Kevin Cody

Fast and finless: Riding a finless board is like driving a car that slides through corners

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“Riding a finless board is like driving a car that slides through corners. Every wave is exhilarating.” – finless surfboard shaper Tom Wegener

Tom Wegener with the alaia Tuna at the Hermosa Pier during a visit home last month.

Tom Blake’s decision in 1935 to attach a metal, speedboat’s keel to the bottom of his hollow, wooden surfboard has been regarded ever since as a major advancement in modern surfing. The keel made it possible for surfers to turn without having to drag a foot, and kept the tail from spinning out on steep waves.

Brothers Tom and Jon Wegener aren’t so sure that’s a good thing. Over the past five years the two Palos Verdes natives have been at the forefront of the finless surfing movement.

This month, they are introducing the finless Tuna surfboard to the United States. Their hope is to expand finless surfing from a few hundred expert surfers, mostly in Australia and Hawaii, to the average, recreational surfer.

“A finned board has a top-end speed. On a finless board you just keep going through the gears until the wave ends or you fall off,” Tom said. As for the tail sliding out, he said, “Riding a finless board is like driving a car that slides through corners. Every wave is exhilarating.”

The brothers became interested in finless surfboards in 2004 when Tom visited the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. Like Tom Blake, who was inspired during his 1924 visit to the museum to recreate the large olo surfboards ridden by Hawaiian royalty, Wegener was inspired during his visit to recreate the smaller alaia boards ridden by commoners.

Buffalo Keaulana with Jon, Rosa and Sydney Wegener at the 2008 Buffalo Big Board Classic at Makaha.

After returning to his home in Noosa, Australia, Tom noticed something unexpected in a widely reproduced photo, taken in 1890, of a Hawaiian surfer standing in the water, holding an alaia. The photo revealed a far more sophisticated design than the large olos, which perform well in slow rolling waves, like Waikiki’s, but not in larger, steeper waves. The alaia, Tom saw, had a concave bottom, parabolic rails and a flared tail.

“You wouldn’t design a board that way for Waikiki’s rolling waves. The concave would make it want to angle instead of going straight, and the parabolic rails would keep the tail from sliding out,” Tom said.

“That’s when I had a light bulb moment,” he said.

In Hawaii, he had visited what historians believe to be an old Hawaiian temple at Lyman’s Beach on Kona. Though popular with modern surfers, the wave at Lyman’s was thought to be too steep and fast for the ancient Hawaiians to have surfed.

But Lyman’s, with its shallow bottom, was a perfect alaia wave. What historians thought were temple steps were probably seating for a surf stadium, Tom reasoned.

“The Hawaiians had been surfing for 1400 years. They had a lot of time to figure out how to design a high performance surfboard,” he said.

The wood alaias Tom began making in Noosa and Jon in Hermosa Beach quickly caught on with elite, cutting edge surfers, including Robb Machado and Tom Curren.

Isaac Blyth in Noosa Australian, proving high performance surfing was possible on the the ancient alaia designs, despite the lack of a fin. Photo by Chris Stevens.

Former Australian pro Derek Hynd stopped riding finned surfboards entirely. He told Surfer’s Path magazine that he thought Blake’s introduction of the fin had done a disservice to surfing.

Tom is more diplomatic on the subject.

“Finless is half the universe of surfing, and we’re just rediscovering it now,” he said.

One person who shared the Wegener brothers’ interest in pre-fin surfing was Brian Keaulana. Each year the Keaulana family presents the Buffalo Keaulana Big Board Classic at Makaha.

Two years ago, they added an alaia division to the contest, which includes everything from long boards and outriggers to body boards and tandem surfing. Prior to the contest, the family asked the Wegeners to send them half a dozen finished alaias and some alaia blanks for the older Hawaiians to teach their kids to shape.

“We sent the boards over there three weeks before the contest, and by the time of the contest, the Hawaiian kids were ripping on them,” Jon said.

“They had eight alaia heats and they were the hit of the contest.”

Though contestants are traditionally west side locals, Jon was invited to compete.

Buffalo’s son Rusty rode a redwood alaia that had been hanging on a wall in the Makaha Bathhouse since the 1920s.  Rusty told Jon it had never occurred to him to try to ride the old board until he saw the kids on Jon’s alaias.

Rusty Keaulanai with a 1920s era redwood alaia that he took down from the wall of the Makaha Bathhouse for the 2008 Buffalo Big Board Classic. Photo by Jon Wegener

Jon, who recently moved his surfboard business from Hermosa to Encinitas, has sold about 200 traditional, wood alaias in California. The boards are five- to nine-feet long, 16 inches wide, an inch thick and unglassed. Oil and the tight grain of the paulownia wood keep them from absorbing water.

People who have ridden alais generally agree that down the line, and in the barrel they are the fastest board on the planet.

The downside, the Wegeners acknowledge, is alaias are hard to catch waves on because they are so thin.

“They’ve taught me a lot about where to line up. You have to sit in the impact zone because they don’t paddle very well,” Jon said in his characteristically understated manner.

“And because there is no fin, you can’t take off straight and make a bottom turn. You have to take off at an angle.”

Last year, in an effort to flatten the learning curve for finless boards, Tom began shaping thicker, easier to paddle alaias from EPS foam.

He said it took him about three months and two dozen polystyrene foam blanks to shape an alaia he was satisfied with.

Then he took it to friend Mark Kelly of Global Surf Industries, who had given him the blanks.

Kelly made a mold from Tom’s plug and began manufacturing the boards.

Global Surf is now offering 5-foot-3 and 6-foot-2 epoxy models of what they are calling the Tuna because the bottom edges were inspired by the shape of a tuna. Tom, who weighs 150 pounds, said the 5-foot-3 model provides him plenty of floatation for paddling. The Tunas are 2-1/4 inches thick and 16 inches wide. They retail for $499.

Jon is also making custom finless boards designed to ride like a traditional alaia, but easier to paddle. The custom  boards are half wood, half foam and fiberglassed. They range in length from 5-1/2-feet to 8-feet and are 2-1/4 inches thick.

“When I started surfing at the Cove in Palos Verdes in the ‘70s, there were still some old guys riding finless, redwood boards. So, there’s a tradition of finless boards in the South Bay,” Tom Wegener said.

The Alaia Tuna is available locally at Dive N’ Surf in Redondo Beach. Jon’s traditional and custom alaias are available at wegenersurfboards.com.

For more information visit tomwegenersurfboards.com; wegenersurfboards.com; wegenersfinlessfrontier.blogspot.com; and surfindustries.com. B

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