The Alaia Update

posted by / News / April 22, 2009

When SURFING named wooden-alaia shaper Tom Wegener “Shaper of the Year,” the alaia revival was just in its infancy. But just like the boards themselves, the resurrection has been moving fast — check out Thomas Campbell’s new movie “The Present” if you want to see what we mean. Of course, we recognize the alaia is a niche surfboard and a unique approach to waveriding, but our selection of Wegener had to do with how it affected the way we see surfboards: that we can still learn from the past, that there’s a lot more out there that we thought, and sometimes the best way to move forward is to strip things down to their essentials. Since then, things have been moving forward at alaight speed, so we thought we’d catch up with Wegener to see what he’d been working on lately. —Nathan Myers

SURFING MAGAZINE: HAVE YOUR ALAIA’S EVOLVED SINCE THE LAST TIME WE TALKED (SHAPER OF THE YEAR, INTERVIEW 2008)?

TOM WEGENER: Not really. The only thing is that the “Peanut” shape is becoming more popular than parabolic square tail. It is not really that much of a change though. Just the wider, rounded tail of the Peanut is more versatile in small waves. But I think it will spin out in surf much overhead.

WHAT DO YOU THINK INSPIRED THE CHANGES IN THE “PEANUT” MODEL?

The small surf this winter in CA and the small surf down here (Australia) this summer.

DO THESE NEW DEVELOPMENTS MAKE SOME OF THE OLDER MODELS LESS RELEVANT?

No, it seems that there is a really wide spectrum of alaia boards that work. There are several principles that make them work and they can be mixed and matched to make lots of great riding boards. On the other hand, they can be mixed wrong and it is easy to make a dud. The more boards we make and ride, the more the principles crystallize and we can use them on different shapes and sizes.

WHAT ARE THE “TUNA” BOARDS YOU’VE BEEN MAKING?

The tuna is something really different from the alaia because they are hollow. I love riding the 1940s style toothpicks and enjoy the amazing paddlability. I love the la la and speed of the alaia. I put some bottom design and minimal rocker from the alaia on the hollow board to see what would happen. To my surprise the board worked! It went across the wave fast like an alaia and had a similar fluid feeling of La La. It was a gas.

They are pretty easy to make. With basic tools and around 70 clamps, anyone could make one in their garage. There are several ways to do it and there are no short cuts. But in a few days you can have a hollow board that is super fun to ride for a relatively small investment.

HOW DOES THE TUNA RIDE, THOUGH?

Overall, the Tuna’s performance is amazing trim. They trim across a wave really great. They do slides like an alaia, but they do not carve. Not yet anyway. Also, I have not made one that will hold into a tube yet.

But this is the fun of surfboard making now. We don’t know what is possible. The whole ancient thing has turned all the knowledge from the last {{{100}}} years into half-truths. We are finding new fun ways to ride waves all the time. And this is great for the crowded areas because you can find an empty wave and find the board that will ride it well.

HOW ABOUT FOR YOUR OWN ALAIA RIDING — ARE THE NEW MODELS BETTER FOR YOU, OR JUST FOR THE TOP ALAIA GUYS?

For me personally, I am watching the younger kids ride the alaias and progressing. At 44 with kids… I am still getting better at surfing, but at a far rustier rate than the kids. I am most content on a 6’4″ basic Finley shape. That is the easiest board for me to hop on and have a blast. But lately, I have been more focused on the Tunas. It is exciting to see what improvements can be made on the old Tom Blake designs.

WHO’S YOUR BEST TEST RIDER IN TERMS OF FEEDBACK THESE DAYS?

My apprentice, Matt Williams, is still the best rider. We surf together a lot and he has ridden through all the evolutions for the last four years. We can communicate about how a board rides really well.

Actually, communication is a real sticking point to a board evolving. We have to keep making up terms to describe how they ride and the shaping principles. My brother, Matt, and the handful of us that have been riding them for years have a new lexicon that others have a hard time following. It is hard to communicate with other alaia riders without the terms.

OVER THE LAST YEAR, HOW FAR WOULD YOU SAY THE SKILL LEVELS OF SOME OF THE TOP ALAIA RIDERS HAVE COME?

The skill level is out of this world. In Thomas Campbell’s new movie, The Present, Harrison Roach and Chris Del Moro are getting seriously deep tube rides! Rasta and Rob Machado are pulling lots of beautiful turns and trims. I went on a surf trip with Rasta and he rode his new quad fin, old fish, and the alaia. The crazy thing is that when he was riding in a deep section or in the tube, you couldn’t really tell what board he was on. To me it seems the alaia is just another number golf club. Maybe the gun is the 1 to 4s. The thruster is the 5 to 7 and the alaia is the 8, 9, and sand wedge. I say that because the alaia really works in smaller surf where the finned boards get boring.

THERE’S A LOT OF BUZZ AROUND THE ALAIA SECTION IN THOMAS CAMPBELL’S MOVIE “THE PRESENT”?

Yes, it is mental. But, the day the guys rode Hawaii was the first time. I think next year you will see surfers riding the heavy wave on alaias better because they will learn from the goofy shaper’s (Me and Jon’s) mistakes. But, the alaia segment is beyond awesome! I am sooooo stoked on it! The last wave of the movie spins me out beyond words. Chris Del Moro is deep in a tube, and then slides way out on the shoulder without any change of speed. They go fast and the speed does not wash off. That wave is the biggest heads-up to unique qualites of the alaia.

WHAT THE CRAZIEST RIDE YOU’VE SEEN, SO FAR?

Actually this changes the focus a bit, but the craziest thing is Rasta on the Olo [another ancient Hawaiian, finless board]. On the surf trip we went on, we chased big Cyclone swells off a local island. The swells wrapped around the island and turned in on themselves. Rasta took off on an open swell on my 16 foot, 150 pound ancient craft and did a mid-face bottom turn as the swell thickened down the line. He flew across the wall as the whole ocean seemed to push the swell into a bowl ahead of him. He drove across the swell racing the bowl for 100 yards screaming the whole way. He ended up racing in and out of the pocket for almost a half a mile. But, it was the majestic set up on the king’s board on the fast moving blue swell that blew my, and Rasta’s, mind.

DID BEING NAMED “SHAPER OF THE YEAR” CHANGE THE WAY YOU BUILD BOARDS AT ALL?

Much to my retirement plan’s disgust, nothing has changed. I still will work by myself and make a nominal amount of boards a year. I am hopeless as a boss and don’t want to expand.

NO CHANGE AT ALL?

The biggest change has been a sense of satisfaction for my family and me. I think being a very small operator is actually more palatable knowing that what we have done has been recognized and appreciated. Nobody wants to be a rebel. Sitting back and enjoying things has become a little easier.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR BROTHER JON’S ALAIA BUSINESS IN CALIFORNIA? HAS THAT GROWN AS WELL?

Jon is doing GREAT! Unlike me, he has embraced the growing demand and has immersed himself in alaia world. He’s got the best wood we have found yet in the world and has 20 cubic meters delivered, with more on the way. He’s got the machinery and a team in action. I was there in October shaping with him and now my apprentice Matt is back in California helping out. There are a few top California shapers that are working with Jon as well. California is where the alaia is really become most popular.

HAS YOUR FEELING TOWARDS THE ALAIA CHANGED OVER THE LAST YEAR?

I see the alaia moving into the basic mainstream of surfing. I see people getting back into making their own equipment. There are people all over the place making their own. Jon and I hope we can help by supplying really good alaia blanks. (I spent 4 long years learning how not to make them. Making a great wood blank is not easy). Also, we have made a “How To Shape an Alaia” DVD.

As far as riding the boards, a huge example of the future happened at Buffalo’s contest a few weeks ago. Look for it on Youtube.comThere was the first ever alaia division in the contest. It was the biggest and most hotly contested division, although most of the surfers had only ridden them for a few days before when a shipment of boards and blanks arrived. The alaia surfing went from zero to mind-blowing in the time of the contest. The guys are doing things I hadn’t thought of. I think the canvas has only started to be painted. Mostly, I think that the alaia will bring small wave riding back into popularity. They bring skill, technique, and fun back to small wave riding.

THANKS, TOM.

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