Credit Cover Photo: Jeremy Koreski
If you’re familiar about the surf culture in Canada, you’ve probably heard the story of Stefan Aftanas already. The story says that Stefan discovered surfing in the pages of a magazine in a small market back in Nanaimo during his early adulthood. He then packed up all his stuff in his camper van and decided to leave the comfort of his hometown in search of waves, something he never had the chance to experience before. It didn’t take long for surfing to steal his soul, pushing him out of the country to go explore new horizons in Australia and Southern America. But, as we all know, everything that goes must come back. Stefan came back in Tofino and found a home in the heart of this idyllic location, surrounded by unique landscapes and a vibrant community.
I assume that you’ve heard that story thousands of times already, and even though we never get tired of hearing it, like a sort of legend we say while being around a campfire, Stefan Aftanas is more interesting than this simple story. Stefan is the man behind Aftanas Surfboards, a Tofino-based company that has been around since the start of the Canadian surf industry back in the ’90s. Creator of custom shapes and well-known for his performance shortboards, we could say that no one knows the waves and the conditions of Vancouver Island better than Stefan.
Imagine yourself back in the ’90s, in a town mostly known for his timber and fishing industry: where would you go to get a surfboard? How would you know anything about it? Surfing would not be possible without shapers, and this is more than just a science or a type of art, it is what allows us to live our passion and connect ourselves to the nature in the most natural way.
So, yes, the story of Stefan Aftanas is deeper than a 17-year-old falling in love with the sport of surfing because of a magazine. It is the time to forget about this story and to discover the man itself. The shaper, the entrepreneur, the business owner, the surfer, and the human being that is Stefan. For that specific reason, we decided to catch up with him to learn more about his craft, the surf culture in Tofino, his role as a business owner and his wishes for the company.
You were in town when Sepp and Raph Bruhwiler were becoming the first Canadian’s professional surfers, how did surfing change since that time?
Tofino always been a destination to go to, but the Tofino we know today started to grow into what it is probably around 1998. The Wickaninnish Inn was a changing point for the town. After it was built, things started to open all winter, which wasn’t the case before. Its success encouraged people to come and build things, such as the Long Beach Lodge Resort, bringing a good amount of jobs to fill.
Must people coming to town for work were mostly coming because they wanted to surf. It was at that time that the surf industry started to become. Surf Sister came along, Pacific Surf School… Now there is surfboards manufacturers as well, in Tofino, but there is also Barracuda Surfboards in Victoria.
When you first started shaping, Sepp started to ride your boards, which was obviously a great way to get known. Were you scared of people’s expectation?
You’re always going to have success and failures, but it was a little overwhelming. The nervousness was that I was seeing surfers in the surf, then we would see each other in the path to the beach, with my boards. I learned not to ask if the board work well or not anymore. You know, it’s like when a waitress comes to your table at the restaurant and ask how’s the food. You may have said earlier that it was terrible, but now you’ll say that it is great. It’s the same for surfboards. That’s where all the pressure still exists. Someone is coming to you with hard-working money, so I need to make sure they receive what they want and that they aren’t stuck with something that isn’t working for them because that’s a real bummer.
It must be difficult, especially when people don’t even know what they want to ride. You must keep a close relationship with your customers if your goal is to offer them a board that they’ll truly enjoy.
Yes, and if you don’t like something, it’s easy to get a hold of me and tell me. If we’ve made a mistake, we’ll always do something, no matter what it might be. If you’ve made a mistake, I will do my best to help, but now I’ve learned that we need to put our recommendation in writing sometimes. Like, this is my recommendation: the size and the length, but as we are custom, we’ll make what you’d like. And if it doesn’t work, I will just say no because the customer won’t be happy and I won’t be either.
It’s great not to focus mainly on the money, but also on the idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. Tofino, compared to other places, always offer you a new challenge to conquer. Why did you pick shaping over surfing?
Even at the time I started surfing, pro-surfing was something like Kelly Slater. You would have to be of the same level to make it on tour. Even if Raph and Sepp were blowing my mind, there was no way I could get to that level.
So, shaping really came along out of necessity. I first came here to work as a carpenter and the guy that hired me, Jack Gilley, was shaping boards. I didn’t think you could make surfboards in your backyards at that time, but he showed me the process as well as ding repairs. Then, I started doing ding repairs because there was no one else, but of course, when you do that, you rather be making boards, so I started shaping. After making a few, they looked good enough that people were willing to pay for the cost of materials.
Weren’t you scared when you first started shaping though? I mean, you had to create surfboards while dealing with a growing company.
I liked carpentry a lot because I always liked the aspect of building things, but I hated working in the rain. I started realizing that I was making as much money as carpentry doing ding repairs and making a few surfboards, so I decided to move to a bigger space to shape. I still had in the back of my mind the backup plan that if it doesn’t work, I can just go back and build homes. It has only been in the last five years that I realized I would never go back to construction, or it’s very unlikely.
Do you have a big team working with you?
We’re about 5 people. We could have hired more, but I took a step back and realized that we don’t have a training program. It’s important to teach one aspect of the job, let them become good at it, then teach the next one.
Agree! I cannot help but notice that you have quite a fascination, or should I say, love, for Tofino. For the waves, the people. Are you happy to bring jobs to the town?
It’s something that is on my mind all the time. It’s important to add to a town, instead of dividing it. If there are 10 coffee shops, you would think that you can make money, but it’s just dividing it and it doesn’t create anything. That’s why Tofino Brewing Company is great—I don’t know how many people work for them, but maybe 15? They started something that didn’t exist here before and created jobs.
Woah, that’s quite impressive. It must be even better when you have a passionate team with you, treating the company as theirs.
It’s fun to watch people get more and more into it, to see them learn and grow. It’s important to me to be an employer, and it was important for me when I realized, “okay, I am going to go fully into this.” At the time, I could have easily started a surf school, but it would have been just another school, like another restaurant. In top of creating something that wasn’t there before and giving jobs, it gives a reason for people to come to Tofino. It’s like a driving force. That’s what you should always try to do if you go into business. You need to think, “What can I add to this town instead of dividing it”?
That’s the difference between creating something or simply following. What would be your best advices for someone that want a custom board from you?
There are a few things. One of them is to be honest. Don’t say you’re just shredding—don’t even use that kind of terminology because really, if you’re ripping, I would know who you are and know what you need. Then, be open to what we have to say. If you come wanting something extremely small or extremely big, and we say to you that it’s not the right board for you, listen. Also, try not to worry about the numbers so much. People get hung out on the dimensions and it’s just unnecessary. And lastly, don’t listen to everyone’s thoughts, unless a professional, because they’ll confuse you with their own confusion.
If you look back through all these years, what was the hardest thing you had to deal with?
I think for me, the hardest part about growing the business has been training people. I am teaching people from absolute ground zero, with no knowledge at all. In construction, we would hire guys that have a course so they know the basic. Here, there is no program like that and that’s the industry’s fault in general, of having this “old boys club” kind of thing.
But now you are using a CNC Machine—does it make you save time?
The CNC Machine had helped immensely because it works unattended. You do the programming and the designing, and while its cutting the board and reshaping it, you can do other things. The number of surfboards I can be making in a day off the machine versus by hand makes a big difference.
I think the myth about the machine is that it makes the whole board, but it doesn’t. It’s a tool and you preprogramed what it’s going to do. But that preprogram or designing process is extremely difficult. The CNC Machine is only one aspect, it’s the hardware, but understanding the software is complicated.
That must be extremely complex! What’s next for you? Do you have any projects coming up?
One of my projects right now is to create these online multiple questions and use that as ways to familiarize people with shaping and see what they know and what they don’t know.
In terms of design, we have a new model that came out, it’s called an Analog. The original Analog is for heavy slabs (heaviest and gnarliest waves), but we realized that there are only a few people that will need that. I’ve taken the logo off that board and repurpose it into a shortboard that anybody can ride.
Our other focus concerning design in 2017 is to create two to three retro designs. It has been done a lot, but it’s something that isn’t typical in our lineup and we get a lot of requests, I just need to decide what it’s going to look like.
Would you say that your passion is the same as the beginning?
Oh, it’s stronger. With the addition of the CNC Machine and being able to quickly change things and document the change and assess it, I became more infused about it.
At the beginning, when I had to glass and sands, it felt like a big journey to get a board done, but now it’s much easier in the sense that I have people that help me. The moment the board comes out the door, it’s less energy out of me and it’s more exciting.