Alex Knost. Photo: Burgess
Alex Knost. Photo: Burgess

Design Forum: Sons Of Sam

How a 50-year-old design became the surfcraft of choice for today’s most radical longboarders

[This feature originally appeared in our May 2017 Issue, “Frontiers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]

From First Point Noosa to First Point Malibu, performance standards are being raised by a new generation of longboarders—self-shaping stylists like Robin Kegel, Jared Mell, Ryan Burch, Alex Knost, Bryce Young, and more—who are reimagining what can be done on surfboards longer than 8 feet. But for many modern longboarders, the design that is enabling them to push their craft into bold new frontiers isn't a modern invention; it's one that's been revived from a 50-year slumber.

On September 29, 1966, Australian Nat Young won the World Surfing Championships in San Diego on a self-shaped board affectionately called "Magic Sam." Young's performance marked not only the zenith of surfing's early progressive era—often referred to as the "Total Involvement" period—but also laid the groundwork for the next generation of surfcraft that would render the Sam model irrelevant a mere year and a half later. The shortboard revolution buried the design under a heap of experimental craft, where—with the exception of work by a few faithful shapers like Marc Andreini, Brian Hilbers, Kirk Putnam, and Greg Liddle—it would remain for nearly five decades.

Built on a traditional pig outline—a longboard design marked by a narrower nose and a wide point set back from the middle, allowing better turning ability—Sam was gutted down to its skeletal remains, with a rolled bottom, a narrow, round, concave-less nose, and a raked, narrow fin with considerable flex in its tip.

"It was incredibly thin and just sunk underneath you," Young recalls. "I must have spent 60 hours on that glass job, sanding it down, trying to get the flex I wanted from it. They're not great noseriders, unless you're real tight in the pocket. It wasn't meant to noseride on the flats."

In California in '66, the tip was tops. Noseriding had reached fever pitch the year prior, at the Morey Noseriding Challenge. Shops lined their racks with a hundred variations of the noserider. Between '66 and '67, Bing Surfboards sold somewhere around 6,000 of their iconic Nuuhiwa model, perhaps the most celebrated and oft-imitated noserider of all time.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Young and Bob McTavish found themselves under the spell of a wizard from the Golden West, a visiting Californian tucking himself impossibly deep in the spiraling cobblestone and pointbreak tubes around Noosa and Byron Bay on a tuna-finned, sub-6-foot magic disk named Velo.

A young Marc Andreini. Photo courtesy of Andreini

"I was trying to be George Greenough," Young says. "He was the hero. I was trying to build a board to help me surf like him, to ride tighter in the pocket. McTavish was the one who was starting to tap into that, and I was copying him. I made the board float lower in the water. And then George shaped that fin. He saw the fin I had on it and just sanded it off. He dropped in the horsepower."

Looking at footage from that period, the radical difference between the Australian and American styles is striking. While California's David Nuuhiwa was perching on boards designed purely with tip time in mind—parallel outlines, soft 50-50 rails, deep, long nose concaves, stiff, reliable pivot fins—from 1965 to '67, Young and the Australians were tearing apart Lennox Heads, pumping their boards from the center, pushing Greenough's flex fins through turns that were previously unimaginable, abandoning any interest in slow noserides on a flat face in favor of more critical runs on the tip while tight in the pocket.

"You had to be a good surfer to ride those boards," Young says. "I knew people who bought them in Australia in '65 and couldn't handle them. Bob was trying to make a living selling those boards, and it was really hard. You make a mistake on a flat-bottomed board and you just lean the other way and it directs. But when you're playing with more curve, the boards have to be ridden at a high level. It's all about driving turns and knowing where you're going, getting all the power you could out of the fin. But the people who were good enough—and I can name 10 of 'em, from Peter Drouyn to Keith Paul—they were shit hot, riding those boards."

"That was the height of the longboard era," says California shaper Marc Andreini, who first began shaping Sams in the late '60s. "Magic Sam has all the best ingredients of a good, all-around longboard. What the Australians did was take the pig, with low rocker and lots of hip in the tail, and make it thinner through the entire board, with a rolled bottom and nice, thin, foiled rails, and the noses were always very round."

In recent years there's been renewed interest in designs from the Total Involvement period, with many of the best longboarders experimenting with myriad variations on the Magic Sam model, featherweight and paper-thin, narrow-nosed with curvaceous outlines and Greenough-inspired, swept-back fins. The Sam resurgence has ushered in a radical new era of revisionist-traditional longboarding, departing from the evolutionary missteps of the shortboard-inspired high-performance longboard and untethered from trappings of the difficult-to-maneuver classical noserider.

"These boards can do some crazy stuff," says Thomas Bexon, a Noosa-based Australian shaper who has made boards for many of the world's best longboarders and happens to be a world-class logger himself. "You can stay on the nose low in the pocket, through whitewash; you can turn and control it from the front."

"It's gotten me so inspired," says veteran longboarder CJ Nelson, who, after getting a taste of the design five years ago, has been working on Involvement-inspired boards with shapers in Australia and America, even meeting with one of Greenough's most well-versed fin-building protégés to consult on outlines and flex. "I spent most of my life riding basically the same board, some variation of a Weber Performer and a Nuuhiwa Noserider. Exploring Involvement boards, watching those clips from that period of time, it's opened up my mind to a longboard that can do everything."