Catching the perfect wave and riding it with precision is every surfer’s dream. To best achieve that you need a custom-crafted surfboard scientifically shaped to fit your unique style and design preferences.
Few masters of the art of surfboarding shaping are more pioneering than Ashley Lloyd Thompson. One of the few women in the field, she’s also one of its most ardent sustainability leaders. Sadly, the best boards are often made with materials that harm the environment.
Lloyd Thompson’s goal is to handcraft the highest-performance, custom-tailored surfboards that also honor the fragile ocean ecosystems so integral to surfing.
Striking a perfect balance
In 2002, Lloyd Thompson was attempting a delicate balancing act, trying to pursue her many passions simultaneously. She was studying music at Santa Barbara City College in California, aiming to become a professional competitive longboard surfer (at one point she ranked fifth in the world) and teaching others to surf as a side business.
About that time, a surfer friend who’d shaped surfboards when he was younger offered to teach her how to create her own boards. Another passion was born.
“I used to feel like I had to choose between pro surfing, music and shaping,” Lloyd Thompson says. “It almost created more conflict worrying about choosing, so I decided to keep trying to balance them all.”
For the most part, her approach has worked. Although Lloyd Thompson, now 37, didn’t end up sticking with competitive surfing, she did start Ashley Lloyd Thompson Surfboards, which she runs with her husband, Alex Thompson, in Santa Cruz, California. In addition, she continues to offer surfing lessons, and the couple also has a band called The Shapes.
Lloyd Thompson begins each custom board with a foam blank, a piece of polyurethane used in most modern surfboards, which she shapes and personalizes for each rider. She starts by tapping into a customer’s needs and desires via her online questionnaire and a personal conversation. She takes note of the person's weight and height, and asks about the customer's surfing experience, what technique problems they have, where they prefer to surf and their surfing goals. She even occasionally listens to someone’s favorite music to get a deeper sense of who they are and their aesthetic sensibilities.
Lloyd Thompson also relies on her vast personal knowledge of various waves around the world — their feel and how they break — and uses wave science to calculate the best dimensions for a surfer’s preferred beach. "I’ve surfed all over the place,” she says. “Waves break differently in different parts of the world. In the same town they’ll even break differently depending on what beach you go to. There are all these little calibrations you do."
Even tiny changes in the board's length, thickness, width and curvature (called rocker) can alter how a board performs on a specific wave. For instance, a board without enough rocker may not curve upward enough to keep it from continually sliding under waves and causing the rider to nosedive.
Once Lloyd Thompson shapes a blank using special power tools, Alex does the glassing. The foam board is wrapped in fiberglass cloth and coated with colored resin to create a hard, smooth, waterproof surface. Customers can choose the colors and patterns, designs or logos they want on their board, or they can leave that up to the couple.
Lloyd Thompson also writes “Made with love” on each of her creations. “I like to have some moment of connection with every customer that gets channeled into each board,” she says. “For example, two breast cancer survivors recently ordered boards, so as I shape them I’m putting loving thoughts and healing prayers into the boards. ‘Made with love’ can mean a lot of different things depending on the person, but I write it on every board because it just feels like that’s what happens.”
Watch Lloyd Thompson surf in this video and learn more about how she shapes boards.
Lloyd Thompson also channels plenty of concern and appreciation for the environment into her boards, crafting them with as many sustainable materials as possible. In fact, the company received green certification this year from an organization called Sustainable Surf. The group is working to green the sport of surfing and raise awareness about threats to surfing habitat, including plastic ocean trash, oil spills and sea level rise.
Lloyd Thompson’s customers now have a choice of using recycled EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam blanks, and all boards are glassed with a plant-based epoxy resin made by Entropy Resins. In the future, she hopes to use foam blanks made out of algae and replace fiberglass cloth with a plant-based alternative created from flax.
"You don’t have that many green options with surfboard making, but in the last five years there’s been more and more," she says. "It’s neat to be part of the change."
Shape of things to come
Even with all her shaping experience, Lloyd Thompson continues to evolve her craft. "Anyone can shape a board tomorrow, but it takes a long time to understand the skill," she says. "Even after shaping hundreds and hundreds of boards, including for surfing champions like Cori Schumacher, Kristy Murphy and Frosty Hesson (of "Chasing Mavericks" film fame), I feel like I’m still refining my art."
Lloyd Thompson also continues to follow her other passions, though at the moment shaping seems to dominate her time. "Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing making surfboards – how is this helping the world?" she says. "But then someone will tell me they just caught the wave of their life, and I know I’m on the right track. Because I’m doing what I love, it’s helping someone else’s life."
If that philosophy resonates with you, take a listen to the couple as they follow their musical dreams.