Meet the man getting French barrels on self-built wooden snowboards

Seeing the video footage of what 40-year-old French surfer Fred Compagnon does in heaving waves is a bit perplexing at first. He paddles into them on a standup paddleboard, but then dismounts mid-wave, revealing that he is in fact strapped into a wooden alaia. He then gets a proper barrel that would easily be a 10 at the Quiksilver Pro France.

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But what the heck is happening? Has Compagnon discovered a secret to barrel riding? The self-built wooden alaia’s look more like snowboards because they’ve got rocker and straps. How can a man get so barreled doing that?

We decided to drop Compagnon a line in order to find out more. Here’s what he had to say about his clever take on getting the most barreled one can.

How did you get into shaping these alaias?

Dave Rastovich came to France around 8 years ago with an alaia. We shared a session together and he let me ride it for a few waves. I started shaping alaias right after that because nobody was making them in France and I was hooked after my first wave.

Where did the idea/need come from to add straps and rocker?

In the beginning, I would put the alaia on its edge between my legs, but it was difficult to paddle into waves like that and transfer to the alaia. So I decided to put one strap to give me more time for the take off. But after a few months I realized two straps would make it even easier.

I’ve surfed them with no rocker for three or four years, but I needed to put a lot of weight into my back foot so not to nosedive, so the next step was the rocker.

How long does it take to build one? How many have you built so far?

It takes me around 30 hours to build one — I get my wood from my friend’s forest, so I go through all the steps from tree to alaia. So far I’ve built around 40 of them and continue researching to fine-tune them.

Are they more like a snowboard or more like an alaia?

They are definitely more like a snowboard in their shape, but more like an alaia in the flex and the manufacturing.

How do you catch waves on them with the SUP?

Two of us are on it. The one on the back is lying down paddling and kicking with flippers, the one on the front is standing up and already strapped into the alai, paddling with the paddle. This gives you have a lot of speed and you can get into the wave really early. This is crucial because it gives you different options to start your line, optimizing all the benefits of the board to surf the waves.

What are the benefits?

I feel like I’m going faster than any other surfboard on earth, and I want to measure that soon with GPS or something like Trace. With that high speed, the rails don’t bounce, especially during turns because you still have control.

How are they in the barrel?

When you’re deep in the tube, the shock wave doesn’t affect the rail and the board won’t float in the foamball, at this moment you don’t have the feeling of losing the board. I have passed over foamballs in a way I never have with any other kind of board.

They’re also really fun in the air because you have a smaller board, like a snowboard, so you can imagine really fast maneuvers like snowboarders do.

Any drawbacks to them?

They are really difficult to ride on your backside, so that’s the most unfortunate drawback. And you have to surf off the rails because there are no fins.

What’s your end goal/future for these?

It involves the system I’ve invented with the SUP. I want to surf the big and famous waves with this system, because in bigger waves I’m already surfing while the guy on the 10-foot gun is still paddling. When I look at the best big-wave riders on Earth with 10-foot guns or more, my feeling is that it’s really difficult to control and they can’t go as fast as these alaias.

I have all the respect in the world for them and I hope they can help me perfect surfing big waves with the system and the boards I’ve invented.