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Escapes

Ancient Surfboard Style Is Finding New Devotees

Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

Chad Marshall on Venice Beach.

Published: December 4, 2009

LIDO BEACH, N.Y. — On a cloudless day in October I made my way toward the water at this popular surfing beach on Long Island. All was fairly typical: the waves were waist high and zippy, the water temperature was a friendly 63 degrees, and roughly 20 surfers dotted the glassy lineup. The wetsuit on my back was made of UltraFlex neoprene, the sunscreen on my face was a whopping SPF 85 — but the board under my arm looked like something out of “The Flintstones.”

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Interest Guide

Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

REVIVING AN ART Chad Marshall rides a wave on his alaia surfboard in Venice, Calif.

My surfcraft that day was an alaia (pronounced ah-LIE-ah), a replica of the thin, round-nosed, square-tailed boards ridden in pre-20th-century Hawaii. The originals were 7 to 12 feet long, generally made of koa wood and could weigh up to 100 pounds. They resemble nothing so much as antique ironing boards, but their most distinctive feature compared with modern equipment is that they are finless.

Ancient Hawaiian boards had mostly been relegated to museums and private collections; they were seen as artifacts rather than functional designs. But a recent movement in surfing that mines the past has raised their profile.

In the last five years alaias have enjoyed a renaissance. They have been taken up by some of the world’s best surfers and show up heavily in magazines, movies, Web sites and blogs.

The new versions tend to be six to seven feet long, for maneuverability, and are carved from a range of woods including paulownia, pine, cedar and even plywood.

A modern surfer will find alaias extremely difficult to paddle. Because they are only about 18 inches wide and one inch thick, they provide minimal flotation. I have been a dedicated surfer for more than 30 years and like to think that my arms and shoulders have adapted to paddling the way a marathon runner’s legs have adapted to running, but I was sore and winded by the time I made it out to the waves that day.

But the alaia’s challenge doesn’t end there. Without fins on the board to dig into the water, I went head over heels on my first five waves. On my next 10 I made it down the face, but when I went to turn, the board slid sideways, and I found myself washing to shore, feet first and wildly out of control. It was like learning to surf all over again.

So why ride something so primitive when the modern surfboard is infinitely more user-friendly?

An obvious attraction is the fin-free feeling of skimming across the water, which the ancient Hawaiians called “lala” — a controlled slide in and around the pocket of the wave.

Cyrus Sutton, a surfer and filmmaker in Encinitas, Calif., has shaped alaias in his backyard. “The alaia has a mind of its own,” he said. “It bends and snakes with the wave. It’s alive under your feet. And the speed is just ridiculous.”

Richard Kenvin, a former pro surfer from San Diego, credits the alaia with giving him “some of the most magical feelings I’ve ever had.”

Chad Marshall, a surfer in Malibu, Calif., known for his flamboyant longboard riding, said: “I like the friction-free vibe. I like that it slots you in that sweet spot on the wave.”

Another draw is the link to the sport’s early Polynesian history at a time when the surfing life has become heavily commercialized, and surfboards have become commodified.

The alaia provides a stripped down, back-to-the-roots alternative. They are to surfing what the fixed gear is to cycling or the bow and arrow are to hunting. And unlike their often-mass-produced foam-and-fiberglass cousins, which you must buy from a manufacturer for $500 and up, alaias are cheap and easy to make, and considerably easier on the environment.

Tom Stone, a professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii and a surfboard shaper, said the early alaias were essentially made from scraps. After felling a sacred tree, the ancient Hawaiians would use the bulk of the log to carve out a canoe, and the leftover planks to create alaias. But while the originals were planned and executed with great pageantry (prayers, offerings, pig roasts), their modern-day equivalents are often shaped with household tools in suburban backyards.

“It’s taking ownership of your surfing experience,” Mr. Sutton said. “And they’re kind of like works in progress. I’ll go back and forth between the sawhorse and the surf until the board’s just right.”

Making an alaia involves little more than a jigsaw, a hand planer, sandpaper and the right piece of wood. Once smooth, they are covered with a sealant, typically linseed oil and gum turpentine. The hard part is learning to make them fly on water.

“I always tell surfers to go out into knee-deep water and push into whitewash and ride prone, just to get the feel,” said Tom Wegener, a surfer and shaper in Australia who was instrumental in the alaia’s resurgence. “Do that 20 times, then go outside and try to pick off a proper wave and stand up.”

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