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Wave Rider

On Hawai‘i Island, a surf enthusiast helps to revive a legendary Hawaiian board.

Traditional alaia surfboards by Brandan Ahuna have appeared in shoots for the likes of Samudra swimwear.

Centuries before Fiberglas or epoxy boards became mainstream, Hawaiian surfers of old turned to the indigenously designed alaia to command the waves of Waikīkī and other famous breaks throughout the islands. Characterized by thin wood and a square tail, the alaia’s distinction lies in its lack of ventral fins and leash. And while 21st century counterparts continue to dominate, one Hilo native is joining an emerging generation dedicated to reviving this classic design.

Enter Brandan Ahuna, the visionary behind Alaia by Ahuna. The Hawai‘i Island lifeguard admits that he attempted to make an alaia on his own with friends back when he was a teenager. But the results turned out to be far from satisfactory. In fact, Ahuna didn’t think about the alaia again until about a year ago, when Doug Powdrell, a wood craftsman from the mainland, approached him one day with an intriguing proposal. The craftsman had made a few alaia but needed someone to try them out. When Ahuna saw Powdrell’s finely crafted board, he was afraid to even surf it but eventually took it down to a surf break that has been a favorite of his since childhood.

“I was amazed at how it worked,” says Ahuna. “It paddled great and the board details Doug added made it really special. I was immediately hooked—I felt like a kid again.”

Ahuna shadowed Powdrell in the creation of one alaia and took what he learned to begin to create boards of his own. Now, in his studio in Honomū, the lifeguard-turned-craftsman fashions his boards from paulownia, a Southeastern Asian wood, which he uses because it is light, strong and naturally does not absorb water. He cuts the wood using a template and then shaves and sculpts it with hand block planes. Unlike modern surfboards, Ahuna’s alaia are all-natural, environmentally sustainable and completely biodegradable.

Hilo-raised lifeguard Ahuna and his alaia crafted from paulownia wood

Then there’s the actual experience of riding one. “There are no fins, no leash and no resistance, so you’re harnessing the natural energy of the water,” says Ahuna, who feels grateful to be able to connect on a special level with his native ancestors through his craft. “When crafting something from nature for nature, it creates a spiritual feeling that’s hard to explain.”

And that feeling has definitely caught on—and not just with surfers. Alaia by Ahuna boards have already been featured in shoots by island labels Reyn Spooner and Samudra. But the best way to experience an alaia is to own one yourself. From $500