Tofino surfboards: Stefan Aftanas' Sculptural Life
by Malcolm Johnson, Tofino
Modern-day Tofino, when looked at with honesty, shows itself as a community
of multiple social separations. There are the lifetime locals and the
moneyed newcomers of the tourist industry; the First Nations and the
whites; the drug-addled bongo freaks and the monstrously healthy yoga-surf
set; the Friends of the Sound and the Rape-and-Ruin executives who
gaze out, lustfully, over the tracts of untouched timber on the God-shaped
mountains to the north. It’s a town that’s nothing if not
varied, and while some of its inhabitants never stray from their social
lines, yoked with blinders like beasts of the field, it’s the
people who live at the borders and intersections of Tofino’s
human territories who always seem to be the most interesting. And Stefan
Aftanas, who shapes custom surfboards in his garage, is one of them.
For those unfamiliar with surf culture, surfboard designers as referred
to as ‘shapers.’ The bodies of custom surfboards — styrofoam
blanks reinforced with wood stringers for strength — are mass-produced
in the United States, but the finished outlines are individually sculpted
by shapers using a variety of electric planers and hand tools. It’s
a labourious, unprofitable business, and often a thankless one, as
the most minute imperfections can make the difference between a solid
board and an unsurfable Dog. And though not always the best surfers,
shapers are revered within the sport for their understanding of the
physics and dynamics behind the sport, and often take the role of guardians
and sage figures, of people who Know What’s Up.
Conversations with Aftanas, who has become the coast’s leading
custom shaper, are unfailingly interesting experiences, touching on
everything from board design to Indo horror stories and musings on
the petrochemical dependency of the surf industry. He has the artist’s
gift of self-reflection, and has the ability to convey a huge amount
of amassed surf knowledge in language that surpasses the monosyllabic
stoke-isms that consume wannabe surf culture.
“When I was 17,” he says, “I didn’t even know
what surfing was. I was in a corner store at Woodlands, waiting for
someone, and saw a surf magazine on the rack. The cover was a guy in
a huge barrel, and I was just really drawn to the whole imagery of
surfing. My dad told me that guys did it up in Tofino; so I went up
there, and rented a board from Gold Coast back when it still existed.
“I think that summer, which was ’90, was a good south swell
season. I got hammered a lot and got swept in the rip past the rock
at Long Beach. The epiphany after that was ‘Point Break.’ I
thought ‘o.k., the place to go is Australia,’ so I went
there, met a guy in Ulladulla and started trading him guitar lessons
for the chance to hang out and watch him shape. And that was the beginning
of my interest in shaping, even though he warned me it was a dirty
job, which it is.”
Later, Aftanas found himself in Tofino after a roundabout path that
included the Sombrio scene, a van drive from Nanaimo to Central America,
a near-death experience in Baja and a chance encounter with Adam
Smallwood in Costa Rica.
“I came up, made my resume and ended up meeting Jack Gilley.
He asked me the all-important question — whether I listened to
the cbc—and I said yes, and he ended up teaching me almost everything
I know about surfing in Canada. He has an incredible eye for lines.
He taught me all the fundamentals, and I attribute a lot of my success
Since the early years, Aftanas has developed into a first-rate board
craftsman and now shapes full-time, supplying performance shortboards
to many in Tofino’s surf community. His products are a convergence
of sculpture and marine technology – “the art form of it
has always been appealing to me,” he says. “Grabbing a
blank by the nose and looking down the three dimensions, all the curves
and contours and how they come together into one function.
“Seeing people in the community surf your boards is the most
rewarding part of it,” he continues; “I surf here every
day, so I know how 90% of the people surf, and I know where they’re
at and what they need. And I don’t want people coming to me because
of advertising, but because they know I can deliver a top-line product.
But watching someone like Sepp or Peter or Ollie Atkey take one of
your boards and launch into the air on it, bringing your work to its
full potential, that’s a really crazy thing for me.
“I’m not even close to mastery yet. But I’m at the
point of knowing; there’s a purpose every time I touch the foam
with a tool, every time I pull the dragonskin across the rails. I’m
in control now. I’m not chasing mistakes anymore.”
And that seems to be a fine metaphor for the greater life; that every
time an action is taken it’s for a reason, for an end result
that’s a marriage of form and function, of art and utility. And
it’s that type of philosophy, and that type of expertise, that
will keep Aftanas’ boards at the vanguard of Canadian surfing
long into the coming decades.
Visit Stefan's website at www.aftanasdesigns.com
Malcolm Johnson works as a kayak guide in Tofino, with the occassional
foray into professional media life.
Tofino business profile of Stefan Aftanas, surfboard shaper in Tofino. Written by Malcolm Johnson for Tofino Time magazine.