Saturday, May 23, 2009

Papuan Alaia Riders

A recent discovery by Bernie Higgins begs the question: how long have they been riding boards? Great food for thought and a huge find for surf history:

[ From: "Native Alaia Surfers Found in Southwestern Pacific - A Local Surfboard Builder Stumbled Upon a Tribal Surf Community Off the Coast of Papua New Guinea and Found a Native People Riding Alaia’s," May 21, 2009, at - some great photos and slideshows included ]

For the past few years, surf culture has seen a resurgence of old surfboard models, ranging from California 60’s style to ancient Hawaiian alaia’s. But while modern shapers attempt to travel the timelines of surf history, there is a remote island off the coast of Papua New Guinea that has never stopped practicing the art of riding carefully carved planks, much in the vein of the ancient Hawaiian surfboards. In Feb. 2009, Ernie Higgins, a Southern California shaper and owner of Waterlines Unlimited, stumbled upon this fascinating group of surfers when embarking on a mission trip sponsored by his church.

Without any knowledge of the surfing activities on the island, Higgins signed up to join a group of missionaries with the objective of building houses for a native people in the Southwestern Pacific, miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea. After five airplane connections and a five-hour trip on an 18ft. boat, he stepped onto a small, volcanic island, with a population of 2,000 and a people speaking its own dialect. While focused on the mission at hand, Higgins suddenly noticed a little boy, in his pre-puberty years, holding a plank, awfully similar to a surfboard. Upon close scrutiny, he was surprised to learn that not only was the lad holding a surfboard, but also that he was participating in a longstanding tradition of riding waves on the island. When Higgins asked for how long they've been riding waves, a native said, "For as long as the oldest person in the tribe can remember."

In this minute, volcanic dwelling, there has been an enduring tradition of kids carving wood into surfboards and using them to ride waves off the island’s only surf spot, a left point break with a rocky bottom and a steep section shortly after take off. Before puberty, the younglings sprint to the shoreline at the first signs of a swell, toting their alaia’s and splashing their naked bodies into the 80-degree waters. When adolescence begins to effect its changes, teenagers throw on a pair of trunks and continue to charge alongside the younger ones. But once adulthood arrives and the tribal responsibilities ring their bell, the men leave the lineup to join the island’s fishing squad and gaze at surfing as a luxury of youth.

A survey of the lineup reveals a wide range of skill levels, with some kids riding the waves on their belly, others in prone position, and still others in a straight up glide. As the wave gets ready to throw, the native surfers paddle for a diagonal take off – a move used to compensate for the lack of fins – then ride on their stomach for a short while until catching enough speed to get up on their feet, riding from then on either prone or straight up, depending on the style and skill level of the surfer at hand. Some in the group forego the last step and ride all the way in lying down.

This playful, and yet history-laden, activity is a raw demonstration of surfing’s beginnings, where bonhomie and simplicity are at the core of both the sport and the lifestyle that follows it. With virtually no land for cattle and no water supply except rain, the islanders rely solely on a limited set of produce and a selective number of animals for their diet. While fishing is their primary food source, produce (like pineapple and potatoes) complements the diet and chicken and pork are consumed as occasional luxury items. Surrounded by two other islands, each with a population of about 500, this people group speaks its own dialect, carefully utilizes the natural resources at its disposal, and playfully interacts with the waves and ocean, from which it also derives its livelihood. Despite of being thousands of miles apart and centuries of years of development away, the themes of distinctive identity, environmental conscience, and oceanic livelihood have endured through culture and time to continue to characterize much of the ethos of modern surf communities.


  1. Sounds like they are a relatively happy people with an untarnished culture, something very rare in the pacific.

    So why are you trying to fuck it up by bringing a mission there?

  2. I share his opinion. The native Hawaiians still resent westerners for interfering with their way of life. It sounds like they have it all figured out. Don't ruin it!!!


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