Surfboards: Lost and Found!

This 17-foot-long, redwood surfboard, kept in storage at the Bishop Museum, may be more significant than anybody realized.

photo: dana edmunds

Missing historic surfboards may be hiding in plain sight.

On a sunny california day in 1885—nearly three decades before Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing on the continent—three Hawaiian teenagers paddled long redwood boards into the waves at Santa Cruz, and surfed. A crowd gathered to watch, a few dozen swimmers joined them in the water, the local newspaper took note and the event went down in surfing history as the world’s first documented surf session outside of Hawaii.

The surfers were King Kalakaua’s hanai nephews: Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, David Kawananakoa and Edward Keliiahonui. They were in California as cadets at St. Matthew’s Hall, a military academy in San Mateo. They were also princes, and the surfboards they rode were the long olo boards traditionally reserved for Hawaiian royalty.

According to local lore, the boards were made from redwood cut in the Santa Cruz Mountains,  and when the princes returned to Hawaii, the boards went with them. What became of the boards is not known, although, a Honolulu-based author believes she may have found two of them tucked away in the Bishop Museum’s extensive collection of historic surfboards.

Kristin Zambucka, who has written five books on the Hawaiian monarchy, has been captivated by the story of the pioneering royal surfers for years. She championed an effort to create a monument to the three princes at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, and in 2010 she and Princess Esther Kapiolani Kawananakoa, the 86-year-old granddaughter of David Kawananakoa, were guests of honor at its unveiling.

Later that year, during an exhibition of historic surfboards at the Bishop Museum, Zambucka laid eyes on a certain 17-foot-eight-inch-long olo board and was struck with a hunch. The board was part of the Kapiolani-Kalanianaole collection, bequeathed to the museum in 1923 by Elizabeth Kahanu Kalanianaole, widow of Prince Kuhio, who had been one of the teen surfers.

“I had an instinct, a funny feeling, about this one board,” Zambucka says. “Elizabeth kept it lovingly and presented it to the museum after [Kuhio’s] death. Why would she leave this one board?”

California’s first surfers: from left, David Kawananakoa, Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole and Edward Keliiahonui.

photo: michael keany

Zambucka believed the answer was simple: This was the cherished redwood board Kuhio had ridden in Santa Cruz. But there was a problem. The board in the exhibition was labeled pine, not redwood. Zambucka suspected it was mislabeled, and two botanists from the University of Hawaii whom she invited to examine it, as well as a master wood carver, confirmed her suspicion. A fourth expert, the head of a wood-identification laboratory, said the board is likely to be redwood.

It was after the exhibition, and as the experts were examining the board in its storage room, that Zambucka discovered a second olo—this one labeled as redwood—kept right beside the first board. It, too, was part of the Kapiolani-Kalanianaole collection, two inches shorter than the first board, and a little narrower. Zambucka thinks it might have belonged to Keliiahonui, the youngest and smallest of the princes, who died of scarlet fever not long after the historic surf session.

The Bishop Museum, for its part, isn’t jumping to conclusions.  Betty Kam, the museum’s director of cultural collections, says that, while many of the museum’s artifacts come with careful documentation, “others, like these surfboards, still hold secrets that inspire us to consider the possibilities.”

Zambucka acknowledges that her evidence is slim. “Could these be the boards?” she asks. “That’s all we can really say for sure.” Genetic analysis of the wood could determine if it came from the Santa Cruz Mountains, which would bolster Zambucka’s theory. But such a test would destroy a one-inch square sample of each board, which is something that neither Zambucka wants nor will the museum allow.

Still, Zambucka believes that clues to the fate of the three olo may be out there somewhere. She’s encouraged by a researcher’s recent discovery of a letter from Kuhio revealing that, five years after surfing in Santa Cruz, he and Kawananakoa surfed at Yorkshire, England, while the two were students in Britain. British surfers have hailed the discovery as the first documented surf session in the British Isles.

In the letter, addressed to Hawaiian consul Henry Armstrong and dated Sept. 22, 1890, Kuhio wrote:  “The weather has been very windy these few days and we like it very much for we like the sea to be rough so that we are able to have surf riding. We enjoy surf riding very much and surprise the people to see us riding on the surf.”

Zambucka says the British boards were probably made from sycamore, ash or lime wood. As for what became of them? “Nobody knows,” she says. “Perhaps they are out there somewhere, too, waiting to be discovered.”