By Jake Howard
Wasting away in Margaritaville is one thing, but there’s more to the agave plant than tequila and looking for that lost shaker of salt.
For a number of years now, a handful of surfboard shapers have been building boards using the flower stalk of the agave plant instead of the traditional foam blanks. San Diego’s Gary Linden was one of the first to experiment with the material.
“The byproducts of the tequila-making process provide a huge source of what I believe can be used to make a plethora of products, providing jobs for people that really want and need to work,” explained Linden, who’s spent time in Mexico working with the Jose Cuervo distillery. “I feel if we all focus our creative minds we can come up with something pretty special.”
A couple of winters ago, Linden shaped a big-wave gun for pro surfer Alex Gray, which was put to the test during a sizable run of swell at Isla Todos Santos in northern Baja.
“I rode it on the biggest day at Todos last winter and the board worked insane,” Gray said. “It’s a heavier surfboard. The agave is very porous and soaks up a lot of resin, so you get a lot of momentum paddling. It felt alive compared to a regular surfboard.”
Given South Orange County’s history of surfboard design and construction, it only seems logical that perhaps the future of green, renewable board materials is landing in local waters. Like so many brilliant ideas, this one starts at a coffee shop. In the spring of 2016, local surfer and aspiring designer Nate Headrick was working at Crank & Grind in Dana Point when Ian Bryan, an artist and photographer, was invited to show some of his work at the cafe/bike shop. The founder of Jonathan Seagull Butterfly Art and Laguna Skateboards, he was invited to showcase his butterfly works and bamboo-veneered skateboards. His vision for Laguna Skateboards was to develop more sustainable boards using a pressed bamboo veneer.
Conveniently, Headrick had been experimenting with how to efficiently produce surfboards using agave. Both seeking new ways to make more environmentally friendly and sustainable equipment for surfers and skaters, they struck up a friendship over a few cups of coffee.
“The coffee shop provided me with a forum of sorts. I’d get two or three minutes with each customer and few opportunities were missed to talk about the potential of agave,” says Headrick. “I had my collection of flyers on the counter and I got a lot of my first stalks that way. It was a fun way to rub elbows with all of the members of the community and meet like-minded people. I met Ian Bryan, a Laguna Beach artist, and we combined forces to take Agave Surf to the next level.”
Like that, Agave Surf was born. The initial agave skates were a relative success and the focus quickly jumped to surfboards.
“We found that if grown to term as a building material, agave stalks could be harvested after the mother plant has reproduced itself clonally many times over, and leaving its root system intact is important. This makes agave incredibly effective for converting atmospheric carbon into stable, underground biomass…and agave can be grown almost everywhere the surf culture exists,” Headrick said. “This is the next step for surfing, to create a local system for growing surfboards to displace the materials and practices that undermine our lifestyle.”
Because agave is farmed to produce tequila, young plants are harvested and the stalks are left as a byproduct that typically gets cast aside, but when milled and laminated, the woody material is ideal for shaping surfboards.
“Agave Surf is set to launch our ‘We Grow Surfboards’ campaign to help us collect materials from local agave and spread knowledge of agave as a building material, while encouraging an appreciation for the products people buy and their sources,” Headrick said.
The company has also partner up with a nonprofit called Growers First, which is working with farmers in Mexico to help close the farm-to-wave loop.
“We are collaborating with them to produce agave plants for future cultivation. Their mission is to advocate for impoverished agricultural communities and families,” Headrick.
The agave surfboard concept has been floating around for some time thanks to early adaptors like Linden, but until Agave Surf came along, nobody had ever tried to put a business model behind it. Headrick and Bryan changed that, and the process may change how you look at your next surfboard purchase.