66-Year-Old Big Wave Surfer Gary Linden is Just Warming Up

Credit: Photographs by Embry Rucker

To most surfers, any product that's made from agave is best sampled in shot glasses, with some salt maybe, at a beachside bar. Legendary surfboard shaper Gary Linden sees the source of tequila differently: He's trying to build a surfboard made entirely of the agave plant — even going so far as to use its sap as a sealant.

"I started making boards out of agave stalks about 20 years ago," he says. "But lately I thought it would be exciting not just to surf on a plank made from it but to actually replicate the modern surfboard process using only the agave plant."

Ever since the 1950s, when surfboard construction transitioned from redwood and balsa to foam and fiberglass, requiring the use of harsh chemical resins as a watertight seal, manufacturers have had to grapple with the toxic nature of the business. Surfing may be all about communing with the ocean, but making the boards to do it on was terrible for the environment. Unfortunately, no other substance worked as well.

In the last decade or so, though, shapers have increasingly ditched those traditional petroleum-based materials in favor of boards made from natural items that carve as well as fiberglass ones. Algae, sustainable wood, even mushrooms — it's all been tried with varying degrees of success. Manufacturers including Channel Islands, Lost, and Firewire have begun to make boards that meet the Sustainable Surf organization's Ecoboard certification, which requires that boards include at least a quarter recycled content or biological material. But to Linden, the holy grail — and the most elegant solution — is to use just one plant. He blames his parents for his uncompromising attitude: "They went through the Depression," Linden says, "and instilled in me the notion to use everything and waste nothing."

The quest to make the entirety of a board — core, skin, fin, sealer, and all — from agave is not as quixotic as it may seem. Agave's fibrous plant material is light and strong like balsa but easier to shape with a handplane. "It makes a fantastic surfboard core," he says, "but since it's also a water conductor for a desert plant, it's very porous." That means unless they have a superb watertight seal, the boards will get waterlogged before they even make it to the lineup.

In the past this has required "glassing" the boards with a polyester-based resin. However, in a recent trial, Linden first covered the blanks, the raw casts for the surfboards, in laminate sheets made from the pulp of the agave heart, then coated the boards with a sap-based product. The experiment wasn't a smashing success: In Ocean­side, California, where Linden surfs weekly, the board lasted one wave before it started to take on water, then lost a fin.

"The cooked sap we used is sugar-based, and it just started to dissolve," he says. "Next time we'll use raw."

The truth is, Linden is still a year or two away from designing a reusable agave surfboard, and any commercial product he eventually develops will veer more toward high art than sports equipment — just making a blank from agave can take 20 hours of handplaning. But transforming the industry by cranking out boards has never been his goal.

"This project is not about saying agave is the future of making surfboards," Linden says. "It's to focus on the possibilities of what can be accomplished. And then who knows where that will lead us?"

The guy has had plenty of other stuff to do, too. He estimates he's handplaned more than 30,000 traditional boards since he opened his Oceanside shop, Linden Surfboards, in 1978, but today he's better known for championing the growth of competitive big-wave surfing. He founded the Big Wave Tour in 2009, and when the World Surf League (WSL) took it over in 2014, they hired him as vice president. Today Linden serves as an organizer for the WSL Big Wave Tour, which had one of its best seasons ever this past winter, with massive El Niño–fueled waves hitting many of its venues.

Last year's action even inspired Linden to take on the biggest wave of his life — at the age of 65. Linden paddled into Jaws, a mammoth, right-breaking wave a half-mile off the north coast of Maui. Beforehand, he had approached Greg Long, the most decorated big-wave rider in the world and winner of the 2015–2016 Big Wave Tour.

"He asked what it takes to ride something like that," says Long. "I looked at him and said, 'Gary, I don't know about this.' I didn't want to tell him he couldn't do it, because he's one of those guys that if you tell him it can't be done, he's just going to turn that into motivation and actually do it."

Linden had been thinking about surfing Jaws for 10 years, and the conditions were perfect — 30-foot waves without a ripple on their face. So despite an arthritic hip and heart problems, he borrowed a board and headed out to the lineup. "Guys that used to surf better than me can't even paddle out anymore," he says.

After a few sets, Linden found his wave. "I stumbled a bit but eventually caught my footing, and I knew I had it," he says. "At the end of the wave everyone in the boats was applauding. It was a super-rewarding experience and something I didn't think I'd ever have the opportunity to do."

Even Long was impressed. "To have that drive and to catch a wave, especially a wave like Jaws, at his age is beyond inspiring," he says.

For Linden, it was simply a matter of determination. "I think a lot of people just lose focus and give up on their dreams," he says. "I never did that — I just started really early, and I kept doing it."