Tom Wegener may be one of a handful of successful surfboard shapers who actually worked as a lawyer before committing his life to the craft of board building. “Nobody is happy [in the judicial system],” says Wegener. “The judge isn’t happy. Your client’s never happy. Nobody’s happy. And then you come into making surfboards at a substantial pay loss, but you’re dealing with happy people.” And Wegener is a happy person. He’s also a powerful driving force behind the alaia revival. We recently caught up with Wegener at Cardiff Reef in San Diego to learn more about his newest endeavor, which puts an ironically modern twist on the ancient Hawaiian design: an EPS alaia called “The Tuna,” part of Wegener’s Seaglass Project.
Describe this board we’re looking at here.
This is the Tuna, which is the foam version of the alaia, the ancient wood surfboard. This board surfs like an alaia except it’s just a lot easier to paddle and catch waves on. We rode the alaias for five years and loved them, but the shine started to wear off because we were paddling out in conditions just like today—a lot of guys out on longboards—and on an alaia it wouldn’t be that much fun. It was fun in the beginning. But we want to keep that feeling of ancient Hawaiian surfing alive and make it much more accessible to the average surfer, so we spent a long time figuring out how to do it. We made them out of plywood, regular wood, solid surfboard foam, and I knew that to get it right, we had to go to EPS foam. I was talking to Mark Kelley [of Global Surf Industries], and he sent down 12 big EPS longboard blanks, and we started carving them up and put stringers in them, and made about 14 of those and got it right.
You’ve been a huge proponent of reviving the alaia-style of surfing. How did you get so inspired to spearhead its revival?
When I saw the alaias in the Surfing Heritage Museum…they were beautiful. The shape was so perfect. As a woodworker, I just fell over backward. Like Greg Noll said, he saw the boards and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. You’re meeting aliens; they’re so beautifully made. It became a passion to say, “I’m going to figure out how those boards work, because there’s something to those boards and I don’t understand it at all.” It’s actually been a highlight of my professional life to recreate and discover the whole separate universe of principles that surfboards work off of.
Alaias can be difficult to surf, do you have any tips that might make that experience a little bit more welcoming?
The first thing I say with alaia riders is don’t even try to stand up. Just get out there and just feel the wave and the whitewash and feel the flex of the board. Get to know the board first. To the ancient Hawaiians, there wasn’t a big distinction between standing on a board and belly riding—just like George Greenough doesn’t have that distinction. Great surfers don’t mind belly boarding. I think it’s safe to say that Mike Stewart has spent more time in the tube than anybody. So take your alaia out and just belly board it for a while. And then once you get to know the board, then you paddle out the back and when you catch that wave then you’ll be ready to stand on the board. Even David Rastovich couldn’t do it the first time, if that’s any encouragement.