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Victoria man turns surfing passion into hobby


June 12, 2012 at 1:12 a.m.
Updated June 13, 2012 at 1:13 a.m.

Tom Sterne in his workshop in Victoria County. Sterne has been building surfboards for 15 years and crafted one in dedication to Bethany Hamilton. Sterne's board is one of the surfboards that will be auctioned for charity by Habitat for Humanity.

South Texas summers can be brutal, and even more so in a hot workshop. Still, that's often where you'll find Victoria County resident Tom Sterne.

"There's a fine line between insanity and hobby, I hear," he said with a laugh.

Sterne, 57, spends his spare time making custom surfboards - and restoring those that have seen better days - in his backyard shop.

The Shreveport, La., native, who was raised in Victoria, said his love of surfing grew as he grew up in the Crossroads.

A lifelong water lover, Sterne learned to surf in Port Aransas, and eventually took up board repairs. He upped the ante 15 years ago, when he decided to take matters into his own hands, creating boards all his own.

The boards start from scratch, with foam blocks made in Houston. With help from templates, he uses hot wires to cut them to shape and create a "blank," or the board's basic foundation.

He goes on to sand the board into just the right shape with electric and hand-held sanders, and measures each area repeatedly to make sure each board works for the buyer's height, weight, skill set and even for where they will surf.

It doesn't end there, however, as Sterne must still apply the plexiglass finish - an epoxy mixture that gets fussy when conditions are too hot, or too cold - and also apply the custom fins, paint job and more.

Creations take anywhere from 10 to 30 hours, depending on specifications, he said, but the journey doesn't necessarily end there.

"I surf with some of the people who buy the boards," he said. "I love to watch them ride and, hopefully, smile when they use them. I can't think of another sporting goods industry where the product is handmade."

Sterne said he's made about 500 boards through the years, but said he isn't out to get rich.

"I just want to break even," he said, explaining that, while he didn't give his prices, the industry in general charges about $1,000 for long boards and $500 or $600 for short boards. "It's a labor of love."

Love or not, his most recent endeavor put his abilities to the test.

He volunteered his services to create boards for professional surfer Bethany Hamilton's upcoming visit to Texas. That was one for Golden Crescent Habitat for Humanity's Friday Port O'Connor fishing tournament, and another five for Hamilton's Corpus Christi events.

All of that, in a three-week period.

Sterne created the raw boards, but left them white, blank canvases for Corpus Christi artist John Olvey to place the finishing touches. That included collages of Hamilton, complete Bible verses and hand-painted art.

He delivered the last board to Olvey on Sunday.

Cynthia Joseph Staley, Habitat's executive director, said she appreciated the work Sterne put into their board, which sat propped in the building's front room Tuesday evening. Surfing culture was something foreign to her, she said, but she was impressed with the artistic element.

"You'd never want to surf with it," she said, looking at the completed board. "Of course, you could. But it's phenomenal. Just phenomenal."

As for Sterne, he said that marathon board-making took a bit out of him. He stayed away from his workshop for a while after Sunday.

"I didn't want to come back in here," said the man who jokes that his telecommunications job and homemade hobby made him "digital by day and analog by night."

Still, he didn't plan to stay away long.

He planned to begin work on two new boards Saturday. That is, unless the surfing looks good.

"We're supposed to have a tropical storm in the Gulf this weekend," he said, explaining that storms that move in, then turn toward Florida create perfect conditions. "We're keeping an eye on that."



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