Surfing’s quiet young pioneer
In her parents' basement in Orewa, Lou Aitken is riding the quest of a wave, as one of a rare breed of women who create surfboards. Jim Kayes reports.
Lou Aitken is a quiet pioneer. A feminist breaking down barriers simply through her actions.
She doesn’t have a placard or a bullhorn, isn’t burning bras and hasn’t taken to Twitter to join the #metoo movement.
Instead the 23-year-old has quietly smashed two glass ceilings, and is now polishing the sharp edges off the second stage of a career that has seen her go where few women have ventured before.
It began when Aitken left Auckland’s Long Bay College after Year 12 (sixth form for those of us of an older persuasion), and took up a cabinet making apprenticeship with Danske Mobler.
She was one of about 50 cabinetmakers employed by the furniture company, but one of only two women.
“It was a man’s world,” she says. “There were a few chicks in upholstery, but just the two of us using wood.”
The numbers were shaved even further when she decided to turn her passion for surfing into a career making surfboards.
Having finished her four-year apprenticeship, Aitken moved to Australia to team up with her uncle, Glyn Jacobs - who'd worked for Seasons Surfboards in New Plymouth before shifting to the Gold Coast.
From there, she got a job at Simmo Surfboards, where it was back to square one.
“I was the apprentice there, learning from scratch again, but it was amazing one-on-one learning,” she says.
Now Aitken has returned home and struck out on her own, with a workshop in the basement of her parent’s home in Orewa, north of Auckland.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only woman in New Zealand making surfboards as a full-time job,” she says.
“In Australia, there’s maybe three or four women who make boards - but they don’t have their own label.”
Aitken has hers - ‘louweazal’ surfboards - and with the support of her parents, mum Kerry and dad Gerry, she has big aspirations for where her fledgling business could go.
When she kicked off about a year ago, she was selling mostly to surfing friends and her club-mates at the Red Beach Surf Lifesaving Club.
Now she’s noticed friends of friends are buying her boards, and people she has no links to.
She hopes by the end of summer to have a shop of her own that is part-factory, part-display room, where she can show off not just her boards, but furniture too. She still works as a cabinetmaker during the winter months.
It would be like an art exhibition, but also a place where fellow surfers can stop in for a beer and a chat - and hopefully leave with a new board.
But sales, while welcome, are just part of what makes Aitken tick. She’s more than that.
She is a surfer, an artist and - although she doesn’t like the label - a pioneering feminist.
“I don’t know what a feminist is, but I’m all about equality. And if women feel more comfortable talking to another woman about their surfboard, then that’s great,” she says.
Perhaps surprisingly for those who have never walked a board, there is a difference in what suits each gender.
“Women have a lower centre of gravity and usually less power in the legs so a heavier board helps,” Aitken says. “It gives you more momentum, more paddling power and speed when you’re in front of the wave.”
There’s also a difference in the path to success for males and females who surf, with much of the funding and sponsorship directed toward boys.
“I’d like to make a big difference to some of those girls who surf through funding and sponsorship,” says Aitken. “I know what it’s like to be a girl in a man’s sport.”
Aitken is making two or three boards a week during summer - a rate that doesn’t interfere with her lifestyle. At least not yet.
“I’ve got enough work to keep me busy Monday to Saturday and almost enough to look at bringing someone else on,” she says.
“I still try to surf when the waves are on and work when they’re not.”
Having survived in the ‘man’s world’ of cabinet making, Aitken accepts there is a level of resistance to her entry into the surfboard market in New Zealand.
“It’s been a mixed response from the older makers. Some are really supportive and some don’t want to know. I get it. It’s a small market and they don’t want their sales affected,” she says.
“I’m not out to poach customers. I just like making boards.”
She’s wanted to make them almost since the day she stood on a boogie board, as an eight-year-old at Sandy Bay on the Tutukaka Coast, where her family have a bach.
Surfing quickly got under her skin and the 20 boards stacked outside her workroom tell a history of riding waves.
She used to be, she admits, narrow-minded about what makes a good board and how they should be designed.
She now knows only one thing matters: “A good surfboard lets you have the most amount of fun in the conditions.”
Those are the boards this softly-spoken pioneer hopes she makes.