27 . 06 . 14

Wooden surfboards are at the root of many countries traditional wave riding cultures, and this is certainly the case for Papua New Guinea.  Here, “splinter” surfboards have been used for generations to ride the waves that break over the reefs and black sand beaches, the boards being carved from indigenous trees or pieces of old canoes.  At the end of last month the multi-award winning documentary film Splinters toured the UK with several screenings in the South West and London, including one just down the road from the Otter Surfboards workshop in Porthtowan which we were quick to get tickets for.  Andrew Abel, President of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea and a star of the film, was on hand and we were lucky enough to catch up with him after the screening to ask him some questions about wooden surfboard riding and it’s place in the surf culture of PNG.

What exactly is a splinter and where did they get their name from?

Splinters is a name given to the traditional boards that the local kids belly board or surf on around PNG…the local equivalent pidgin word is “palang”.  A Splinter can be cut out from an old canoe or cut from a tree trunk and shaped according to the eye of the carver, be it a young kid or his father or uncle…these days with the introduction of modern surfboards donated by the SAPNG and purchased by local surfers from visiting surfing tourists, Splinters are being carved to nearly identical dimensions as fibreglass boards, with fins fashioned from timber or plastic and leg ropes out of twine and tyre inner-tubes.

How did surfing on wooden boards develop in PNG?

Surfing on Palang wooden boards in PNG developed hundreds of years ago and has been passed down from father to son until the present day.  Over the past 27 years I have, in my role as the president of SAPNG, introduced modern boards but at the same time respected the craft of the resource custodians still carving and surfing their own hand carved Palang or Splinters as it is unique and something that must be continued and protected from dying out.  These surfboards are very much part of our PNG surfing culture.

Are they still used or seen regularly?

Yes, Palang boards or Splinters are still being ridden prone all around PNG, and more so being surfed standing up in the surf clubs in Vanimo, Sandaun Province, Tupira Surf Club, Bogia District, Madang province, New Ireland Province and in Wewak, East Sepik Province.

What are they made from and how are they made?

The Palang or Splinters are made from light weight timber from the jungles along the coastline….the boards are cut out and shaped using axes and bush knives or machetes

Are splinters/wooden surfboards a valued part of PNG’s surf culture and historical development?

Yes absolutely, and myself and SAPNG take great pride in them and work hard to ensure that this important part of our surfing culture is carried on for generations to come.  We are instilling in the traditional resource custodian host communities that we work with (in partnership in developing the surfing and surf tourism industry of PNG under our SAPNG model and policies) that this is unique to PNG and an added attraction and show piece of the evolution of the growing surfing culture of PNG.  I have, in my role as President of SAPNG, been approached by the PNG National Museum to develop an exhibition within the museum to celebrate our surfing culture and evolution. In addition, whilst I was in California presenting the Splinters movie I was asked to do Q&A at the San Clemente Surfing History Musuem and the Director of the Museum asked if I/SAPNG would be able to donate a genuine Splinters carved board to sit in their collection of historic surfboards alongside surfboards ridden by the likes of Duke Kahanamoku.

I am currently working on this and at the right time I will be taking two Splinters, that are sun bleached and worn from years of surfing, to be presented to the History of Surfing Museum in California so that SAPNG has a place amongst the surfing nations of the world.  I hope also to be able to present a Splinters surfboard to a national collection in the UK.

Would you like to see a return to using native (and less toxic?) resources for surfboard materials in PNG?

I think it is inevitable that all our young local surfers in all of our SAPNG established surf clubs will want to step up to modern day fibreglass boards as they all want to surf better and compete against their peers and other clubs. However, the art of carving a Palang or a Splinter only requires an axe and machete/bush knife without the need for any toxic materials like resin to make such a unique board, therefore I can see the traditional boards still being used by the younger grommies coming through the ranks until they are old enough and proficient enough to step up to a modern shortboard.

In having said that, as part of staging our national surfing titles, the SAPNG will at all events ensure that we have an “expression session” style event where all competing surfers from the respective clubs will have an opportunity to have their best surfers compete on traditional Palang/Splinter boards, on the same waves and under the same ISA competition surfing rules as they do on modern day boards.

In actual fact, as we are working towards staging our inaugural Mens WQS and Womens WCT in PNG in partnership with ASP Australasia, one of the events planned will pitch local PNG surfers against the visiting WQS and WCT surfing on Palang surfboards, on their home turf.  This will be the ultimate challenge for the PNG surfers who are experts in surfing these Palang/ Splinters to show off their skills against some of the world’s best in the same waves and surfing conditions.

For me personally, as the President and Co Founder of SAPNG as we mark 27 years since foundation, it will be the most exciting moment seeing the kids that we have been nurturing being given the opportunity to stand tall and represent SAPNG and PNG on our traditional boards and show the surfing world how it is done.  For the families and clans of these young PNG surfers, it will be something to be proud of and remember for generations to come!

We would like to thank Andrew Abel and the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG) for taking the time to talk wooden surfboards with us and for providing us with such a wonderful set of images to accompany his answers.

All images courtesy of and copyright SAPNG.

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