Photo: Jodie Johnson/Shutterstock

Alaias: How an Old-School Board Is Making Surfing Greener

Hawaii Sustainability Surfing
by Benita Hussain Aug 11, 2010
How some surfers are exploring history to create a greener board.

Sometimes looking backwards is the only way to move forward. So it makes sense that we’re looking to return to simpler, more sustainable ways of experiencing our sports.

Surfing is no different, and is said by many to be hypocritical in it’s current choice of gear. That is, how can water lovers justify using modern surfboards when they’re made with petroleum-based fiberglass, polyester resin, and epoxy materials?

The call for low-impact boards has been partially answered by surfer and Australia-based shaper Tom Wegener. Wegener, who already has an old-school reputation for his world-renowned longboard noseriding skills, produces 12 to 16-foot hollow, wooden boards, following a pattern native to the ancient Polynesians who created surfing.

When Wegener happened upon alaias five years ago in the basement of the Bishop Museum in Oahu, his “mind was blown.” From there, his devotion to creating and marketing alaias–which resemble raw wooden planks–was born, stemming from his belief that sustainable surfing practices are literally the wave of the future.

The original alaias were themselves low-impact. Made from the leftover carvings of Hawaii’s native koa trees that were felled and dug into canoes, the ancient revelers would celebrate their primitive planks with fanfare and prayers before shaping them.

However, koa wood is heavy, and has been overharvested. Wegener needed an alternative material that was low impact on both surfers’ health and the environment.

He found it in paulownia wood, a lightweight and fast-growing species that is endemic to Asia. Unlike woods such as balsa, paulownia just needs linseed oiling as opposed to glassing, does not need to be wildly-harvested because it is plantation-grown, and does not produce harmful dust during shaping.

It also floated well compared to other hard woods Wegener had tried, like redwood and cedar, because it does not soak up salt water, and its carvings can be used as garden mulch.

For many, though, it is not the alaias’ green stamp of approval that has made it appealing. It’s the feel of the board: gliding on a 1-inch thick, 18-inch wide plank provides an exceptional stoke. “La La”, the Hawaiian term for surfing on alaias, refers to the way riders can slide across the waves while digging in with the narrow rails for sharp cutbacks. This means the board can possess the smooth riding quality of longboards and the turning abilities of shorter boards.

But alaias are also more difficult to ride. Without fins, an alaia is essentially a surfboard with personality of a bodyboard, with some of the old-school vibe of a stand-up paddle board mixed in too. Regardless how much lighter modern alaias are than their ancient predecessors, their lack of float compared to regular fiberglass boards also make them hard, and sometimes scary, to ride.

I discovered that during my own attempt to ride one in Byron Bay, Australia. I paddled, kicked, lost my balance, recovered, and did it all again while missing every wave that I was gunning for. At least I didn’t get worked, like a recent New York Times reporter who face-planted and was washed ashore in his first 15 attempts.

It is not surprising then that alaias’ main enthusiasts are pro surfers with backs of steel and dolphin abilities. Guys like Rob Machado, Dan Malloy, and Dave Rastovich have praised alaias, and are some of the only people I’ve ever seen ride them well.

Wegener believes that seeing what pros like Machado and Joe Tudor can do on the boards–seeing the potential to both rip and ride beautiful lines, as shown in filmmaker Thomas Campbell’s projects Sprout and The Present–will “blow people’s minds.”

Without the need for heavy machinery and well-ventilated warehouses, anyone can shape an alaia. Teacher and surfer–and this writer’s boyfriend–Kevin Murphy was able to borrow his family’s woodcutting equipment, find a US supplier of paulownia who sold him blanks for less than $150, and turn shaping into a summertime hobby that makes him feel closer to nature and wave-riding than going to a local shop and dropping $700 on a commercially-made board.

And that’s what Wegener and other alaia proponents have in mind. In a sport that prizes shredding and fancy tricks, they want to take back technology to increase surfers’ connections with the ocean and the sports’ traditions, and thereby be better global citizens.

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Feature Image: Rob Machado Riding a Tom Wegner Alaia by DigitalWunderland

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