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Tom Wegener: The Maverick

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Tom Wegener is a longboard legend from Los Angeles who fell in love with Australia. The man behind the revival of the Alaia, a surfboard used by the ancient Hawaiians, is hoping the Tuna—a mass-produced board modeled on the Alaia—will reinvigorate surfing.

Wegener is giving me the tour of the two-and-a-half-acre plot he calls his “Creation Plantation.” The property, a mile or so outside Cooroy in the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland, Australia, backs onto the Bruce Highway, but towering gum trees and thick trunks of bamboo provide ample shelter from passing traffic and prying eyes.

In the front yard is a homemade halfpipe. Out back is a three-story shack, a wonderful old wooden building with a set of rickety stairs up the side, leading to the loft where Wegener shapes his wooden surfboards.

Since he bought the property in 2001, Wegener has planted orange trees, fig trees, passion fruit, tropical apples, dragon fruit, guava, pawpaw, persimmon, and peach trees. Lettuce, spinach, corn, tomatoes, and fresh herbs vie for space in the vegetable patch, and half a dozen egg cartons recycled as biodegradable seed trays are ready for planting. Sawdust from the ramshackle shed is used to mulch the trees. Wegener knows more about composting than any garden-center guru.

“We want to be hippies so bad,” he laughs. “We want to create a green parallel-universe so if everything else collapses, we’ll at least be able to feed ourselves.”

Finding His Way

This rural retreat is a long way from the suburban affluence of Palos Verdes in Los Angeles, where Wegener was born in 1965. Palos Verdes is the kind of place where “desperate housewives” go to the country club for tennis lessons from the pro with six-pack abs and smiles full of teeth. It also boasts some of the best surf spots in California, and locals have a reputation for protecting their patch from outsiders. Wegener loved the waves, but hated the attitude.

"Being a lawyer in Los Angeles is the bottom of the bottom. Everyone is unhappy... I like being happy."

“In high school, you had the popular surfers, and they were a funny clique, so I gravitated toward longboards,” says Wegener. “The longboard spots were empty apart from a few nice older people, and the shortboard breaks were crowded and aggressive. It was a simple decision.”

Wegener was a sponsored longboard rider and a philosophy student during the 1980s before making the unlikely decision to become a lawyer. Surfing was his passion, but it was tough to earn a buck as a longboarder, so he put on a suit and tie and worked in real estate and contracts law. He lasted three years—the longest of his life.

“I didn’t just hate it; I loathed it. Being a lawyer in Los Angeles is the bottom of the bottom. Everyone is unhappy—the judge is unhappy, your client is unhappy, the clerk is unhappy—you’re surrounded by unhappy people. I like being happy.”

He quit in 1993 to head up the newly-formed Surfboard Industry Association. The association tried to introduce safety practices to the industry in California, but infighting forced it to fold within a year. Wegener was out of a job, but ironically, his profile as a surfer had never been higher—he had started making surf movies, and was big in Japan.

“Longboarding was exploding over there, and this Japanese company wanted to start a Tom Wegener brand,” he says. “Then the yen crashed, and the project was canned instantly.”

Following His Passion

Wegener waved goodbye to fame and fortune and went back to making movies. In 1998, he came to Australia to promote “Siestas & Olas: A Surfing Journey Through Mexico,” living out of the back of a van on sponsored Corona and not much else. But the once-miserable lawyer was now a happy camper.

“Some Aussie friends told me if I came here I’d never leave,” he recalls. “I drove up the coast, and I remember sitting on a beach—there were dogs at my feet, I had a beer in my hand, there were topless girls soaking up the sun, some people were having a barbecue—and I thought to myself, ‘All of these are heavy-duty crimes in the United States. This is freedom.’”

"I had to figure out how to make a wooden surfboard that rode as good as, or better, than a foam board.”

Tom met Margie Hughes, a DJ on Noosa Heat FM, while he was in the studio to plug his movie. “I walked into the radio station and saw her through a glass wall. Our eyes met, and that was it,” he says. “She interviewed me about the movie and I interviewed her. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to marry you.’” That was March 1998. They were married in June that year, and their son, Finley, was born in February 1999.

“I was so stoked,” smiles Wegener. “Like a lot of Americans, I was ready to run. America was falling apart, and I was looking for something different. There are a lot of people who search for their destiny and come up just short. I got lucky.”

Lucky, too, that longboarding was just starting to take off in Australia, and that Noosa, according to Wegener, has the best longboard waves in the world. He started shaping longboards again, something he had been doing since he was a 12-year-old at middle school, and soon he was struggling to keep up with the orders. Everything was hunky-dory until the toxins from the foam boards he was working on began to play havoc with his health.

“I got near the stuff and I’d break out in a rash. I was glassing a foam board one day, and I came inside and Finley, who was four at the time, said, ‘Daddy, your breath smells of resin.’ That was it; I decided to stop using resin,” Wegener says. “I decided to make surfboards out of wood. What I had to figure out was how to make a wooden surfboard that rode as good as, or better, than a foam board.”

To do that, he needed the right timber, which he found in Paulownia. Paulownia is native to China, but in recent years, it has become popular in Australia due to its fast-growing and versatile properties. Paul Joske, a surfboard shaper from Coffs Harbour, was one of the first to make a surfboard from Paulownia, and he showed it to Wegener, who realized the wood had potential. Wegener started using it in his foam boards for stringers, nose blocks, tail blocks, and fins, and discovered it was an almost perfect raw material.

“It had these incredible, almost impossible characteristics,” he says. “It was light, easy to work with, very strong, and most importantly, it didn’t soak up salt water. We discovered that by accident, and it was a eureka moment. That discovery led directly to the Alaia revival.”

Finding Hawaiian Roots

Initially, Wegener used Paulownia to make handcrafted hollow-wood surfboards, and he couldn’t keep up with the demand. He had two people working for him and more than 100 orders on the books, so he celebrated with a trip to Hawaii in 2004. It was a family holiday, but Wegener was also a man on a mission. Like most surfing scholars, he had studied the surfers’ bible, “Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport” by Ben Finney and James Houston. As a surfboard shaper, he was intrigued by the chapters on the development of the surfboard, and particularly by pictures of the Olo and the Alaia in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

"The curves were mind-boggling. I came away hell-bent on making an Olo, but it turned out to be such a big project.”

The Olo was a long, thick board, reserved for the ancient Hawaiian chiefs in the 1800s. The Alaia was a much shorter, thinner board made from a plank of wood less than an inch thick, but renowned for its speed and maneuverability. While the Alaia shape was the blueprint for most surfboards in the early 20th century, the Olo was considered a relic, and according to Finney, “the last time a traditional Olo caught an ocean swell was around 1915.”

Wegener wanted to ride an Olo to mark his 40th birthday—“I wanted to experience the sport of kings”—but he needed to see the boards in the Bishop Museum to work out how to make his own. “When I saw them, I just flipped out,” he says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ The curves were mind-boggling. I came away hell-bent on making an Olo, but it turned out to be such a big project.”

Wegener takes me out to the paddock to show me just how big. To the side of the shed is a rough-and-ready surfboard rack, where the pride of place goes to the Olo—all 16 feet and 150 pounds of it. That’s taller than a double-decker bus, and nearly 25 times as heavy as a standard shortboard. Not surprisingly, it takes two of us to lift it.

“People saw me coming into the surf with it and would freak out,” laughs Wegener, “but I surfed it and surfed it until I figured it out. I was just challenged by it. The ancient Hawaiians must have been incredible surfers. You need so much strength to paddle an Olo, and your timing has to be perfect to ride a wave. I had some horrendous wipeouts, but when you catch a wave on the Olo, it’s a joy. It’s just a different type of surfing.”

After making the Olo, Wegener made an Alaia, and on March 5, 2005, he took the boards, some beers, and some friends down to his favorite break at First Point off Noosa Heads for his 40th birthday. A local surfer, Jacob Stuth, grabbed the Alaia and started a sensation.

“He got on this wave and took off, and was like, whoosh! The board was skittering, he was going so fast. We were like, ‘Man, that wasn’t supposed to happen.’ There were good surfers on good surfboards out there, and the Alaia went faster than any other board. The fin boards couldn’t keep up.”

The Olo and the Alaia are finless boards, making them much harder to control than modern boards, where two and three fins are common. Removing the fin made the boards faster and freer. So if the finless boards are so fast and so much fun, why have they been gathering dust in a museum for so long?

“My passion is making the wooden boards, but in order to survive as a surfboard maker, you have to have a separate stream of income.”

“One guy did make one in the early ’90s,” explains Wegener, “but they took it out and said, ‘Nah, it doesn’t work.’ They didn’t take the time to learn how to ride it. Now we have good enough surfers to ride them, but 20 years ago, the level of surfing was much lower than it is now.” Good surfers like David Rastovich and Tom Carroll endorsed the Alaia, and for a few years it was the must-have board. While the hype may have died down somewhat in recent years, the boards still haven’t gone away.

“Alaias are normal now, and that is the biggest compliment you can give a movement,” says Wegener. The ultimate compliment, though, came from Ben Finney, the anthropologist who had written about the history of Hawaiian surfing. “‘Tom, I’m so proud of you’, he told me. ‘You proved that the ancient Hawaiians surfed well.’”

Shaping a Movement

While Wegener has received plenty of awards for his work—including Shaper of the Year in 2009 from Surfing magazine—there was just a hint of a backlash last year on some online forums after the launch of his Tuna surfboard design, an epoxy-based, Alaia-style pop-out board licensed to Global Surf Industries (GSI).

Made by GSI in Thailand, over a thousand Tunas have already been sold—more than the number of handcrafted wooden boards Wegener has made since he started the business in 1998. But although surfers are buying the boards, some purists have accused Wegener of selling out. Derek Hynd, an Australian shaper/surfer, said, “He’s killed Bambi … he’s sold out to the ‘crass mass.’”

Wegener is hurt by the accusation. “He calls me a hypocrite for selling out? Derek was a professional surfer and worked for one of the big companies for years, and all of a sudden he’s calling me a sellout because I’m working with a big company? I’ve put years into this. I helped revive ancient Hawaiian surfing, but we’ve lost money year after year, and we still lose money every year on the Alaias.”

“Surfing has turned into a spectator sport when it should be about getting in the water."

His bank balance hasn’t been helped by the fact that Wegener has given so many boards away to friends and people in the industry, or that he made a DVD showing people how to shape their own Alaia, but he’s hoping the Tuna will be the golden ticket that provides some payback and allows him to keep doing what he loves.

“My passion is making the wooden boards, but in order to survive as a surfboard maker, you have to have a separate stream of income,” he says. Five percent of the market is interested in what I do—the hollow wood surfboards and the Alaias—but only a few surfers are willing to pay for them. The other 95 percent want to experience it, but on modern, easy terms; the Tuna is for them.”

As well as selling truckloads of the Tuna, Wegener also hopes it will widen surfers’ horizons.

“Surfing has turned into a spectator sport when it should be about getting in the water. What the kids see on TV and YouTube, the radical maneuvers and perfect waves, that’s what they expect all the time. You can ride the Tuna in really shallow, punchy little surf. It takes the whole Alaia experience and makes it so much easier. It’s surfing stripped right back to its essence.”

A lot like life on “Creation Plantation,” then.

For more information on Tom’s surfing experiences and to check out his range of surfboards, visit www.tomwegenersurfboards.com

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