There are easier craft to surf (and certainly to shape) than the ancient olo design. If built traditionally, these hulking boards are made from heavy indigenous Hawaiian wood, such as koa, and span more than 10 feet in length. But for Hilo-based surfer and shaper Brandan Ahuna, the difficulty of making and riding the classic design is beside the point. Ahuna, who has spent years making a variety of traditional Hawaiian craft, has always wanted to tackle the olo–the most esteemed design in Hawaiian history, as it was essentially only ridden by royalty.

After working on his olo for over a year and testing it out with close friend and fellow Hawaiian ripper Cliff Kapono, I got in touch with the pair to hear more about what interested them about the design, how it rode and how it changed their perception of Hawaiian surfing's bygone era.

I know that you guys have been interested in building and riding traditional Hawaiian craft for a while. How did that start?

Cliff: Brandan has been making them for a long time. I got interested when I was living on Oahu, working on some alaia with Pohaku Stone, who is really traditional in his designs. He was making them for educational purposes, looking at examples from the Bishop Museum and showing people today what the boards of that era were like. But Brandan has been making his boards with more of a focus on function. He's really opened up my mind to the idea of taking a traditional design, and then altering it to make it work better in the waves that we surf today.

Brandan: The first time I made an alaia was with a few friends in high school. It was just for fun, so we went to Home Depot and got the wood–I think it was pine–and then we took it home and started shaping it. We didn't know what we were doing at all. We just rounded the nose, softened the rails a little bit so that when it hit you it didn't cut you, added some sealer and then we paddle out and surfed it. It actually caught waves. I wasn't really impressed with the way it surfed, but it got me thinking about other ways to approach it.

So what's the learning process been like? What are some of the things you figured out over the years and how have the boards changed as a result?

Brandan: I've learned that they could definitely be made better in terms of how they ride. Adding a little bit of concave makes them more stable and faster, putting hips in them can make them turn better, or different types of tails can change the feeling as well. I really like asymmetrical alaia, which I've made a few of. For me, alaia are always hard to ride backside, but with a decent wave and an asymmetrical tail going frontside, that works great and turns pretty well.

Kapono, tapping into a different feeling on the olo. Photo by Dan Lorch

How do the materials of the alaia you build today compare to those used by the ancient Hawaiians?

Brandan: The Hawaiians in that time used what they had, which was heavier wood like koa. Today, we have access to lighter wood like paulownia from Southeast Asia. That's a super light wood and if works really well for alaia. I've made alaia out of hard woods like ulu and koa, but they're very heavy and they don't have a lot of flex, so they feel much different and can be harder to surf than the lighter woods.

What made you guys decide you wanted to make and ride an olo? It looks pretty massive and difficult to ride.

Brandan: Yeah, it's 13 feet long. It's made out of solid koa, and it's about 17 inches wide at it's widest point by the nose, and about 2 5/8 inches thick. It's heavy, bra–like 80 pounds. It's a chore just to carry it down to the water, let alone to actually paddle it and ride it. But it's funny, because for such a heavy piece of wood, I was surprised by how well it floated. But, yeah, I really wanted to build and ride one, because it's such a special kind of board. In the past, only the ali'i, the royalty, were able to ride these. If we were living in that era, we'd never know what it was like. But today, we can make this ourselves and ride it.

Cliff: The wood was one of the most valued commodities on the islands, because it took a long time to regrow and it was hard to get enough to make a board that size. So when the tree was cut down or fell, you had to really think, "What is the best use for this resource?" A lot of times, it would be used for a canoe or paddles or something else. Rarely would that resource be used for something to ride waves. The only people who had enough resources that they could build an olo were the ali'i.

Did you work off of any examples to figure out how to make it?

Brandan: I just looked at some old photographs of the boards, and then interpreted it from there based on the outline. I never had the opportunity to actually see one in person to take measurements and to really examine the shape.

Cliff: A lot of that gets passed through oral tradition as well. A lot of Hawaiians may not have ever seen an olo in person, but it's something that they would have heard of from their parents or grandparents or people in the community that have passed those stories down. We all know generally what they looked like and how they were used. But to see it come to life in person is pretty special. It's a really special part of the Hawaiian culture, and for us to be able to participate in this thing that our ancestors did, and to connect with that is very exciting to me. It's really cool what Brandan is doing, building these boards, because he's providing access to this feeling that most Hawaiians haven't experienced in over 100 years. These boards are so intertwined with our identity. It's funny because "Hilo" is a type of braid, or a tying of cordage. So to see Brandan tying together the old traditions into contemporary surfing with new tools and old tools, new materials and old materials–I feel super proud to just witness it happening here in Hilo.

Brandan Ahuna, getting the feel for the challenging craft. Photo by Dan Lorch

I'm sure a lot of people were tripping out when they saw you guys taking the board down to the beach. Did people want to check it out or try to ride it?

Cliff: Everyone wanted to check it out, for sure. But people also realize how special it is, and were probably intimidated to ask to ride it. It really commands a lot of respect, when you see the board in person. When Brandan was walking down to the beach with it, traffic was stopped on the highway. People are just like, "Woah, that's something amazing right there."

So what was it like when you got it in the water? I'd imagine it'd be challenging to ride.

Brandan: Yeah, extremely challenging [laughs.] It's so darn heavy. Even getting it down to the beach was a challenge. It literally feels like a log underneath you when you're in the lineup. When you start paddling, you have to start much earlier than you'd think, because it takes time to build the momentum to catch a wave.

Where did you guys surf it?

Brandan: We walked it out to this sandbar that formed right here in Hilo, and we surfed this right that was pretty slopey and forgiving.

Cliff: There’s actually a picture of Hawaiians surfing the same spot in the late 1800s. In that picture, there's sand, and it hasn't had sand in so long, but then it came back this year. It's the first time that anyone around here can remember seeing sand on that beach. It was insane, just the timing of the sand returning at the same time that Brandan brought this type of traditional board back.

Two surfers in the 1890s, surfing the same break that Cliff and Brandan recently tested the olo.

Brandan: Yeah, it's crazy, because the sand did come back right as I was finishing the board. I was just working on it in my spare time, and so it took me about a year and a half to make. But as soon as it was done, that sandbar was suddenly there waiting. It's funny how that happened.

How has this changed your perspective on what the previous generations did, and how they managed to surf on these boards?

Brandan: Yeah, I've gained a whole new respect for what they did and how they surfed. And not only how they surfed, but how they actually made these boards–and made the tools to make the boards. There were no shapers, if you wanted to surf, you needed to make a board yourself. It's hard to think about what they managed to make and ride without just feeling so much respect and admiration.