The conventional surfboard is made from resin, foam, fiberglass, and paint. You won’t find these products in the organic section of the surfboard builders shop—all four elements are derived from petroleum and manufactured by the chemical industry.
Thus, the main instrument of surfing, the surfboard, is an ecological travesty. In it lies the dilemma of a surfer that strives to be environmentally responsible.
There is one surfboard out there, however, that rises to the top of the eco list. In fact, it is the most ecological alternative available to surfers: the Alaia.
An Alaia is made from wood and requires none of the above petroleum-based materials. Even though working with wood is much different than working with foam, while shaping this eco sled the basic concepts remain the same.
You need to draw the outline, cut out the basic shape, put in the rails, scoop the nose for rocker, and finish the board with multiple grades of sandpaper. Slap on some linseed oil and you’re ready to ride. Brad Tucker from Wood Surfboard Supply says people can make them easily with hardly any tools and recently proclaimed, “the quick build makes them really fun to shape.”
Working with wood really changes the shaper’s perspective. Mowing through Polystyrene (the most common foam surfboard blank) is like taking a chemical bath, but shaping an Alaia is like raking the leaves in your yard. Which do you prefer?
Jon Wegener, one of the current day Alaia legends, wrote that he finds it joyful to shape wood and not use any resin or fiberglass to make a great riding surfboard, and that this has made an imprint on his board making.
Most Alaias are made from Paulowina wood blanks, but other lighter wood can also be used. The Paulowina wood shapes easily, as the softness of the wood makes the planner move through it gracefully.
Indigenous to China, Paulowina has been cultivated for 2000 years. Most Paulowina species grow very fast and can reach heights of 30-60 feet in fifteen years, growing up to 10-20 feet per year under ideal conditions—it’s like the bamboo of trees.
Once the trees are harvested they regenerate from their existing root system, earning them the name “Phoenix Tree”. That’s cool, no? Paulowina has the ability to reclaim ecologically stressed and degenerate patches of land. The root system can penetrate complex soil environments, turning wasteland into regenerative forest, kind of like an eco angel.
Paulowina is great for surfboards because it has a good weight to strength ratio, being lighter than hardwood but more durable than balsa. It also absorbs less water than many other types of wood and therefore does not need a resin or glass finish, which makes it super ecological—though you could glass it if you wanted.
The Alaia, like anything made of wood, is 100% biodegradable.
The Alaia comes from Hawaii and was part of the Hawaiian surfing heritage, the original boards were between 7-12 feet long, weighed up to 100 pounds and were made from the wood Acacia Koa.
Surfing was a recreational pastime in early Hawaiian culture. Everyone took part in it, Chiefs and villagers alike. It developed over generations, and board builders held a special place amongst the hierarchy of the village.
The early Hawaiian shapers used sharpened stone to carve the boards and sharkskin to sand them smooth. They oiled their boards with natural plant oils to keep them in good condition. It took those early shapers months to build a board, and that board would last its owner a lifetime.
Quite frequently, the boards would be handed on to the next generation in the family or sometimes buried with the owner, thus allowing surfers to continue their passion in the afterlife. If you had to take one board with you to that great swell in the sky, which would you take?
It’s a complex activity to ride an Alaia. It is hard to get them on a plane and even more difficult to actually stand up. It takes, well, persistence. Alaia shaper Mike Yannelli put it nicely, “one foam shaper I know calls them non-functional, but if you don’t give up the reward of riding one is incredible, the glide is unreal.”
Dave O’Reilly from Surfing Green in Australia wrote in to say that there is a lot of satisfaction in riding something that you have built, be it foam or wood, but he has found Alaias particularly rewarding because they are quite difficult to ride: “the greatest satisfaction in things comes from them being harder to do and learning how to do it—patience, and you will become a great Alaia rider.”
Alaia is a Basque girl’s name, meaning joy and happiness. This is exactly how you’ll feel when you finish shaping one and then get to ride your very own eco creation.
(I’d love to hear your comments and feedback. For more information on ecology, surfing and stoke please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or look for me on an Alaia around Ventura County beaches.)