Paipo: the world's first bodyboard | Photo: Seasonal Surfcraft

The act of riding waves began in the Polynesian world. Wave sliding started as a cultural ritual before evolving into a global sport and recreational activity. But what was the role of the paipo board in the history of surfing?

More than three centuries ago, only those on the top of the social hierarchy could ride waves. It was a privilege of a chosen few.

The community chiefs had the best boards and the best waves just for themselves.

In the 18th century, according to the book "Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions From the Past," the local wave masters rode four types of surfboards (papa he'e nalu): papa li'ili'i, papa olo, papa alaia, and papa kiko'o.

The smallest board models were the papa li'ili'i (small boards). They were between three and six feet tall, 16 inches wide, and half an inch thick.

However, "during the late 1800s, the popularity of surfing among Hawaiians declined considerably (...)"

"The introduction of new religions, new diseases, new economy, new forms of government, and new interests took Hawaiians in many different directions."

Paipo boards: ancient Hawaiians used them to ride waves

The Waikiki Revolution

One hundred years later, things started to change at Waikiki Beach. Multiple variables, including Jack London's visit to Hawaii, helped reinstate the art of riding waves on the islands.

"I joined some little Kanaka boys in shallow water, where the breakers were well spent and small - a regular kindergarten school. I watched the little Kanaka boys," London wrote in "The Cruise of the Snark."

"When a likely-looking breaker came along, they flopped upon their stomachs on their boards, kicked like mad with their feet, and rode the breaker in to the beach."

"I tried to emulate them. I watched them, tried to do everything that they did, and failed utterly. We would all leap on our boards in front of a good breaker."

"Away our feet would churn like the stern wheels of river steamboats, and away the little rascals would scoot while I remained in disgrace behind."

Early modern 20th century Hawaiians started calling these boards a new name: papa pae po'o/paepo (later renamed paipo).

Locals and tourists loved it. They were easy to dominate because beachgoers could ride prone and, sometimes, kneeling.

George Bernard Shaw, 1931: he rode a paipo in Muizenberg

From Paipo to Bellyboard

The small paipo boards rapidly spread to mainland America, and the Western civilization was ready to give them a new name: bellyboards.

The paipo board is considered to be the first-ever bodyboard because it was originally conceived to be ridden in the prone position.

The olo boards were heavy (roughly 200 pounds), thick, and enormous (20 feet long).

The Hawaiians saw it as a paddleboard, although they were quite popular in the Waikiki whitewater rollers.

For the average surf session, they shaped the alaia, an intermediate model designed somewhere between the paipo and the olo.

The alaia and the olo allowed stand-up surfing and can be regarded as the original surfboards; the paipo is probably the world's first proper bodyboard before being perfected in 1971 by Tom Morey.

"The Encyclopedia of Surfing" puts the paipo board in the spotlight of surf craft history: "Bellyboarding was almost certainly the original form of board-surfing, and is thought to date back as far as 2,000 BC."

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