the board was called alaia. In Japan it was called Itaka. There is evidence of early surfers riding this style from all around the world but in the early 1900s this style vanished.” Alaia boards began making a comeback around 2006 when surfboard-shaper and experimenter Tom Wegener tested prototypes made of Paulownia wood among pro-surfers. The first contemporary professional surfers to master the skill of riding an alaia were documented in the Thomas Campbell surf film The Present. This appearance dramatically increased the popularity of the alaia board type.
“Ancient Hawaiians made their boards out of local woods–‘ulu, koa and wiliwili.” Modern Alaia boards are made of many types of wood, including Redwood, Cedar, Pine and Balsa. Typically, commercially sold alaia boards are made of paulownia.
Paulownia is optimal for crafting surfboards in that it has a good weight to strength ratio, being lighter than other hardwoods and more durable than balsa. It also absorbs less salt water than many other types of wood and therefore does not require a hard resin or glass finish.
Paulownia alaia boards are most often finished with a seed oil to further prevent water absorption and to prevent damage from the drying of salt and sun associated with surfing.
Many environmentalists are enthusiastic about the use of paulownia alaia boards because of their minimal impact on the environment, while fiberglass and epoxy surfboards are known for their many pollutants and long decomposition time.
Beyond avoiding fiberglass and epoxy resins, modern Alaia boards have less impact on the environment based on the way the Paulownia wood is harvested, used and recycled. “Paulownia is plantation grown… The trees grow like weeds, about 25 feet in three years and they are never from an old growth forest. Just sustainable tree farms…the leaves and flowers, is either fed to cattle or the dust and shavings are mulched… Paulownia dust (and shavings) is very good in the garden and breaks down quickly. Worms love it.”
Shapers also appreciate that paulownia wood is non-toxic to humans, whereas resins, fiberglass and foam are harmful to the lungs and suspected of increasing the likelihood of cancer. Even “balsa wood dust hurts your lungs.” After construction, paulownia boards can be reshaped and repaired without use of more toxic materials. When cared for properly the boards can last a lifetime requiring less manufacturing, and when their usefulness has run out, simply discontinuing oil treatment to the board will allow it to decompose quickly without releasing harmful toxins found in foam and resin into the air and soil.
- Brisick, Jamie (December 4, 2009). "Ancient Surfboard Style Is Finding New Devotees". The New York Times (New York City). Archived from the original on 6 December 2009. Retrieved December 4, 2009.
- Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel Hoyt Elbert (2003). "lookup of Alaia ". in Hawaiian Dictionary. Ulukau, the Hawaiian Electronic Library, University of Hawaii Press. Retrieved November 17, 2010.
- Devon Howard (October 8). "Alaia Surfboards: Design breakthrough or Passing Fad?". Surfline web site. Retrieved November 17, 2010.
- Tom Wegener. "Alaia". commercial web site. Retrieved November 17, 2010.
- uprock49. "Alaia Interview with Tom Wegener". commercial web site. Retrieved April 28, 2012.
- "The Greenest Board: Is Tom Wegener's Alaia the Kindest of Them All?". Surfer magazine web site. Retrieved November 17, 2010.