A Shape Is A Soul A Shape Is A Soul

Eloquence by epoxy: “Hand shaping is an art of approximation where machine shaping is the science of accuracy. Combine this with the experience of a veteran shaper and you are at the intersection of form and function.” –Stefan Aftanas. Photos: Jeremy Koreski

By Malcolm Johnson

Too broke to fix a cracked surfboard fin, Stefan Aftanas had no choice but to do it himself. Fifteen years and 1,500 surfboards later, the Tofino-based surfer has a shaping bay that is ground zero for North America’s northernmost surf town: a place of saintly skills, storytellers and lucky breaks. In a pressured tourist town, how important is the epoxy of a sport’s cultural center?

JUST BEFORE YOU GET to Tofino, Vancouver Island’s west coast hot spot, a right turn off the Pacific Rim Highway onto a rough gravel drive takes you to the two-storey building that serves as the home of Aftanas Surfboards. Surrounded by tall cedar and hemlock trees, the place is best described as backwoods industrial: a flat roof, big garage doors, walls clad in graying cedar shakes and a poured concrete pad out front. A short walk through the forest takes you to the calm waters of Clayoquot Sound and gives you a view across the tidal flats to the mountains of Meares Island. Across the peninsula, a few kilometres to the south and west, lie the sandy, wave-swept beaches where Stefan Aftanas’s foam creations make their first meeting with the sea.

For the first-time visitor, there isn’t much evidence the Aftanas Surfboards’ building is the centre of the town’s thriving surf community; there are no flashy signs and no larger-than-life pro surfer posters on the outside walls. The hints are subtler and certainly more utilitarian: a few tools and fins left out on a table, a couple of sea kayaks waiting for fibreglass patches, a stack of broken longboards beside the salmonberry bushes. In a town changed substantially by tourist-driven gentrification in the last few years, it feels like a place where work still gets done, where form is still given the dignity of function. It’s a newer property, but it feels rough around the edges, the way coastal towns used to be.

A committed surfer who worked as a hammer-swinger in Tofino’s construction industry, the lean 37-year-old Stefan Aftanas was initially drawn to surfboard shaping as a do-it-yourself maintenance project in the mid-90s. “It was mostly an economical thing,” he says, speaking with the casual reflection that seems to mark much of his life. “I’d snapped a fin off my board and had to get it glassed back on, but I couldn’t afford to pay anybody to do it. At the time, there was nobody doing repairs in Tofino on a full-time basis. If my only board was broken, I needed to fix it myself so I could get back in the water.”

Surfboards, like the ones Aftanas builds, gain weight through time, with water seeping in through tiny cracks. They also gain the stories of the places they’ve been and the surf sessions they’ve survived.

“Jack Gillie [one of Tofino’s original board builders] gave me a hand and showed me how to glass a fin back on. I saw him shape a board, and I got into it from there.” explains Aftanas. “It felt really fruitful, in the sense that you were making something you could ride and you knew where it came from.” Surfboards, like the ones Aftanas builds, gain weight through time, with water seeping in through tiny cracks. They also gain the stories of the places they’ve been and the surf sessions they’ve survived. Through the sharp emotionality of how they’re used and what they do, the boards themselves seem to acquire their own sort of soul.

In this vein, Aftanas does more than shape boards and fix busted ones; he also provides a social service to the Tofino surf community, his shop functioning as a place of casual congregation for those who live here because of the town’s steady wave supply. It’s an unstructured, unpressured place where surfers can stand around and talk about their last session at Long Beach or their next trip to Baja, or they can hear about who steered into the ditch on a drunken bike ride home after a night at the Legion, or you may get drawn into a debate about the merits of proportional representation in the Canadian electoral system.

Aftanas’s shop—a place dedicated to building and fixing boards rather than selling them—becomes a narrative centre where stories get told and retold, a place where the experiences that surfboards make possible can be transferred from the individual to the surf community at large. In short, Aftanas Surfboards works as a full-service switchboard for Tofino’s coconut wireless.

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IN SURFING'S EARLY STAGES, the sport’s essential equipment was sourced from wood, solid slabs of koa or redwood, or hollow Hawaiian kook boxes similar to a skin-and-strut airplane wing. Shortly after World War II, surfboard shapers borrowed from the petrochemical and aerospace industries to develop the model that still dominates the market today, boards with polyurethane foam bodies given additional strength by thin wooden stringers and shells of fibreglass and resin. Most of the sport’s first stars— Californians like Dale Velzy, Greg Noll and Pat Curren—were board builders as well as surfers, and even as surfing burst into mass-market popularity in the 50s and 60s, the art of shaping boards by hand was treated with the highest respect.

Through the years, surfboard shapers attained an almost priest-like status with local surf communities. As smoke-break storytellers and protectors of an area’s oral history, they held the arcane set of skills that could turn a formless pile of foam and fibreglass into a lovely, artful sled for sliding along one of nature’s most aesthetically pleasing phenomena. But the smallest imperfections can make the difference between a great board and a total dog, so the shapers who succeeded in the industry were, for the most part, artisan tradesmen who had become masters of their materials, their tools and their craft.

Today, while some buyers opt for cheaper mass-produced boards from faraway production lines, custom shapers are still the chosen source for the most committed of surfers. Hand-shaped boards are given meaning and individuality through manual labour and are survivors from a rapidly vanishing era. And like anything made by hand, they absorb some of the creator’s personality. Small-scale shapers like Aftanas, both by choice and necessity, become purveyors of the art of the “slow” because they tend to be careful, analytical, invested in their work and closely connected to local communities and economies.

Crest of pride: Canada’s most celebrated wave slayer, Peter Devries, boosts a frontside air on Christmas Day, 2008. In 2009, Devries bested world-class surfers like Corey Lopez and Dusty Payne to win the Tofino Cold Water Classic. The moment is regarded as a high point in Canadian competitive surfing.

Crest of pride: Canada’s most celebrated wave slayer, Peter Devries, boosts a frontside air on Christmas Day, 2008. In 2009, Devries bested world-class surfers like Corey Lopez and Dusty Payne to win the Tofino Cold Water Classic. The moment is regarded as a high point in Canadian competitive surfing.

Board Shapers need to be, as Aftanas notes, deeply devoted to the act of surfing, which he describes as a meditative pursuit that clears your mind and teaches you to be appreciative of where you are. He starts laughing as he tells me about a missed opportunity in the water that led to a clearer understanding of design. “I was at Twin Rivers.” he grins. “I didn’t think I was going to get into this wave. But I scratched into it, dropped in, started bottom turning and then realized, ‘Man, this thing’s going to barrel; it’s going to be a gaper.’ The whole wave was just going square. When I came off the bottom, I was pushing pretty hard, trying to get back up onto the face where I could set the rail and ride the barrel. But the board did this little twitchy thing—the tail let loose for just a millisecond—and I had to recover from that and go around the section, and it made me miss the barrel.” Aftanas’ pauses, “So I’m standing there, just in front of the whitewater, looking at this amazing section that’s barrelling so hard, and then it spit just to show me exactly what I’d missed. That’s when I really realized why wide tails don’t work in hollow surf, and I immediately started incorporating that into boards.”

Aftanas started shaping boards in earnest over a decade ago, and within a few years, his reputation as a reliable builder of locally made boards had rippled through the tight-knit Tofino surf scene. He was working out of a garage in a rented house when I first met him, but it wasn’t long before his business expanded to the building it occupies now. Aftanas’s boards are sold in a number of West Coast shops and are ridden by many of the area’s rippers. The existence of a full-time shaper in town is a source of local pride for Tofino’s resident surfers.

“I was really lucky. I look back and think, ‘Wow, I had a tremendous amount of support.’ I didn’t have an advertising budget, and I didn’t even really realize that I was building up a company. I decided to do it on a small scale and put a lot of energy into it, and it was really well received,” he acknowledges. “Tofino is a town that supports people trying to do something. And if you work hard to get better, you’ll just continue to get the support. I felt really embraced.”

"After making 250 boards you think you know it all. After 500 boards you think you might know a few things. And after 1,000 boards you realize you don’t know anything. And then it’s just a pursuit of trying to understand. I’m between 1,500 or 2,000 boards now." - Stefan Aftanas

“It’s a struggle sometimes, though,” Aftanas continues, as we sit outside his shaping bay, where he and his partner Tanya, a park ranger, live in an attached apartment. “Someone put it best, though I can’t remember who it was, that after making 250 boards you think you know it all. After 500 boards you think you might know a few things. And after 1,000 boards you realize you don’t know anything. And then it’s just a pursuit of trying to understand. I’m between 1,500 or 2,000 boards now, so I’m getting a pretty full understanding of what works. But I’m a perfectionist, so I can be pretty hard on myself, and I’m always trying to change things and get better at what I do.”

Standing inside the Aftanas Surfboards shop is an immersion into the surfboard shaping industry. The downstairs is divided into four small rooms: one for shaping, one for glassing, one for sanding and one for painting. Upstairs are piles of supplies, racks of unfinished blanks and one obvious nod to the Internet age; a computerized CNC machine that cuts the basic shape of a board before it’s finished by hand. If you step into the shop on a weekday, you’ll usually find the CBC or Dr. Dre blaring on the stereo and Aftanas and his apprentice Isaac Raddysh engaged in the repetitive rituals of cutting fibreglass cloth, spreading resin over shaped blanks, or running a sander over an old board they’ve brought back to life through a ding repair. They always seem willing to step outside for a break, though, so a trip to the shop tends to become a two-hour diversion from your day.

“When you have a place like this you become a connector in some ways. This is a bit of a home base, I think, for some of the surfers. And I like that.” Aftanas reflects for a moment, “What I first loved about Tofino, and still do, is that surfing here is really about fun. Moving here was the best thing I ever did, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Tofino’s surf community would remain even without the Aftanas Surfboards shop, but the town would certainly be missing a piece of its heart. I parked outside on a cold Sunday this past spring and walked in to find a few locals sharing a case of Coronas. Aftanas and Raddysh were both there, along with Jens Kalwa, Kye Peladeau and a transplanted Australian surfer named Shannon Brown. The surf was flat, and everyone was talking the time away before the Vancouver Canucks were to take the ice against the San Jose Sharks. Over the hours I stayed there, the conversation flitted around like a winter wren in the forest. We spoke about the troubles Aftanas was having with his CNC machine, the wave conditions at a recent surf contest in Washington, a certain pro’s unfortunate support of the Sharks, a customer who’d shirked an order and wouldn’t pay up, spots that might be good on the coming south swell, and the amorous late-night conquests of one of the town’s groms. It was one of those Tofino moments that somehow felt both brilliantly special and utterly routine. How odd and wonderful. I walked away thinking these friendships and this practice of soulful community had been facilitated by something that would seem, to outsiders, as silly as building children’s toys.

I didn’t order a new board that afternoon, but I drove off feeling like a kid I’d seen visiting the shop the week before. He’d pulled up on a bike, stopping in to look for a 6’2” performance shape that he could buy for cheap. After some small talk and some questions about his surf style, Aftanas loaned him a second-hand board, a dinged-up three-fin thruster that had belonged to one of the local hotshot pros. The kid ran his hands along the rails, flipped it over to look at the bottom contours, and tucked it under his arm as he climbed back on his bike. When he left he was absolutely beaming, holding a whole summer of stories beneath his arm as he rode away/

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Malcolm Johnson spends much of his life shivering in the water at Tofino's surf beaches, much like his subject.

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