Wooden surfboards make waves in Africa

In Tofo, Mozambique, a young surfer launches into the sea on a thin piece of wood. He paddles to the backline and when a wave approaches he catches it effortlessly, shooting down the line of a long right-hand breaking wave on his wooden surfboard.

On the other side of the African continent, in Cabo Ledo, Angola, another young surfer catches a wave on a handcrafted piece of coconut wood and rides a long left-hand breaking wave for nearly a minute.

It’s early days yet, but there’s a small band of surfers in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique who are taking to the waves on handmade wooden surfboards crafted from local woods and drawing inspiration from the way Hawaiians made their surfboards hundreds of years ago.

Although small – a total of 47 people have been taught the craft of wooden surfboard shaping since 2019 –  even this is significant. That’s because there are few local surfers at many of Africa’s more remote, poor and best surfing locations. For many coastal communities in Africa, the costs of surfing make it a closeout for young kids. It’s hard to live a surf lifestyle when you have more pressing needs.

The surfer behind the initiative teaching kids to make their own wooden surfboards is Francesco Gigli.  Significantly, his efforts have also resulted in Tofo local Manuel Agusto Nhamussua starting his own shaping business under the label Manu Shapes.  Nhamussua makes hollow wooden surfboards but is also a permanent mentoring presence for kids in Tofu who have attended workshops.

A former geography teacher, Gigli was inspired by seeing how positively his students responded to practical projects in class. A keen surfer, who says he was “addicted and totally committed as soon as I took my first wave” he had also built his own hollow wooden surfboard five years ago. This combined inspiration led to his idea to travel the continent teaching local communities how to make their own sustainably built surfboards from locally sourced materials.

GLOBAL GIVING: Frankie’s project is a GlobalGiving partner and is raising money for Manu Shapes in Tofo, Mozambique. You can donate here. 

When Frankie first said he was going to travel around Africa in a van and teach kids to build hollow wooden surfboards, I had my doubts. He said it matter-of-factly as he was gluing down a rail strip on the wooden longboard he was making in a workshop with me in my workshop near Cape Point.

Not that I didn’t think it was a great idea; it’s just that logistically I couldn’t see it happening. Many of the specialist glues and resins we use in the trade just wouldn’t be available.

And yet, why not? We know how awesome surfing is. The stoke you get, the life experience, the health benefits, the thrill, the joy, the excitement. Add to this the stoke that comes with actually making your own surfboard and the practical skills that are imparted though that process. Frankie got that. As a teacher by profession he understood the duality of surfing and making surfboards, working with wood. And he got how that could be used to benefit others, to teach and to grow.

“Building a wooden surfboard resulted in true self-confidence, which is rare in a society where we don’t make things ourselves anymore, we just consume,” says Gigli. “This feeling, together with the realisation that making Alaia’s is very simple, inspired me and motivated me to share those same feelings of accomplishment and happiness, also valuable practical skills, which could be amplified by the use of the surfboard in the water once it has been shaped… resulting in the ultimate stoke!”

He finished the longboard he was making, promising to keep in touch. About a year later he was back. This time he wanted to make an Alaia, a traditional Hawaiian surfboard shaped from a plank of wood. The hollow wooden surfboard would be difficult, he agreed, but Alaia’s were simpler and would be a way to use local woods and materials that could be treated with natural oils.

By this time, Frankie and his wife Vicky had established a non-profit called Vanderful Seeds of Hope with a stated aim of transforming lives by skill-sharing, teamwork and facilitating new creative opportunities through expressive arts and surf-craftsmanship. 

Frankie and Vicky quit their jobs, packed up their van and surfboards and put foot to the floor on the long road up Africa’s West Coast. There’s thousands of miles between Cape Town and Tangier – and some of Africa’s best surf spots.These are the places Frankie was going to.

“Surfing is the ultimate joy in my opinion and I believe that people should feel grateful and blessed to have experienced it, even if it was once in a lifetime.” – Francesco Gigli

Beyond the idea of stoke, that term which surfers refer to frequently but is hard to pin down, Gigli sees benefits beyond just the fun of catching a wave.

“From gathering and understanding the materials, the selection of unique wooden planks they will use, understanding hydrodynamics, problem solving and critical thinking, using different hand tools which support fine and gross motor skill development, working as a team (if they are working together shaping a board), time management… the list of benefits could go on forever.”

Other benefits include learning aesthetics, symmetry, measurements and calculations. “Wood is beautiful but it isn’t a uniform and perfect material this results in uneven surfaces that need to be worked around, requiring compromise and endurance.”

It’s more than the practical skills, however. 

“The therapeutic benefits of being close to nature and spending time in the water can help achieve serenity, especially when you come from a difficult background or marginalised areas of society,” he says, remembering hours spent in the ocean and how it bonded participants as a group and made them curious about how to surf an Alaia and the ancient Hawaiian style of surfing.

There are two broader surfing related issues the project raises, the high cost of access to the sport, and how developing countries respond to sustainability concerns. 

“Surfing in western countries has a low entry level cost as the equipment and materials are widely available and cheap, but in developing countries those costs are not adjusted relatively to a lower income level,” he explains.

“Actually, sometimes they are higher because of the lack of local production and high transportation or import costs. This in turn results in a very high entry level cost for a lower income demographic, which makes the sport elitist. The only way to encourage more accessibility is to promote more local production.”

The lack of a surf industry in many countries presented serious challenges, but also sparked a learning process. 

An example of this was understanding the local flora and sourcing the right wood in each location. 

In Mozambique, they spent days sifting through piles of coconut wood, learning that the wood has different densities depending on the section of the trunk being used. This process led to friendships with the locals, who shared their knowledge.

“We had some trial and errors which in the end taught us so much, like when we realised that the surface of the coconut wood was made up of little fibrous splinters, we created a wood finish that was made from melted beeswax and linseed oil which if applied to the boards when it was hot, spread into all the crevices which prevented abrasion and cuts but increased the board’s grip!” 

It’s well documented how despite being a close to nature sport, the production of surfboards is far from environmentally friendly, leading to some limited sustainability efforts in the industry.

In developing countries, this only makes production more expensive. “For this reason, we tried to solve these issues by teaching young people how to make wooden surfboards which have next to no impact on the environment and have a host of other profoundly beneficial results. The products and tools we use are widely available and accessible and our materials are completely natural, this results in a truly accessible sport, with a considerably cheaper entry level.”

Africa is a vast continent of 54 countries and nearly one billion people. Not all of these people are on the coastline, but there’s plenty of scope for new locations to hold workshops. Vanderful already has several in the planning stages for 2023 with added educational, business and skills training to complement the surfing workshops.

The wooden surfboard field has grown tremendously over the last decade. It seems to me that there’s a danger in that: as more wooden surfboards are made, as more people demand an environmental choice, the temptation to pick the low hanging fruit on the sustainability tree grows. But there’s often little or only superficial thought given to the harder questions about what it means to really address the sustainability problems our surfing lifestyles raise. That’s why I find Vanderful’s story so inspiring – they’ve chosen the hard route, they haven’t shied away from the environmental and social problems or attempted to greenwash them. Instead they’ve met them head on, made those problems and solving them the reason for their existence, not just a selling point. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.

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