By Bob Pearson
Photos: Jared Handler
I started surfing in 1964 and shaping surfboards in 1966. To date, I have shaped over 75,000 boards and have an international demand for Pearson Arrow Surfboards. Through the years I have made boards out of a variety of materials, including polyurethane and eps foam, balsa and redwood, and. have ridden almost every size, shape and style of board. From the very beginning I have always been interested in trying the old Hawaiian style olo and alaia solid wood board. It’s the only board design I had not ridden.
Over 20 years ago I heard stories of the three Ali‘i, the Royal Hawaiian Princes, surfing Santa Cruz in the 1800’s using solid redwood boards they made from the Santa Cruz Mountains. I slowly began collecting old growth redwood, with the intent of one day making recreations. About three years ago, Kim Stoner and I began talking about the three Princes and their contribution and significance to the surfing world. Kim talked about wanting to write of the history and I talked about making replicas of the old style boards, maybe even getting a few of the boys together to ride them. Occasionally we met and passionately discussed our individual, yet joint projects. We knew we were on to something very special.
A few months ago, Mac Reed, a friend of ours was searching in the basement of the Bishop Museum on Oahu, Hawai‘i. There he uncovered two of the original princes’ boards. A study was made and the surfboards were verified. The precious memorabilia existed, so our Project X was started. Our team consisted of historians Kim Stoner and Geoff Dunn for the writing, Barney Langner and myself coordinating the documentary by head videographer Mike DeGregario, and me making replica boards to display and ride. We set in motion events that will go down in history.
The Project X team coordinated with Marla Novo (Curator of Collections) and Nina Simon (Executive Director) of Museum of Arts and History (MAH) and the Santa Cruz Surf Club Preservation Society (myself, Kim Stoner and Barney Langner are members) to bring the original boards back to Santa Cruz to display for a limited time. Our goal was to create a three-day event that would show and tell the story of the three Hawaiian Princes to the world.
These three young Princes brought The Sport of Kings – surfing – to our hometown of Santa Cruz, to California and to the Americas in the first documented surfing on the mainland. These boards represent the past, present and future of our surfing culture. We wanted to tell the world of our respect and appreciation. This is our surfing heritage. A heritage that is sacred and spiritual (mana). A heritage that is about family (‘Ohana).
To achieve this goal, on July 3, 2015, the original boards were brought to Santa Cruz via Highway 17, thru the redwoods, for the unveiling. They were escorted to the MAH by quite the entourage – 40 classic woody vehicles, California Highway Patrol and a Santa Cruz Sheriff. The boards were greeted by hundreds of onlookers. Hawaiian Kumu Kaui performed the ritualistic decorating and blessing ceremony upon arrival. As the white linen cloth was unwrapped and the boards revealed, there was complete silence in the room. You could hear a pin drop.
The experience was absolutely overwhelming. There were gasps, sighs and tears in the eyes. There were weak knees and “chicken skin.” The observers were captivated, realizing they were looking at artifacts that were as historical and sacred as King Tut’s Tomb.
The significance to the surfing cultures of the world became obvious. These boards connected the ancient Hawaiian Polynesian surfing culture with present day surfers internationally. The local Santa Cruz surfing culture especially felt the direct connection. MAH’s attendance records were blown away, this event was the biggest ever. The ongoing press coverage was enormous. Kim Stoner and Geoff Dunn gave a historical talk with photos, which was very informative. On July 19, we had three succeeding events that included a Surfing Exhibition, a Paddle out and a Luau.
For the Surfing Exhibition, I made 13 solid redwood replicas. The biggest was a 17’ Olo, 6” thick and weighed 240 pounds. It was the Prince Jonah Kalaniana’ole replica. The second biggest was a 17’ Olo, 6” thick and only 210 pounds. This was the Prince David Kawananakoa replica. The other boards were various sizes of Olo’s, Alai’a’s, and Paipo’s, and all were were crafted of the era.
13 of the best surfers in the world were selected to ride the redwood recreations. In a line, each surfer stood proudly at the erected board he was going to ride. Kumu Kaui performed the lei ceremony and did a blessing as each surfer and his board was introduced. The boards were then set in the water with a final blessing and the surfers paddled out to catch waves. I was on the biggest one, so stoked, so proud. I was doing something very, very special, something I have been wanting to do for a long time.
The 13 surfers began catching waves. It was difficult, but we were successful. That day was a surfer’s dream, we all were so stoked. The beach and cliffs were full of cheering people. After a few rides, we exchanged boards for a different experience on a new one and after a half hour some of the riders let their kids have a go. The families and the next generation were now involved. It’s all about the mana and the ‘Ohana. The riders included myself, Flea Virostko, Tazy Tashnick, Skindog Collins, Frosty Hesson, Noi Kaulukukui, Rich Schmidt, Josh Mohr, Zach Wormhoudt, Tyler Fox, Randy Gray, Frog Bartlett and his 7-year-old son Adam.
One hour after the Exhibition, we scheduled the Paddleout, which celebrated the 130th Anniversary of the three Hawaiian Princes’ documented surfing of the Rivermouth to the day. The Paddleout was open to the public, and the Mayor made a proclamation that July 19 is now Three Princes Day. We all paddled out, formed a big circle, held hands, said a blessing, threw flowers and water in the air, and cheered to the three Princes.
Then it was on to the Luau. Great food, great people, great fun! Everyone talked of the overwhelming and emotional experience of the day’s events. We were all so stoked. To quote Nina Simon (MAH Executive Director), “The Princes of Surf Exhibition and Project has had an impact on me like no other. For me personally, it was life-changing.“
Respect was the word of the day. I am so proud to be part of the team that brought this project to the people. We all felt so close. Everyone was saying, “We don’t want this to end… We need to keep this going…” and we will.