Monday | April 27, 2015
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Despised trees transformed into beloved surfboards

As far as Kapoho resident Gary Young is concerned, the much-maligned albizia tree is woefully misunderstood.

The rapidly growing tree is hungrily swallowing up large swaths of native ohia forest in Puna, and is often the main culprit when utility and power lines are downed by weak, fallen branches after a storm. State and county offices have joined forces with community associations to target and kill albizias, which they have labeled as a menace to native ecosystems, as well as to people’s safety and property.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, has even referred to it as “the tree that ate Puna.”

But for Young, there’s one vitally important point everyone seems to be missing: Albizia makes one hell of a surfboard.

The 65-year-old says he’s been building wooden surfboards since 1976, and he’s never worked with a material as light or as strong.

“I’m trying to demonstrate that the albizia is one excellent wood for this purpose,” he said.

Wooden surfboards have come a long way from the early days, when they were solid, 15-foot behemoths, often made from koa and weighing between 150 and 200 pounds, Young said. Today, surfboard makers mostly use foam and fiberglass to make them light and maneuverable.

But for Young, wood has always held a special place in his heart., in addition to providing other benefits.

“I used to be a wooden boat builder, and that was what I was interested in,” he said. “We need to figure out something agriculturally based, less oil-based material. I use wood and an epoxy laminate. … It’s what’s durable and what really works. … It’s just as strong as fiberglass.”

Since the late ’90s, he’s made popular boards from bamboo and other wood composites. His AlaiaLite boards are made with local, sustainable or recycled wood skins on top of a recycled foam core, with epoxy finish.

But recently, he’s taken an interest in albizia, in contrast to the popular opinion of the tree, which has been “over emphasized,” he said.

“It’s gotten away from us. We’ve taken it too far. You know what I always tell people when they talk about albizia? I go, ‘Hey, you want to know what the most invasive species in Hawaii is? Look in the bathroom mirror,’” Young said. “It’s a totally misunderstood tree.”

Steve Hirakami, who celebrated his 58th birthday on Thursday and Friday by riding the waves at Pohoiki, has been surfing for the last 56 years, he said, and he’s never seen one like his albizia board he got from Young.

“It’s absolutely the finest material. I’ve had one for three years, and its my favorite board in my whole life. More than a half century, and thus far, this board is the one,” he said. “The thing is amazing. Most fiberglass boards would be all pock marked after three years. But the wood veneer is rock solid. It almost looks brand new.”

Young’s use of the strong wood fibers taken from mature albizia trees appears to be the secret to the board, Hirakami added.

“As far as performance, the wood seems to have its own kind of memory. Fiberglass and epoxy boards are real stiff. Real hard. They don’t have the flex with the wave. I believe that because of the way the wood flexes, it generates more speed off the turn. … Today at Pohoiki, it performed like a Maserati,” he said Friday.

Hirakami said he’s looking forward to getting a new albizia board in about a month, this one a chocolate-colored albizia. Meanwhile, his 17-year-old son, Pono, owns two albizia boards.

As for albizia’s reputation, Hirakami said it doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

“Every year, there are millions of boards made out of epoxy or fiberglass. And there’s no better way to get rid of invasive species than by either using them, or eating them. Some make canoes out of them. Some make furniture out of them. It has its uses,” he said.

Ultimately, Young said, he hopes that the albizia’s reputation will change as society learns more about its benefits.

“We should have an albizia festival, and de-stigmatize this stuff. … Remember when the Pilgrims washed up on the shores of New England and they saw these orangish red things with claws, and they picked them up and put them in their compost heaps, and fed them to the animals? … All these years later, we’re packing them up and shipping them around the world at $50 a pound and calling them lobster,” he said.

For more information on Young’s surfboards, visit http://www.bamboosurfboardshawaii.com/.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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