Riding the Plank

Searching for stoke on the alaia, an ancient Hawaiian surfboard made new
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.

Slot machine: Pro surfer Rob Machado getting some face time at Log Cabins on the North Shore of O`ahu. Machado became a finless wood board enthusiast in 2007, but even for a surfer of his caliber, riding alaia didn't come easily. "I couldn't stand up on the thing," he recalls of his early sessions in the breaks north of San Diego. "I was winded. It was hard to paddle... the list goes on." He persevered, driven by "stories about how fast you go and how much fun it is-it's such a ride and a rush. I had to have that experience." After a few weeks Machado did have that experience-and his alaia-riding skill is so finely tuned that he became the first surfer in modern times to ride Pipeline on a finless wood board.
Brian Keaulana's daughter Ha'a Keaulana duck-dives a wave at Mākaha-perhaps the only thing that's easier to do on a finless wood board than on a foam-and-fiberglass version.

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 Waikīkī 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 Mākaha 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 Mākaha 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 Waikīkī-style plank,” he recalls, meaning the heavy, usually redwood boards popular in Waikīkī 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!’”

He returned to Australia and built a sixteen-foot olo; with the leftover wood he shaped a ten-foot alaia almost as an after-thought, based on his memory of what he’d seen. But once in the water Tom and his surfing buddies “just got our asses kicked. Couldn’t do it.” The olo was too much board for the smallish waves. The alaia was no better. “We took off sideways and just fell,” again and again, he says. And these, it must be said, are black diamond surfers.

But those old boards were ridden and by a lot of people—alaia are thought to have been the most widespread of all the traditional Hawaiian board types—and Tom was determined to figure out how they did it. On his fortieth birthday in March 2005, he got his wish. A surfer named Jacob Stuth paddled the alaia out at First Point, a long, peeling right at Noosa Heads National Park. “He takes off on this double-up wave, and I expect that he’s going to wash about six feet into the rocks and that my beautiful board will be smashed,” says Tom. Not so. “He just went whoosh! down the line at a ridiculous speed. It blew my mind! Not only did he not hit the rocks, he went faster than I would have believed anyone could go on that wave.” Just as when he was eleven years old Tom was like, “What was that?”

It’s said that history is an accumulation of small moments reverberating forward through time, and the start of the modern alaia revival might be traced to that single wave in 2005. To be fair it wasn’t the first time someone had ridden an alaia in recent days. Back in the Islands, surf pioneers Wally Froiseth and Fran Heath made and sort-of-surfed a replica of Ka‘iulani’s alaia in 2001. O‘ahu waterman John Clark, who wrote Hawaiian Surfing: Traditions from the Past, had been riding his homemade alaia—prone only—in Waikīkī. Ian Masterson and cultural practitioner Tom Pōhaku Stone had been re-creating Hawai-ian boards for several years, more strictly hewing to ancient (if cumbersome) traditions by using the types of woods, designs and finishes that the early Hawaiians had. Stone points out that the boards that the Wegener brothers and the shapers who followed them are producing today shouldn’t technically be called “alaia” but rather “alaia-inspired” or preferably just “finless wood boards” because of such differences. Calling them alaia, in his view, crosses a line of cultural appropriation, not just because the boards differ but also because they are being sold; it’s a business, says Stone, and Hawaiian history is already littered with too many casualties of cultural commodification.

Even so, finless wood boards never caught on in the Islands like they did in Oz after that day in 2005. If they had I might not now be sitting neck-deep in Tea Tree Bay on a gray, rainy morning at Noosa Heads National Park, waiting for my shot at redemption.

The waves are hardly cooperating. They lurch shoreward, lugubrious as the koalas sleeping in Noosa’s gum trees. To surf an alaia, you need a wave with a bit of power and pitch. I go, though, windmilling ahead of the sluggardly lumps and getting no-where. After three swings and misses, I’ve got nothing left; I’m out. Tom, for his part, is finding stoke on the inside, catching ankle-slappers on a design he’s calling a “Surfie,” a four-foot finless wood board meant to be ridden prone. Hawaiians rode body boards like this, too, which were called papa li‘ili‘i (small boards) in the 1800s and later pae po‘o (surfing head-first), from which derives their common name today, paipo. At Tom’s urging I trade the alaia for his Surfie, jump onto a wave just as it’s breaking and slip-slide down the line. That sliding effect is what Tom wants me to experience, what Hawaiians call lala (literally, diagonal). It’s a big reason someone would subject themselves to the humiliation of learning to surf a finless wood board. It’s also something that took Tom three years of tweaking (and a second visit to Bishop Museum) to get his boards to do, giving one an appreciation for the engineering skill of the early Hawaiians who shaped high-performance boards using only wood and stone.

For the first couple of years after that 2005 ride it was just Tom, Stuth and Tom’s apprentice Matt Williams surfing alaia at the points, to general bafflement. “I thought, ‘What are they doing?’ It just looked like a whole lot of work,” recalls pro surfer Harrison Roach. Then one day Tom handed Roach a board. “He said, ‘Try that. You can stand up on it.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, right. I can stand on it.’ It’s just a little piece of timber,” says Roach, pronouncing it “tim-bah,” “but sure enough after three waves I was riding down the line. The feeling was so foreign from anything I’d experienced, I was hooked straight away.”

Roach’s reaction is typical—disbelief followed by incredulity. Driven by Tom’s passion, the aquabatics of surfers like Stuth, Williams and Roach and the growing influence of YouTube, the alaia went viral, spreading through the crowded lineups along the Sunshine Coast—if slowly. “The first couple of years people were saying, ‘That’s not a surfboard, that’s an ironing board!’ and we were getting burnt,” recalls Williams, who now shapes out of his own shop in Caloundra, south of Noosa. “But Harrison was getting respect early on, taking it out at Tea Tree and giving it a red hot crack. Then it kind of filtered to every-one else.”

“Everyone else” included luminaries like Chris Del Moro, Dave Rastovich and Dan Malloy, who appear in the 2009 surf film The Present, putting alaia through the gauntlet on double-overhead waves at Sunset and Waimea on O‘ahu’s North Shore. 2009 turned out to be a watershed year for alaia, the year that a finless division was added to the Noosa Festival of Surfing and the year Buffalo’s Big Board Classic held its first alaia contest. And though Tom never once mentioned it during the week I spent with him in Australia, 2009 was when Surfing magazine named him Shaper of the Year. “His alaias were old, they were new, they were the cutting edge and they were utterly simplistic,” wrote Surfing’s editors, “but most of all, they were really fun to ride.”

"I stamp my feet rather than shuffle,” says Jon Wegener as we wade into the surf at Swami’s, the famous break in Encinitas, California named for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda’s McMughal-style ashram up on the bluff. “Stingrays are really sensitive to vibration.” Not that I need a wildlife complication: There’s a current running, winds are onshore and the waves are lousy for alaia. But because I’ve made the mistake of telling Jon my private oath—that I will ride nothing but alaia until I stand on a wave—I’ve got no choice. Zipped into our wetsuits, we begin stamping through the kelp flotsam toward the inside peak and my ineluctable failure.

If Tom is the front man, Jon is the work-horse. He’s the one turning out boards en masse, and he’s largely responsible for kicking off SoCal’s finless subculture. Yet his first response to seeing alaia in action wasn’t much different from most everyone’s. “Shocking,” Jon says of watching his brother, Stuth and Williams surfing Tea Tree in 2006. “I’d been shaping boards for twenty years, and all of a sudden everything is turned upside down. I’d seen replicas in museums and in pictures, and I assumed they wouldn’t work. Then you ride one and instantly say, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ It’s like discovering a new essential element.”

Jon returned home, made boards and put them under the feet of local surfers. As in Noosa, Malibu offered a perfect alaia wave, and it wasn’t long before alaia caught on there as they had Down Under. “People gravitate toward something new,” says Jon, “and people had never seen alaia before, so to them it was new; they didn’t even know that it was old before they knew it was new.”

Then in 2009 Jon got an email from Brian Keaulana, son of the renowned Mākaha waterman Buffalo Keaulana, who founded Buffalo’s Big Board Classic Surf Competition held each winter since 1977. They’d added an alaia division, Keaulana wrote, and they were inviting shapers to contribute boards, come to Mākaha and teach kids how to make alaia. Did Jon want to participate?

Jon did, but the pressure was on. “Going to Hawai‘i from California, involved with a Hawaiian tradition like the alaia,” he says, “it’s a little bit nerve-wracking.” It didn’t help that the Big Board Classic is considered the “most Hawaiian” of all surf contests. Nevertheless, he shipped the boards and followed them three weeks later, arriving in Mākaha the day before the competition. “I get to the beach,” Jon says, “and there were these Hawaiian guys ripping on the boards. They were killing it like they’d been riding alaia their whole freaking lives.”

But what happened after the contest left an even deeper impression. Buffalo, who has a reputation as a standoffish figure, approached Jon and presented him with an ipu, a gourd that’s given out as a trophy in the contest, then thanked him and embraced him. For Jon the experience was rare confirmation and approbation, a high water mark in his career as a shaper. “I’d been to Hawai‘i and surfed there as so many people do, but like a lot of locals say, people come and take, take, take. But to go to Hawai‘i and give something? It felt really good because it was so pure. There was this recognition of a great past, and I could feel their pride in what they were doing. It was amazing to be a part of it. I’ll never have an experience on that grand a scale again.”

Even if you can’t actually ride it, you will look super-cool toting a finless wood board down the beach. Bonus points if you’re on the North Shore of O‘ahu when the winter surf is pumping, and double bonus points if you’re walking next to Rob Machado. I’ve got a seven-foot alaia that Jon had generously gifted me back in Encinitas along with a kuleana—a responsibility—to surf it. Machado has his signature 5’7” Tom Wegener “peanut,” which more resembles a snowboard than a surfboard and which Tom describes as the “most difficult” alaia. Despite that, Machado became the first surfer, in modern times anyway, to ride Pipeline on an alaia just like the one, if not the one, he’s carrying. Today he’s eyeing something less ambitious: a little inside left at a break called Log Cabins, which he thinks is holding up enough that we (meaning he) might be able to eke some rides out of it.

I’m pretty sure Machado and I aren’t looking at things quite the same way. Just east, the wave called Off the Wall is throwing double-overhead-plus. Log Cabins, at a third the size, is about as big as I’d be comfortable paddling into even on a board with fins. (“Maybe he was trying to kill you,” my surfing friends would later posit.)

But people are coming down the beach with cameras now, having spotted a lanky, dreadlocked guy with a wood board under his arm; if you know surfing you know it’s Machado, and everyone up here knows surfing. So when he goes, I go.

Watching him drop effortlessly and stylishly into the waves, I take comfort in knowing that even he struggled at first. Thomas Campbell—the filmmaker who later featured Machado’s alaia ride at Pipeline in The Present—introduced him to the alaia in 2007, giving Machado one of Jon’s boards. “He was raving, ‘You’ve got to try this, it’s amazing!’” says Machado. “I was in disbelief. I hadn’t seen one before, and I was like, ‘Really? You can ride that?’” Machado didn’t even try until he saw Chris Del Moro riding one; then he tried to follow suit. “I couldn’t stand up on the thing,” he says. “I was winded. It was hard to paddle. You feel like you’re snorkeling. The list goes on. You have no fins and you’re riding a plank of wood that’s three-quarters of an inch thick. It’s not very user-friendly.” But he kept going, doggedly paddling out to practice in the freezing January rain.

“I remember when I caught my first real wave, an open face on a clean, glassy left, where I actually stood up and started trimming down the line,” he says with rising excitement. “It was a major accomplishment. The rush you get standing up on an alaia … the speed. And the unpredictability: At any moment you could go into a drift. There’s a little bit of chaos involved.”

Emphasis on the “little bit” for surfers of his caliber. For surfers like myself, it’s all chaos. Once, twice, thrice I scratch for a wave, each time thwarted by a combination of the board spinning out and me chickening out. As our session nears its end, I decide that chickening out is no longer an option: I’ll go down, but I’ll go down trying. A wave rears and I go knowing that there’s no hope of making it. And I’m absolutely right. Reef, meet face.

When I surface, my alaia tumbling like a potato chip in the whitewater, I see Machado—who’d also wiped out, I’m not displeased to report—pumping his fist and grinning. “You committed!” he cheers.

Commitment was never the issue. The issue was—and remains—the inescapable fact that I’m just not a very good surfer. But I’m determined to keep trying. I made an oath, after all.

Those who know say that the alaia revival has peaked, that the novelty has worn off and the reality of how brutally challenging these boards are has set in. Even those who love their alaia aren’t likely to give up fins, foam and fiberglass. When I ask Machado whether the alaia has changed his thinking about surfing in general, he smiles. “Yeah. It made me appreciate my normal surfboard a lot more.” But on a day when the ocean is offering up glassy, head-high deliciousness, it’s the go-to board. “It’s always with me,” Machado says. “At any given time you could find those waves, and you’ll wish you had it.” HH