Visiting and getting to interview Tom Wegener was a true pleasure. For the article in SURFING's Surfboard's Issue, I wrote a nice, pretty intro to the interview — but for a moment here, I just want to speak plainly. We choose our annual "Shaper of the Year" based on several factors: Is he tapping into the most cutting edge thing going on Right Now? Are some of the best surfers in the world riding his boards? (And do we have hot, photographic proof?) Is he progressing the state of surfboard making? Stuff like that. It's a really big decision for us. We spend our year talking to a lot of people, polling our go-to and in-the-know sources, and in the end, we trust our guts. This year, Tom Wegener fit all the criteria perfectly — but more than that, it was just a little bit off-the-wall enough to be truly interesting. His alaias were old, they were new, they were cutting edge and they were utterly simplistic…but, most of all, they were really fun to ride.
With all that on our minds, I set off to Noosa Heads, on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, to meet with Tom, check his scene, and tell him the news. The visit was a sublime pleasure. Tom's family is really amazing and welcoming. His home is this wonderful and very simplistic — a properly symbiotic organic compound with his wood-shaving feeding his gardens, his roof collecting rainwater for drinking and showers…all kinds of good stuff. His small shaping operation was right behind his house and he was mentoring a young shaper to be his apprentice (a cool kid named Matt Williams, who only rode alaia boards and lived out of his van). The whole scene just epitomized the roots of surfboard making — and in this day and age of computer shaping, overseas factories and mass production (not that any of that is bad), it was wonderful to see.
We spent three days riding the alaias in Tom's nearby paradise of Noosa Heads and Tea Tree Bay. Turns out, alaias are really hard to ride (I'd been told it so many times by guys like Rob Machado, Dan Malloy and Dave Rastovich, but I still had to find it out for myself to truly believe it). The first day, I never made it to my feet — and I had an awesome time. The second day, I learned to catch waves, and made it to my feet for a few waves. And the third day, I actually had a few fun, long alaia rides — and by then I was already totally addicted to la-la. The whole experience was like learning to surf all over again, but this time you noticed your own stinkbug stance, late stand-ups and ridiculous over-the-falls catastrophes…which made it all the more fun.
Without rambling on and on (cause this interview does enough of that), I left Noosa Heads more stoked than ever about the man SURFING chose as 2008's Shaper of the Year. Here was a guy who left a career in law behind to hand-shape wooden boards like nobody else in the world was making, simply because it was fun. It may sound like a simple choice on paper (especially in surf magazine), but the truth around it is really amazing. He studied true genuis' like George Greenough, Tom Blake and the Hawaiian ancients. And he came up something utterly and completely different — and it totally works. This little "alaia revolution" isn't going to change the fact that the Thruster is the best thing going on a wave, but it may change the way you feel about surfing. And to us, that's pretty huge.
I won't lie. This is a fairly long interview. In print, we edit these things way down for the magazine. But here on the web, I thought I'd give the true believers a chance to read the whole damn thing (well, a much bigger chunk, at least). Enter if you dare. And thanks for caring.
SURFING MAGAZINE: What does this term "La-La" mean?
TOM WEGENER: La-La is in the Hawaiian dictionary and the definition is "the controlled slide in the curl when surfing on a board." People used to think, "Yeah, it's just sliding across the wave." But no, it's the controlled sideways slide. Going forward and sliding sideways. La-la. It's just such a perfect word for the feeling. La-la. It just feels like "la-la" when you're sliding out.
A lot of great surfers can't stop talking about that feeling. What's this about "the La La Society?"
That's just kind of a little joke amongst all the guys who ride alaias. But it's also maybe what I hope will be my legacy — that people remember me as the guy who brought alaia boards backs. It goes faster than anything else…and that feeling is so addictive. You're going so fast that you hop on a regular board and you want that same speed that you just can't get with a finless board. You get this incredible rush and you're whole life become about making long, fast sections.
Considering how hard these boards are to actually ride well, I've heard it suggested that the reason these surfers are into their alaias is that no-one else can do it. It's like a form of rebellion reacting to our current Beginner Boom.
Isn't that funny. I don't think that's it. The people I've spoken to say it's like starting over again. It's like falling in love with surfing all over again. It's just all exciting and new — the exact same feeling, but maybe it's even better the second time around.
When your brother Jon started making alaias for California, were people already starting to take interest?
Not at all. Jon came over to Australia early on, and by this time I was totally possessed. I was a madman, because I couldn't believe that we were doing this. That was early 2005. By October 2005, I told my brother, "You've got to get down here." He was into it right off the bat, but he couldn't get the same wood over in California. He went home with a bunch of 'em, but people weren't that open to them in California…well, nobody was open to them. Not until Rasta picked one up. And that's when everything changed. But between my brother and I, nobody was surfing them great. Nobody was saying, "Yeah, those guys are tearing it up out there." The first 40 boards I made were basically gifts for people. In the beginning, there were very few that I actually sold.
Now who's riding them?
Tom Carroll was the first big-name surfer. I got the joy of watching his first waves — I was just biting my nails watching him as he took off on this wall and then the wave just slams him. He surfed it unbelievably well for the first time, but nothing too amazing. Then he comes in and says, "I think I just had an affair with this board." He was so stoked. But just like us, he wasn't doing all that much, just going down the line.
Then the next big step was [filmmaker] Thomas Campbell. I sent him about five boards for his wedding gift. He'd already had one and given it away. Then Dan Malloy got on one. Thomas Campbell kept putting them into peoples hands, going, "Try this, Rasta thinks they're great." Chris Del Moro rode one in Taiwan — he gets slotted and comes in just beaming, just in complete disbelief about how fun it was. It's like that very first day of surfing all over again.
And then Tom Carroll was up during the Noosa Festival last march. He called me up and said, "Tom Curren's borrowing my board, just ripping it and loving it." So I ran home and made Curren one that night. It all happened over a month that people were flashing on them left right and center…but before that I spent years just not selling any, but knowing that these things worked. I knew that there was something here. The ancient Hawaiians were surfing 'em well. But we weren't getting any press until Thomas starting pushing them.