Magic Carpets

In eighth grade math class, 14-year-old Kelly Slater took out a number two pencil, opened his loose-leaf binder and sketched a new shape that combined a pintail with a squash. After school, he got on his bike and peddled the design to his shaper at the time, Matt Kechele, who quickly knocked out the “Combo Tail.” On a test run at Sebastian Inlet a few days later, Kelly boosted four successful aerials-a notable accomplishment in 1986. “I thought I stumbled on the perfect design for doing airs,” Slater remembers, but the outline didn’t catch on as he had hoped.

Sixteen years later, we’re still searching for the ultimate flying surfboard. In the wake of air shows, X Games, Olympic snowboarding and the long overdue Flying Wallendas Reunion Tour, the days of humans taking to the air are reaching an all-time high. No so-called professional worth his weight in WQS points would dare stray from his home break before mastering a rudimentary array of stalefish, slobs, mutes and methods. So the question remains: Can the trusty old thruster keep up?

If you ask Greg Loehr, the perennial Floridian rule-breaker who brought us epoxy boards, the answer is no, and the solution is the Double Ender-basically a blown-up wakeboard that can be ridden in either direction. Loehr felt a responsibility to cater to the next generation of fliers and modeled a symmetrical, snub-nosed shortboard with fins at each end. He enlisted a crew-including John Holeman, Sam Barker and Scott Bouchard-to “go both ways” and report on their findings.

Holeman, who has done more airborne twisting than the entire cast of The Nutcracker and ridden the Double Ender in anything Florida can throw at him, says, “It rides just like a normal board until you want it to do tricks. You can invent all kinds of stuff, and the width stabilizes it, making it easier to pull them off, like going from a vehicle without power steering to one with. It’s limitless, just one more tool to break the monotony of Florida waves.”

But Loehr’s new baby is hardly new. Rick Rock, a shaper for Lost, secured a patent in the mid-90s on a retractable fin system for a similarly symmetrical board. According to fellow, Lost shaper Matt Biolas, “Last Christmas, we built a couple new prototypes with retractable fins on the front and back. If you’re going forward, the front fins are inside the board, but when you’re going backwards, the back fins retract while the front ones come out.” With summer being the season for experimentation, the jury on the new edition is still out. “No one’s been motivated to ride them yet,” says Biolas. “When it’s warmer and more hot-doggy, hopefully some guys will try them out. Any time you’re talking about landing backward and riding reverse, it’s definitely a crappy wave thing. No one would build a board to do that on any wave of consequence, but it can definitely make one-foot closeouts fun.”

As exciting as it is to hop on a new design, many feel that reinventing the wheel isn’t the answer. The leading acrobats of the sport are riding shorter, fatter renditions of a common theme-Simon Anderson’s 1981 thruster-and they don’t seem to be at a loss for airtime. Frequent flier Josh Hoyer of Newport Beach, CA, is intrigued by the notion of reversible surfboards but so far has noticed only subtle alterations among his high-flying brethren’s conventional shortboards. “I’ve been wanting to get something new, but I don’t think normal shortboards hold me or the other guys back,” he contends. But he adds, “If you’re trying to do all the skateboard stuff, the surface area is still too much to control. You need something a lot smaller and denser like a snowboard, so we need to look at different materials. We haven’t found a design that works any better.”

Al Merrick, Slater’s current maestro, is another practitioner of the school of subtlety. According to Merrick, “If a guy just wants a board for airs, I’ll make slight changes to the rocker and rails, softening them up, to help with speed and landing.” And although skeptical of surfers being totally air-headed, he nonetheless acknowledges the contributions of other brands of surfing. “I’m all for guys doing tricks and pushing themselves to do as much as they can on a surfboard; that will push design. But for tricks to fit in with the whole scheme, they have to be combined with surfing an entire wave. The boards also need to surf.”

But since those first drafts back in the eighth grade, Slater isn’t giving up on the dream of a perfect board for airs. “Surfers are way behind skateboarders and even bodyboarders as far as pulling off big spins in the air,” he laments. “But our equipment is getting more and more specialized.” And as for the future, his vision is clear: “I envision pulling clean barrel rolls at Pipeline, so there’s plenty of room for improvement.”

– Jason Borte