THE GREENEST BOARD: Is Tom Wegener's Alaia the Kindest of Them All?
Is there such a thing as a green surfboard? And if there is, how can anyone make such a statement without falling into the slippery slope argument of how big one’s footprint actually is? At some point, you are using energy to create the materials used or extracted to make the board. And at some point there is a measurable level of waste (no matter how small) from the building process. Then there’s taking into account if (or how) the board decomposes once its use has expired.
Although Wegener understands there is no such thing as a 100% earth friendly board, he does believe he’s come as close as anyone has since the Hawaiians to making a minimal impact board. The catch? Well, it’s a performance thing. You have to be a decent surfer to ride one.
Known by the Hawaiian word alaia, Wegener’s ancient Polynesian replicas—from those he saw in the Bishop Museum some years ago—have gained popularity with both the “green” board enthusiasts as well as with a small band of high profile surfers who are taking this form of surfing to incredible performance levels. This alaia board movement—spurred on by Wegener’s contagious enthusiasm for these boards—is being diligently documented by Thomas Campbell for his new film The Present. And surfers like Dave Rastovich, Harrison Roach, Chris del Moro, Dan Malloy, Jacob Stuth, and several others, have reportedly created a new kind of waveriding on these unique machines. And the impact these boards will have on our every day equipment has yet to be played out.
Wegener just arrived in town from his Australian home for the Sacred Craft show in Del Mar, as well as his video/slide show at Patagonia Surf Shop on October 11 at 7:30 p.m. He caught up with Surfer yesterday while he was making the rounds in Southern California.
You use Paulownia wood on all of your boards. How did you discover this material?
Tom Wegener: My good friend Paul Joske showed me it about 10 years ago. Since then, I experimented with it a lot. It took a long time to actually realize that it’s as good of a board building material as it is. Paulownia wood is really just unbelievable. It doesn’t suck up salt water, it is light, plentiful where I live [Australia], easy to use, and the wood shavings are great for the garden.
What’s different about this wood as compared to other types you could use to build a board with?
I have used a lot of different woods. There is no other wood that even remotely compares to Paulownia. Balsa wood dust hurts your lungs when you get it on you on in your lungs. Paulownia is one of the safest, health wise, woods to use. Balsa sucks up salt water, while paulownia doesn’t. Red wood and cedar are heavy and do not work with polyester resin—which isn’t needed for alaias, but is for my hollow longboards and fishes. Paulownia is lighter and works well with resin. Also, Paulownia is great to shape. Super user friendly.
You say your boards are environmentally friendly? Isn’t cutting down trees a bad thing?
Paulownia is plantation grown and I get it from the guys that grow the trees. I give them the measurements of what I need and they get the absolute most out of the trees for their lumber orders. The rest of the tree, like the leaves and flowers, is either fed to cattle or the dust and shavings are mulched. It is a very efficient and green process. Paulownia dust is very good in the garden and breaks down quickly. Worms love it. The trees grow like weeds, about 25 feet in three years and they are never from an old growth forest. Just sustainable tree farms. What really helps keep these alaias green is there is no resin or fiberglass needed. You rub on a natural seed oil to give an added seal.
OK, so they sound pretty green but they appear quite difficult to master the riding of them. Can a surfer of any ability get on one?
Definitely. It is true that to stand on one and ride the wave face is pretty challenging but after a week or two of committed surfing on them you can get it down. If you don’t have that much time to invest in learning how to ride them, then a lot of people just enjoy lying prone. You go super fast and what’s cool is you can ride really small waves over super shallow reefs because there is no fin on the board to hit the bottom.
The alaias are quite a departure from the hollow, wood boards you’ve made over the past decade with those massive D-fins. Are you going all alaia now?
I’m making a very wide variety of boards still. What I’ve learned from four years of shaping alaias has really helped me understand the finned boards even better. I plan to make just 12 hollow longboards a year from now on.
If you could take only one board on your next trip, which would it be?
If I could do it all over again, I would just travel with one, six-foot alaia. You can ride anything on it. On the giant days, I would use kick fins and go prone—unless it was super clean, then I’d stand up. They are so easy to travel with and will ride anything well.
Prone? You are considered by many to be one of the best noseriders in the modern longboard era. Why would you choose to ride prone over standing?
The speed you get from flexing the board in the pocket while prone is mind warping. It is so much fun and it is especially so in onshore surf that is no good for anything else. The standup vs. prone distinctions is absolute crap. The skill involved in properly belly boarding an alaia is almost on par with the skill needed to stand on them. Well, any one can belly board them, but there is a big difference between beginning and riding them well! Basically, you spend a lot of time in the tube getting Greenough views prone on an alaia, even at one foot.
What kind of impact will alaias have on modern day surfing?
I don’t think we even have a clue how big the impact is going to be. It’s going to blow people’s minds once they see Thomas Campbell’s new film The Present, and get a visual of what guys like Rasta, Malloy, Del Moro, Jake, etc. are doing now. The level of surfing is progressing so fast that each month it’s leaps and bounds beyond where it was before. The exciting part as a shaper is to the see that progression happening right before you and getting to work with such amazing athletes on refining the designs. I can promise you that these boards will have a huge impact on how surf design plays out over the next few years.
*****To see Tom Wegener’s Alaias in person go to Mollusk Surf Shop, Thalia St., Icons of Surf, Sacred Craft expo or Patagonia Surf Shop in Cardiff where he will be giving a slide and video show on October 11 at 7:30 pm.