Sport: Back to the Beach
Tom Wegener’s preference for longboards—a type of surfboard that measures at least 9 feet and can reach 16 feet—ultimately stems from his impatience. “Even from a young age, I couldn’t wait for the surf to get good. I wanted to surf right away,” says the 41-year-old champion surfer, star of the 1997 surfing film Siestas & Olas, and owner of Wegener Surfboards in Noosa, Australia. Longboards, he explains, compared to the more popular shortboards measuring from 6 to 7 feet, are suited to a wider range of waves. In other words, longboards allow for less waiting and more surfing.
Wegener, who grew up in Palos Verdes, Calif., and surfed at nearby Redondo Beach, began shaping his own surfboards from foam blanks in 1979 because the materials were inexpensive and because, he says, “No one was making what I wanted to ride, so I made my own.” However, what he really wanted to ride, and could not afford, was a 1950s-era balsa wood board. Wegener surfed with one of those vintage models once in the late 1970s or early 1980s—he cannot recall exactly when—and concluded that nothing performed as well on the waves.
Then seven years ago, after he had married and settled in Noosa, a town in the Queensland region, Wegener rode a board made from paulownia wood and determined that it was as good as one made from balsa. A friend of his, Paul Joske, had created the board for the local paulownia growers’ association, which was trying to increase demand for the product. Although Joske was unimpressed with the paulownia surfboard, Wegener recognized the wood’s potential the instant he tested the board on the water. “The first thing that entered my mind was, ‘Oh my God, this is just like the balsa wood board I rode 20 years earlier,’ ” he recalls. Excited by his discovery, Wegener taught himself woodworking so that he could make surfboards from paulownia, a process that he did not master until 2003. (His day job, crafting foam surfboards, paid the bills in the meantime.)
Wegener struggles to articulate why wooden boards are superior to foam and fiberglass, but he is convinced that they are. “They just feel better,” he says. “You have a real connection to the waves with a wooden board.” Other surfers apparently agree. The demand for paulownia boards has become strong enough for Wegener to discontinue his foam line. He and an apprentice produce about 50 surfboards each year, ranging in size from 9 to 16 feet long. His 12-foot model, the most popular one, costs about $2,500. Wegener’s six-month waiting list likely will grow longer because of the demise of Clark Foam, a California company that supplied about 90 percent of the foam blanks used by custom surfboard makers before it closed abruptly in December, throwing the industry into turmoil.
As handsome as his surfboards are, Wegener is not interested in sculpting pieces of functional art, and he is in no hurry to fulfill commissions for boards that he knows will never touch water. “Some clients say they want [my surfboards] in their collection, but I haven’t gotten around to making them,” he says. “I will make them eventually, but there’s no rush. It’s not like they’re missing out on a good swell.”