Carve Your Place

March 24, 2014

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On a far northwestern island in Canada, lies a small windswept town that has recently grown into an unlikely surf mecca. At its core is a man named Stefan Aftanas who is too humble to admit his crucial role in helping shape the thriving surf scene that exists today. It’s no coincidence that Stefan’s surfboard business, Aftanas Surf Designs, has grown in parallel with this town’s surf culture. The two are in fact intrinsically linked by the man’s love for his craft and for his town. Welcome to Tofino, the home of Stefan Aftanas.

Stefan’s foray into surfing happened in the early 90s, at a time when both he and the town of Tofino had only just begun to get their feet wet. Stefan laughs as he recalls his first exposure to this ‘thing called surfing’ through the movie Point Break. His second encounter was the catalyst that really opened his eyes to the world of surfing. As he stood flipping through the glossy pages of Surfing at the magazine stand of his local grocery store, he rested for a moment at the centerfold. The image of a surfer gliding through a barrel, left him awestruck and determined to give surfing a go. It wasn’t until learning that kids were surfing in a nearby town called Tofino that Stefan set out on a trip that would shape his life.

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It was the 1990’s, and while surfing had taken off in California, the Canadian surf scene was still slowly emerging. Stefan remembers arriving in the logging and fishing centric town with a rented board, and rolling past completely empty beaches. “It was a pretty tough town back then, you know, surfing wasn’t mainstream and was only being done by people on the fringes.” Although the rough waters and the community at large didn’t embrace eager grommets like Stefan, the abundant waters could not be ignored.

Stefan’s early rides quickly revealed that surfing was not a sport for the impatient. He recognized that to make any kind of progress in surfing, “you’d need to be ok with repetition…most of the time you’d try but it wouldn’t work.” Perseverance is particularly necessary in the challenging swell of Tofino, known for being unforgiving and hard to read. Stefan recalls “you’d have to learn to grovel to make the waves work for you.” The uninviting appearance of the surf is perhaps one reason for Tofino’s pleasantly uncrowded waters. Taking the scene at face value, newcomers would frequently misjudge the surf quality of Tofino, when in fact there was great potential there. For young Stefan, his first break came when a local tipped him off about the cleaner, more manageable Coxs Bay area. On his fourth trip to this location, it clicked. Just like the image portrayed in that ‘Surfing’ centerfold, he was swept to his feet by a clean wave and carried across the water. Having now laid the foundations in Tofino, Stefan was hooked on surfing.

After a short stint at a commerce degree, Stefan ventured across the world on surf trips to Australia, Central America and Mexico. He never forgot his first ride in Tofino, and a fateful conversation with a fellow Canadian in Costa Rica had him reconsidering the town’s difficult waves. The secret to cracking the waves in Tofino was revealed in all its simplicity: “don’t be too picky and wait for the perfect day to surf, just surf today.” Instilled with a new confidence, the then 24 year old Stefan returned to Tofino, committed to “live by a tide rather than a time.”

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Stefan started out in Tofino working in construction, and owes much of his fate to his first boss and avid surfer, Jack Gillie. At the time there were very few boards available in Tofino and Stefan was surfing and breaking boards constantly. Not willing to wear the cost or the wait of a repair, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Speaking of Jack, Stefan recalls – “he taught me the fundamentals of surfboard construction, which sped up the learning curve.” With Jack’s watchful eye, Stefan was soon able to re-attach a fin to a board, knowing that “if you could attach a fin, you could do anything.” Jack leant him a space in his home, allowing Stefan to practice repairs and soon enough start making his own boards.

Eventually Jack needed his space back, which was a blessing in disguise that forced Stefan to arrange his own set up. He built a rack and converted his garage into a mini surfboard factory and repair shop. Stefan jokes, “I tried to quit repairs four times, but people kept slipping boards under the garage door with repair notes. I realized people needed a service like this, so I continued and built up the business.” Stefan had found his niche and begun to carve his place inside the surf community of Tofino.

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Stefan’s progression as a shaper, was very much assisted by the community that needed it. Tofino was, and still is, a supportive town, but it is also one that doesn’t tolerate egotistic characters. Stefan believes it is important to “think about what you can add to a place and create something…don’t just take.” Rather than arriving in Tofino and asking himself, “what does Tofino have for me”, Stefan would ask “what do I have for Tofino.” According to him, “its amazing how everything changes when you have this perspective.”

The discipline and focus that earned Stefan a place on the waves and in Tofino, has played a third role in his career as a shaper. Not adverse to practice, Stefan focused his energies on learning his tools, and as he describes it, “working from scratch until I understood the product.” Although he later incorporated a CNC machine into his board production, Stefan still respects the serendipity of hand shaping, explaining, “through this human process, you make subconscious decisions that can give way to a magic board.”

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Having hand shaped thousands of boards and with his products now in high demand, it was time to take the “grunt work” out of production and create a more efficient process. He explains, “the CNC machine is designed to essentially rough out the shape of the board, completing 90% of the foundation, but 0% of the crucial final touches.” A true designer, Stefan does not view the CNC as a short cut, but rather a tool to test and refine his boards. “Its a balance between art and science – the machine has no play in the personal slant your hands will put into a board…You’ve got to understand where the foam goes and where it stays.” He advises that “every young shaper should learn how to hand shape first, as it will force you to come up with your own style and ensure all the boards out there don’t look the same.”

Although there is art in Stefan’s craft, informed design is also key. The way his products perform their function is central to the design process and to achieve success, Stefan is constantly testing and refining. Incorporating this new technology into his process has enabled him to reduce some aspects of board design to a science. By referencing the database of board files that are electronically stockpiled through the CNC, Stefan can now predict the necessary adjustments to facilitate varying design briefs. “Customers will say what works for them, where they want to surf and what their goals are.” With this information and the data collected from previous shapes, Stefan can design the ideal board for any condition.

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Embracing the icy swells has been key to both the quality of Stefan’s life and the quality of his work. There are few people to watch and learn from in Tofino, requiring Stefan to figure a lot out on his own. After some time he has assembled a team of local surfers, who’s feedback has steered him in new and improved directions. To him, “It doesn’t matter how great of a surfer you are, you need to be able to put into words what works for you and to be cerebral about your surfing.” Thanks to his years of experience, team riders and countless hours in the water, Stefan now knows exactly how to shape for the local conditions. Originally designing flatter based designs, Stefan’s boards now feature “a heavier concave and a little more rocker”, to carry speed through the mushy sections of Tofino’s waters. Stefan explains he’s all about the responsiveness, “when you drop in and look up to where you want to go, the board will follow.”

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After 12 years Stefan’s count is at nearly 3000 boards, at a production level of around 30 per month. Busy keeping up with demand, “surfing itself is still a huge recharge and inspiration” to Stefan. To this day, Tofino continues to provide endless waves to ride and a place to clear his head. Stefan describes, “there’s no place like Tofino, that offers pristine, fresh air and clean living – you can’t beat that, it’s a gift.” Having carved his place in all this, it would be easy to take advantage of the benefits, Stefan however re-iterates that “no matter where you are, offer up more than you can take.” Through Aftanas Surf Designs, Stefan has created a legacy that will continue to serve the surf community in Tofino for tides to come.

Photography: Kyler Vos

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Enjoyed ‘Carve Your Place’? Check back next Monday for the another instalment from The Journal, Issue Two. Or to find your own complimentary copy of The Journal, visit Herschel Supply stockists around the world.