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Vol.18, no.1
February/March 2015

 

Riding the Plank 
Story By: Michael Shapiro
Photos By: Dana Edmunds

Let’s get something out of the way: I am not a good surfer. I’m not terrible, either. I’m what my surfing friends diplomatically call a “blue square” surfer. That is – to borrow from skiing – more advanced than a green circle but hardly a black diamond. So it’s pretty comical that I find myself now in the lineup off Coolum, a little seaside town north of Brisbane, about to try something that might send even a black diamond surfer back to bunny slopes. Around me little kids (rippahs, they call them here) are shredding on shortboards not much bigger than they are. Outside, longboarders in their 60s stroke once, twice and glide onto perfect, glassy faces. I watch their unfettered joy with all the shame and bile of someone struggling merely to stay afloat on a piece of wood.

Behind me, shouting what I suspect are words of encouragement, is Tom Wegener, the guy who shaped the piece of wood I’m on into something resembling a surfboard —rounded nose, square tail and about seven feet long. But in every other way it’s nothing like the surfboards on which I’ve scratched my way to blue squaredom; those, like most modern boards, are made of fiberglass and foam and come equipped with the one innovation that’s made surfing as we know it today possible: fins. What I’m attempting to ride now, by contrast, is an alaia. Generally speaking, alaia (a Hawaiian word pronounced ah-LIE-ah) are solid wood surfboards between five and twelve feet long and less than an inch thick, no fins. Hawaiians surfed them, both prone and standing, probably for hundreds of years before Western contact and up to about the end of the nineteenth century. But as surfing technology evolved, particularly after Tom Blake first affixed a fin to a board in Waikiki in 1935 and again after Pete Peterson shaped the first fiberglass board in 1946, finless wood boards disappeared. By the time Tom Wegener shaped his first alaia in 2004 they had all but vanished from lineups, even in the Hawaiian Islands, where they had reached their apotheosis.

And not without reason. Alaia are by any surfer’s estimation wretchedly hard work: hard to paddle, hard to catch waves with, hard to stand on, hard to control. You need just the right kind of wave under the right conditions. Fat chance if there’s anyone else hunting those waves; in the hierarchy of the lineup, the beginning alaia rider is at the bottom, getting blithely burned by body surfers and children. Despite their difficulty, alaia have under-gone a bona fide revival over the past eight or so years, with surfers not just catching waves but reporting the rides of their lives. The renaissance began here in Australia with Tom Wegener, leapt to Southern California via Tom’s brother, Jon Wegener, and then returned to Hawai‘i with a triumphal reintroduction at Buffalo’s Big Board Surfing Classic at Makaha in 2009. Now there are dozens of shapers producing every size and kind of finless wood board, and hundreds, maybe thousands of surfers riding them—or trying to. If you go to Makaha today, you’ll see surfers doing things that challenge even the layman’s idea of what’s possible on a surfboard: 360-degree spins, barely controlled rail-first skids, backslides down the face. Those riders—many of them just tweens—are surfing alaia. Even pros who’ve added finless wood boards to their quivers, like Rob Machado and Tom Carroll, describe riding them as one of the greatest feelings in surfing.

It’s for that feeling I’ve followed the arc of the alaia’s modern rebirth, starting on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. “Go! Go!” Tom shouts as a wave peaks, though it’s also possible he could have been saying, “Don’t go!” which would have been the better choice in retrospect. I spin, hack at the water and feel the wave begin to lift. But the board decides to keep spinning (no fins, remember), and the next thing I feel is the seafloor of Australia introducing itself to my face. 

The old garage where Tom makes boards looks more like a woodcrafter’s shop than a shaper’s. Instead of rolls of fiberglass cloth and cans of dripping resin, there are milled planks, carpenter’s hand planes and sawdust drifts nearly a foot deep in the corners. And rather than smelling like a chemical spill, it’s redolent of a lumberyard. That’s one reason, Tom says, he got into wood: fiberglass is toxic, and he was getting sick. But even apart from that, Tom’s destiny as a wood board enthusiast was probably sealed on a day in 1976, when as an eleven-year-old grom surfing his home break—a spot called The Cove in Palos Verdes, California—he had a close encounter of the wooden kind. “There was a guy out on a Waikiki-style plank,” he recalls, meaning the heavy, usually redwood boards popular in Waikiki after the turn of the twentieth century. “I’d seen old photos of Tom Blake riding The Cove on big wooden boards, but in the 1970s you didn’t think those boards worked. There were none around; that whole history had been erased. So he takes off heading straight at me. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to hit me, this is terrible!’ But then he pulls into this tube in front of me going so fast it’s like he’s on a rocket, and I’m like, ‘What was that?’”

In some ways Tom’s your typical ’80s SoCal surfer, with a laid-back demeanor and a lexicon that includes words like “rad” and “bitchin.’” But in most other ways, he’s an innovator, the kind of guy who doesn’t so much go against the grain as follow his own. Tom was longboarding when all the cool kids were shortboarding (and went on to become one of the era’s most respected nose-riders). After ditching a soul-crushing law career in Cali and moving to Australia in 1998, he went old-old-school, reviving hollow wood boards that hadn’t been surfed in six decades and creating ex nihilo a market for single-fin longboards along Queensland’s points. When he wasn’t shaping for money, he was experimenting with wild designs—like an eighteen-foot Tom Blake-inspired “kook box” that he actually managed to ride semi-gracefully. Things were going well with his shaping business, so in 2004 he took his family on a surf trip to Hawai‘i. There, destiny would again knock on wood. 

Tom wanted to build an olo, an enormous solid wood surfboard that Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs) once rode, but there weren’t many examples around. He knew of a couple locked away in the archive of Bishop Museum in Honolulu and cajoled his way into that venerable institution’s inner sanctum. There on a rack near the olo were several alaia, including a magnificent koa specimen ridden by Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani. The olo were remarkable, Tom says, but the alaia were a revelation. “I was shocked,” he recalls. “I looked at those boards and thought, ‘This is impossible, the perfection of these shapes!’”


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