Monday, December 13, 2010

1930s: Hollow Board Evo

Hollow Board Evolution

Despite the bad feelings surrounding Tom Blake’s wins at the Hawaiian Surfboard Championships 1929-31, other surfboard shapers began experimenting with the chambered hollow board concept.  “Imagination of design,” Sam Reid remembered, “ran riot.”[1]

Duke Kahanamoku gave Tom high credit and respect for his contributions.  “Blond Tom Blake... was a haole who accepted the challenge,” related Duke to his biographer Joseph Brennan in their 1968 book World of Surfing, “and proved to be one of the finest board men to walk the beach.  Daring and imaginative he always was.  He, like myself, was driven with the urge to experiment.”  Addressing Blake’s hollow racing paddleboard, Duke acknowledged that, “He was the one who first built and introduced the paddleboard – a big hollow surfing craft that was simple to paddle and picked up waves easily but was difficult to turn.  It had straight rails, a semi-pointed tail, and laminated wood for the deck.  For its purpose it was tops.”[2]

Duke’s shaping of a hollow made Tom unabashedly proud.  He later wrote: “Duke Kahanamoku built his great 16-foot hollow redwood board along about the same time.  He is an excellent craftsman and shapes the lines and balance of his boards with the eye; he detects its irregularities by touch of the hand.

“I feel, however,” Blake added in deference to the Father of Modern Surfing, “that Duke has some appreciation of the old museum boards and from his wide experience in surfriding and his constructive turn of mind would have eventually duplicated them, regardless of precedent.”[3]

Duke’s Blake-inspired design, shaped around 1930, was a 16 footer, made of koa wood, weighed 114 pounds, and was designed after the ancient Hawaiian olo board, as Blake’s had been.[4]  “With his rare expertise and outstanding strength,” Joseph Brennan wrote, “Duke handled it well in booming surfs.  He used to defend his giant board and kid fellow surfers with, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Reason?  Because it’s small stuff.’”[5]

After Tom’s win at the Ala Wai, some surfboard and paddleboard builders who had not gone hollow began “using alternating strips of laminated pine or redwood, instead of one or several planks of the same wood,” historians Finney and Houston noted, obviously influenced by Blake’s direction to lessen the weight.  “These striped boards combined the strength of pine with the light weight of redwood and were believed to be more functional as well as more attractive.  About this time lightweight balsa boards were… tried, but were dismissed as too light and fragile for practical use.”[6]

The 10 foot redwood plank that Duke and the early Waikiki surfers had ridden since shortly after the beginning of the century had been “in vogue until 1924,” Duke recalled, “when Lorrin Thurston, one of Hawaii’s most enthusiastic surf riders, appeared with a twelve-foot board.  To Thurston also goes the credit of introducing the balsa wood board in 1926.  It was really a revival of the wili wili boards used by the old Hawaiian chiefs except for design.  The ten to twelve-foot boards were used exclusively until 1929 when I built [after Tom Blake] a successful sixteen-foot board, which is handled quite the same as the old Hawaiian boards, and I feel sure will put surf riding on much the same scale as it was before the white man came.”[7]

In the progression of the hollow boards’ evolution, Step One (1928) had been the almost accidental use of drilled holes filled in to make tiny air pockets.  Step Two (1929) saw the implementation of full hollow chambers.  Step Three came in 1932 with Blake’s use of the transversely braced hollow hull.  By using ribs for strength, much as in an airplane wing, Tom brought the weight of the hollow boards down even further.  It is not definitively known for sure, but it is probable that Tom’s friendship with aviator Gerard Vultee influenced him in this further development of the hollow board.  At any rate, the result of this design was a strong 40-to-70 pound board, depending on length.[8]

A final refinement to the Blake hollow board would not occur until the end of the decade, when the board rails began to be rounded.  Initially, Tom’s hollows were built with 90-degree flat-sided rails.  Whitewater would catch these and easily knock a board right out from under a rider, sending him or her sideways.  With the rounded rail, which was an original component to the traditional Hawaiian boards, water could move over and under the board with much less resistance.[9]

After 1932, the Blake hollow surfboard and paddleboard spread worldwide – from as far away as Great Britain and Brazil and even Hong Kong.  Although it would be years after  Blake’s death that true dynamic hollow surfboards could outperform against solid wooden boards and even foam and fiberglass boards, it did not take long for the hollow paddleboard to become an essential rescue device in oceans, rivers, and lakes.  As evidence of this, in the later half of the 1930s, the hollow paddle rescue board was adopted by the Pacific Coast Lifesaving Corps and used by the American Red Cross National Aquatic Schools for instruction.  Today, the rescue paddleboard can be found on almost any ocean beach protected by lifeguards.[10]  As for the hollow surfboard, it is significant to note that today, many of the more advanced epoxy boards are of hollow construction. While using technology undreamed of by Blake, they are nevertheless take-offs on his original hollow board concept.

[1] Lueras, p. 82.  Sam Reid quoted.
[2] Kahanamoku, Duke with Brennan, Joe.  World of Surfing, ©1968, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY, p. 38.  “Haole” is a Hawaiian term for a white person.
[3] Blake, 1935, 1983, pp. 51-52.
[4] See Gault-Williams, 2005, “Ancient Hawaiian Surfboards” chapter for a detailed description of the differences between the olo, kiko‘o, alaia, and kioe (paipo) boards.
[5] Brennan, 1994, p. 23.
[6] Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 74.
[7] Blake, 1935, 1983, p. 51.  Duke indicated 1929, but it was most likely 1930.  A Duke olo currently hangs at Duke’s Canoe Club in Waikiki, but it is a later model than his 1930 olo.
[8] Lynch, Gary.  “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20, 1989.
[9] Lynch, Gault-Williams, et. al.  TOM BLAKE: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman, ©2001.
[10] Lynch, Gary.  “Thomas Edward Blake: Beyond The Horizon,” May 20, 1989.

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