Photo: Tull
Photo: Tull

Are these the most radical longboards ever made?

CJ Nelson on his performance-driven, future-flashback longboard designs

Santa Cruz's CJ Nelson has been on a tear lately. With a new lease on life since getting clean, the power-logging, switch-foot maestro has been surfing as well as he ever has, as evidenced by a barrage of quality edits and successive victories at two Saladita log-centric contests, the Mexi Log Fest and the Joel Tudor Vans Duct Tape Invitational. All the while, he's been working closely with shaper Yu Sumitomo, tinkering with modern materials and seeking to redefine the classic longboard as we know it. After dozens of consultation trips to Japan and several years of putting the boards through the paces in waves around the globe, Nelson has released a handful of space age models under his CJ Nelson Designs label.

One of Nelson's newest models, "Sprout" is based on the classic noserider he famously surfed at Scorpion Bay in Thomas Campbell's 2004 film. The results of a handful of tweaks, including the addition of Nelson and Sumitomo's proprietary EPS construction, is a board Nelson says is not only the best noserider he's ever ridden, but one with plenty of "life off the tail," capable of the kind of radical, power surfing for which he's long advocated.

We caught up with Nelson to dig into the modern construction of these new boards and how the process of developing them has reinvigorated his surfing.

Let’s talk about the boards, especially the stringerless, epoxy models you’re putting out. How did you come across the technology?

I have been working closely with my longtime friend, Yu Sumitomo, on building a range of super-functional, superior performing logs. His EPS constructions have given us the most responsive boards I have ever ridden. We are hand-building out my dream quiver and making my favorite shapes with flex, target weights, and feel designed specifically for each model. These new boards have totally flipped me out with their performance characteristics. I feel like I'm surfing the best I have ever surfed, and these boards are a big part of that.

So walk us through the construction — without giving away any proprietary secrets, of course.

It all starts with the technology built into each blank. We build our own blanks starting with hand-tuned stringerless, fused cell EPS cores. We laminate different uni-directional fiberglass and carbon fiber flex control components onto the EPS blank in sizes and patterns that define where and how much the board flexes, and the rate at which it rebounds after it is flexed. The blanks are then laminated with fiberglass and encapsulated in a thin, flexi shell before curing in a rocker mold to make sure the rocker and rail of every blank is identical. Once the blanks are cured, we laminate them with a variety of materials – fiberglass for more traditional feel, Texalium for a little more weight, and carbon fiber for lighter boards. All shaping and lamination is done by hand and takes lot more effort than traditional constructions, but the extra performance we get is worth every bit of effort. These boards ride like they are from outer space.

You just recently released The Sprout, based on the board you rode at Scorpion Bay in Thomas Campbell’s famous film. Tell us about that board, and what you’ve done to update it two decades later.

I have been riding and refining this shape for a lot of years. When I got sober and back into surfing, I kind of wanted to leave that design behind and start fresh, which lead me to the involvement style logs I'm super into these days. People were constantly asking me about "that OG noserider" and why I'm not riding it anymore. It got me thinking. A long time ago, I took my favorite board from all those old noseriders and threw it in a bag under my house. I pulled it out and took it to [shaper] Ryan Engle to look at. Ryan had been building a version of it for Christian Wach's old company, Canvas Surfboards so he was super familiar with the design. Christian had won the Noosa noseride division four times in a row on a board I gave him, which is a crazy difficult achievement.

Anyway, Ryan and I went over the board and wrote down the appropriate tweaks to make that would bring the design up to date and make it function a little better off the tail. I also knew that the EPS technology we were building with could take this model to a whole new level. Ryan and I got together, made a few poly boards to dial in a few refinements and then moved to build an epoxy prototype with Yu Sumitomo. The first session on the very first prototype EPS Sprout blew me away. It was the best noserider I had ever ridden, but it also had life off the tail. With our epoxy technology, the flex and feel of this board is mind-bending.

Photo: Tull

Traditional longboarders have shunned modern materials since the Longboard Renaissance at the turn of the century, of which you were a huge part. Epoxy longboards were always too rigid, or too light, or they looked like ugly beach toys. What made you look beyond the stigma attached to materials like carbon fiber and epoxy?

I have been blessed to ride poly boards built by some of the best shapers in the world, and I still love and respect the art of a traditional poly board. But, I got to a point where I had taken my own surfing about as far as I could go, and I was getting a little bored. I realized that I couldn't expect my performance to improve unless I could improve the performance of my equipment. I was watching what Yu Sumitomo was doing with his EPS technology in Japan and we started talking about doing some of my boards in his constructions. It was a huge effort to get going with about a million trips in a row to Japan. We started with my Classic model, shaped by Ian Chisholm. Yu built 13 boards, each with different internal flex patterns. He numbered them 1-13 and we took them on a tour of Japan. I rode all of them in a variety of conditions over a two week period, and when I left, I chose my favorite board to take to production. It was board #2, which had a flex nose and twisty tail. It was a huge effort, but it was really the only way to get it right.

The boards have a great natural feel when cruising, but have more flex and responsiveness than anything I've ever felt. When pushed, these boards give back so much energy and flow that I can turn harder and carry my speed better. They've helped me become a better surfer and have totally re-inspired me to keep improving. I think we are the first guys to build EPS longboards looking for better performance.

Now, you still work with a handful of shapers making traditional boards, refining outlines that you’ll eventually make into models. What boards have you been excited about lately?

We're not quite ready to go public with all the collaborations that we are working on, but the models range from mid-lengths to logs and gliders. We are also getting a lot of energy and inspiration from San Clemente’s Corey Colapinto, whose personal model, the "Colapintail," is just being introduced. It's a mid-length pintail performer shaped by Ryan that Corey is ripping on. It's a dream to build a line of boards with friends and other surfers I respect and look up to. We will be adding models over time that will cover our full range of surfing needs and surf/ocean conditions. We're working on boards that make me excited to get in the water every day no matter what the waves are like. Boards that stand the test of time that I appreciate now and will appreciate 40 years from now. I'm in it for the long haul and these are the vehicles that are going to take me there.

Tell us about the board you were riding at the Duct Tape and Mexi Log Fest. You have an intimate relationship with that wave, owning Casa Trim right there. Was that board made specifically with that wave and contest in mind?

So, first off, both the Mexico Log Fest and the Duct Tape have board requirements. No epoxy, no leashes, certain weights, etc. So rather than just grabbing a "Sprout" or another production board off the rack to ride in the event, I had to build a poly. I reached out to both Eden Saul of Dead Kooks and Ryan to build me a couple boards with that wave in mind. I only had about two weeks from the time I got the invite to heading out, so time was of the essence. Eden built me a narrower "involvement" style log with lots of concave, 60/40 rails and good rocker. It was more pulled in than I was used to, but had lots of characteristics that I value in a log these days. It felt really nice testing it. Ryan built me a beautiful wide nose rider that was a full hang ten machine. The forecast was for double overhead waves during the event so I started focusing energy on Eden’s board because I felt like it could work in the larger stuff. I practiced for a week down there on it. The forecast changed and it was only going to be shoulder high for the contest but I had invested so much time on Eden's board that I just stuck with it rather than switching to Ryan's noserider. Eden's board was magic and really ended up letting me do the surfing I needed to do.

Now we are going to take his design and build it out of our construction. I guess it's a good example of how our design process works. The whole experience of that weekend was surreal and I'm still taking it all in.

What have you been working on as far as fins go?

We started off making a pivot style fin for nose riding and a "tuna" shaped fin for slashing called the Power Flex. I like stiff fins with plenty of base to give straight-line stability and that carry speed through turns. We are even doing some layups with carbon fiber in the center for additional stiffness and drive. We are building the fins under a label that Corey Colapinto and I started called the Flying Diamonds and will be adding more models that will compliment the boards we are building and the style of surfing we are doing. We will also be working with a few other friends on releasing their models. Just another fun project that adds to the overall performance of our boards.

You’ve been a evangelist of powerlogging, putting an emphasis on critical surfing and powerful turns as much as perched or technical noseriding, almost taking the best little pieces of progressive longboarding and finding a space for it within traditional style, which seems to guide your designs. Walk us through where you see longboard design going. What are you still chasing as far as design goes?

I feel like when longboarding died around 1967 and went to shortboards, we were barely scratching the surface of real, functional longboard design. I'm not trying to stop where they did and just label the last boards they made in the '60s a longboard. I want to push longboard design forward just like those original builders would have if they had not discovered shortboards. I believe that the designs we are coming up with are an extension of where the sport of longboarding would be, say, eight years after 1967. Then, utilizing our EPS to throw even a little more dynamics into the equation. These are traditional designs with performance intentions. But a longboard is defined by the rider. You can surf like a bouncing monkey or surf like Phil Edwards, the board doesn't dictate that. I want to drive a longboard with ease off both the nose and tail and make it look easy. I'm going to continue to design boards that allow that for myself and for the average guy. That's where my heart is today.

[Featured Image: Photo by Tull]

Photo: Tull