Get on board
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.
E.H. Coleridge was describing a mysterious, highly maneuverable watercraft in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and if the poet had also been at least a gremmie or a ho-daddy, he might have worked surfing into his epic "pome."
100 Years of Wooden Surfboards:
» On display: Through Aug. 25
» Place: The Exhibit Space, second floor, 1132 Bishop St.
» Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays
» Call: 734-9374
The ancient mariners of Honolulu rode on wooden boards, either solid planks or intricate monocoque constructions of wood, pegs and spar varnish. These wooden craftings were unceremoniously dumped the day foam and resin came to town, and today, relatively few classic wooden surfboards remain.
There's an exhibit downtown of some of these wooden wonders, collected by Randy Rarick and Mark Fragale and curated by David Behlke. For those who appreciate both water-craftsmanship and surfing history, "Surf Evolution -- 100 Years of Wooden Surfboards" is an interesting detour.
"When boards were made of wood and men were made of steel!" notes Behlke. "The problem with surfboard displays is having an appropriate structure to support them. Luckily, we had these custom-made racks already built and were able just to roll the exhibit on in."
Behlke also praised the higher-than-average ceilings, allowing 16-foot boards to rest comfortably upright. "A vertical upthrust!"
Patrons passing through invariably reach out and touch the boards. "People connect to them," he said. "The boards carried people on their backs, and there's a spiritual energy to wood. They're a warm technology, not a cold tech."
But the years have not been kind. Nearly every board has a nasty ding or two, and one, Behlke says, seems to have had termites. The blemishes are badges, however, that these aren't pieces of art, but hard-working watercraft that bounced off reefs and plunged into sandbars. And when they had outlived their usefulness, they were turned into kindling. One board in the exhibit was turned into a table, with legs screwed on and the nose sawed off so it would fit into the living room.
Fragale, a boat salesman, is a life-long surfer who has been collecting boards since 1968 and now has more than 100. Wooden boards, he says, "are like living, breathing things. They have a heart and soul. Even with modern foam boards, there's a connection with the wooden strip down the middle, the board's spine."
Balsa, the lightest wood available, was the Grail of board designers, but the slightest ding in the protective varnish "made the balsa drink up water like a straw," said Fragale. "The attrition rate was very high. Fiberglas made balsa viable, but when foam came along, that was it for wooden boards. Over the years, between weather and termites, it's just a majestic find when one turns up."
Some of the boards are for sale, and the collectors are always looking for more boards to preserve. If interested, contact Behlke at 734-9374.