Surfing’s dirty little secret

It’s surfing’s dirty little secret.

The majority of modern surfboards are made from toxic, non-biodegradable petrochemical products that belie the idyllic images of humans interacting with the forces of nature.

Surfboard construction has largely stayed the same since the late 1950s when the first foam and fibreglass boards emerged out of California.

Before that, they were built from timber. Veteran surfboard builder Tom Wegener now hopes to start a revolution by getting more surfers back onto wooden boards.

A sustainable way to surf

“My goal is to make boards in my shed without fumes,” Mr Wegener said. “My goal is to teach people, kids mostly, to make surfboards in their garage.”

Wegener, 55, gave up a career in law in his native California to travel the world as a pro longboarder. He arrived in Noosa in 1998 as part of a surf film promotion and loved the place so much he decided to stay.

After being introduced to paulownia timber by Australian surfboard manufacturer Paul Joske, he began a fifteen-year journey of discovery and innovation.

In 2009, Wegener was named shaper of the year by Surfer magazine, largely for kickstarting a revival of ancient Olo and Alaia surfboards, which he popularised using Australian-grown paulownia.

“It’s the best wood in the world for making surfboards,” he said. “It doesn’t absorb saltwater, it’s light, it carves really easily with your planers, it’s grown in plantations, it’s been around forever, it takes varnishes and oils, it paints really well, it’s just a very versatile plantation-grown timber.”

In 2013, Wegener began a doctoral thesis at the University of the Sunshine Coast on the sustainability of the surfing industry. He said about $4 billion worth of surfboards were produced each year globally, but the industry had made little progress in moving away from its reliance on petrochemicals.

An etching by Wallis McKay, circa 1874, depicting Hawaiian surfers using wooden boards

Australia’s state-based workplace safety regulations have come a long way since the 1970s when the first serious health effects of working with polyurethane foam and polyester resins emerged. Businesses such as The Glass Lab at Tweed Heads in New South Wales must now follow strict WorkSafe guidelines.

Manager Jason Frost said the company invested close to a million dollars two years ago in a new factory with a state-of-the-art extraction system for removing dust and dangerous fumes. “If we remove everything out of the air, we are as good as any other factory for any industry anywhere in Australia,” said Frost.

The Glass Lab was producing up to 225 boards a week for some of the world’s biggest brands and although there was demand for a more sustainable product, performance was the key driver.

“No-one would go and buy a board that’s not going to perform because that’s like a golf club with too short a shaft — it’s not going to work,” Mr Frost said.

Green boards need professional backing

According to Nick Carroll, some manufacturers were experimenting with new products, such as paulownia or bamboo veneers, but the quest for a green surfboard would need the support of professional surfing to really take off.

“There’s certainly been a move towards using the word sustainability when it comes to manufacturing surfboards, but just how green it makes the product is a matter of some debate,” he said.

He said design and production trends relied heavily on professional surfers. The World Surf League had considered taking a lead from Formula One Racing by imposing production guidelines on elite competitors. But the proposal was not treated seriously because of resistance from the top surfers.

“The surfers themselves would say, ‘look we want the best possible boards for riding on waves, that’s our priority’,” Carroll said. “Until you can make the surfboards out of greener plant-based materials that match the performance of the board I’ve got under my feet right now, then I’m not a fan.”

Wegener believes change may instead come from surfing’s grassroots. “It’s going to be up to the do-it-yourself guys to push this idea and to get the kids onto it, and once the kids start doing it, making their own boards in their garages, which is simple to do with my process and with wood, you’ll see it just explode,” he said.

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