Strange as it may seem, Christenson and Birkbeck’s nose design could be the next phase in the evolution of big-wave guns. Photo: Ellis
Strange as it may seem, Christenson and Birkbeck’s nose design could be the next phase in the evolution of big-wave guns. Photo: Ellis

Design Forum: On The Nose

How an unlikely collaboration between shaper Chris Christenson and an aerospace engineer from Pennsylvania may alter the future of big-wave surfboard design

For the most part, big-wave guns have looked much the same for the last few decades. Sure, shapers have made incremental changes to volume, fin placement, rocker, bottom contours, etc., but the general shape of a big-wave surfboard looks about the same today as it did 30 years ago. Until now, that is.

Southern California shaper Chris Christenson, who makes boards for Greg Long, Ian Walsh and many more of the world's best big-wave riders, recently unveiled a unique craft. With a bulbous nose that's over 9 inches thick (yes, you read that right), shaped from EPS and glassed with carbon fiber, it looks unlike any big-wave board you've ever seen.

"This surfboard came about because of an aerospace engineer from Pennsylvania named Roger Birkbeck," says Christenson. "And the funny thing is that Roger isn't even a surfer; he's never surfed a day in his life."

Birkbeck, who builds ships and planes for a living, stumbled upon big-wave surfing by accident while flipping through the channels on his TV. The Pe'ahi Challenge was being rebroadcast on ESPN, and Birkbeck was intrigued — and a bit confused — by what he saw. To Birkbeck, the equipment the surfers were using to scratch over the ledge at massive Jaws was designed all wrong.

"Roger did some research into the sport and eventually got in touch with me," says Christenson. "The first thing he asked was if I ever considered the aerodynamics of my designs. I told him that my aerodynamic ideas are about making boards heavier to break through the wind and chop, but that's about the extent of it. That's when he told me he thought I was approaching it wrong. At first I was like, 'Excuse me? Who the f–k are you?' [Laughs.] But I'm pretty open-minded, especially if an idea has the potential to make my guys perform better and be safer. After hearing him out, his concept started making a lot of sense."

The concept is centered on that uniquely bulbous nose shape, and after much back and forth, Birkbeck built a prototype. But since he couldn't exactly test his aerodynamic theories in big waves himself, he mounted the board to his Jeep and started driving. As soon as he hit 25 mph, the nose of the board automatically pointed down — a characteristic that theoretically would aid surfers when paddling a wave like Jaws amid stiff offshore winds.

"He also brought me all of this other wind-tunnel data that was super interesting," says Christenson. "Every part of the board's nose shape has a very specific function. It's not like we just looked at a picture and thought, 'Hey, this looks weird, maybe it will work.' There's a science to every angle. It's all designed to create as little friction as possible. And that goes for the way it interacts with water, too: The front end is built so that water will wrap and flow over it without any cavitation."

Basically, the nose Birkbeck and Christenson designed is meant to cut through a stiff wind at speed, in turn minimizing the dreaded air drop. Because falling from the lip in 20-footplus surf hardly ever ends well. But theory is one thing. Will it work in practice?

"Inside the wind tunnels, mounted on the front of Roger's Jeep — this thing is doing exactly what we want it to do," Christenson says. "But we haven't got it in the water yet, so we really don't know what's gonna happen. The true test will happen during the first big winter swell in November or December."