If you’ve taken a rail-squeezing walk through the aisles of your local surf shop lately, you’ve probably noticed that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to wrap your foam-tainting hands around the rails of the average surfboard. Admittedly, “difficult” may be a bit hyperbolic, but it is a fact that greater volume in surfboards is back in demand, and shapers are happily supplying it to the surfing populous, something they weren’t doing in the No Girth Nineties.
That period of the Kelly Slater-inspired “Glass Slipper” was a significant departure from the sport’s Polynesian roots, where the most expert surfers rode only very thick surfboards, known as Onini, which were hand-carved from Wili Wili wood. But this, of course, was all a matter of priorities. In ancient Polynesia, the experts were striving for something approximating elegance. Naturally, some round-bellied Polynesian King would take great elitist pleasure in having a servant carry his much-larger surfboard to the shore where he would casually stroke into waves, angle the craft, stand up, and ride like the dickens. And if we had some sort of fanciful time machine that could transport the King to the present day, he probably wouldn’t understand what all the pumping and carving and flying over the wave face was about.
Conversely, the modern professional (if he too had boarded our literary contrivance of a time machine) probably wouldn’t be too impressed with the King’s brand of point to the beach and hang on for dear life. Because, let’s face it, the Onini probably didn’t turn so hot. And good old King What’s His Name probably didn’t get too many shots in the mag. Hell, he probably wasn’t even sponsored.
You see, coming after the decades-long predominance of thick-railed, high-volume, beefed-up surfboards, the 1990s professional surfer, along with his shaper, stripped down the modern surfboard to its most basic elements to facilitate their brand of high-speed, quick turning, progressive surfing. They dulled the edges in their rails, accentuated concave, exaggerated entry rocker, and, perhaps most importantly, sapped their boards of volume, which came from both thickness and width. And, with little exception and almost no protest, the surf world at large came along for the ride. The flotilla of “potato chip” boards that resulted was reflected uniformly down the line, from the tiniest competition shortboard to the high-performance longboard—a wafer thin nine-foot, three-finned system that would vibrate when shaken vigorously, and would never have floated our favorite King.
Bear in mind that this was a huge departure for a culture that for the entirety of its previous history had been inundated with varying degrees of thick-railed surfboards. From the King’s Onini to Tom Blake’s hollow board to Tom Curren’s Black Beauty, rail volume was always maintained for its facilitation of glide, but as surfers began to focus on tighter snaps and became more expert in applying them, thickness went the way of the single fin.
But now, it seems, both have come back. It took a long time for boards to reshape after the paring down of the 1990s, and it’s ironic that the retro board, excavated and reintroduced by surfing’s retro-minded subset, had much to do with the resurgence of thickness in an average thruster. Today, nearly every major manufacturer offers a variation of a retro board, from twin-fins to single-fins to bonzers. And, as a natural extension, nearly every major manufacturer offers some brand of thicker-railed thruster.
“The average guy is figuring out that he needs to add thickness to his boards because most surfers are more dependent on rail volume to generate speed,” says Rusty Priesendorfer of Rusty Surfboards. “There’s a perceived quickness to thinner boards, but the reality is most guys are bogging and the board is too loose in the water.”
The fact is that added thickness means added buoyancy, which all but the most (ahem) elite surfers could use.
“The obvious benefits,” says Chas Wickwire of Chas surfboards, “are that thicker boards are more forgiving and user friendly. When people are less driven by fashion, they start riding boards with dimensions that are more appropriate to their age, skill level and body types.”
But one thing that experts agree on is that rail volume isn’t just a copout for the gut-addled weekend surfer. In fact, there are some very tangible benefits to a thicker board that professionals like Andy Irons (that’s two-time world champion Andy Irons), Joel Parkinson and Taylor Knox have been preaching for some time.
“With more rail volume,” says Chas, “if you push against it, it holds its own through the turn, and you make a more efficient turn.”
Thicker rails provide resistance, which, in the end, will allow you to make a stronger carve without falling flat on your face and looking foolish to the legions of beautiful women typically line the beach every time you surf.
Of course, like life, it ain’t all glory with the thick rail. In fact, there are those who will tell you that thick rails flat out suck. These people are either very talented surfers or they think they are very talented surfers. In reality, says Rusty, there is one major consideration: “When you get into better surf, you get into control issues—issues with trying to engage your rail in the wave face.”
But both Rusty and Chas are quick to add that with most surfers having something approximating a quiver these days, there’s no reason not to have a board for “everyday” conditions and a thinner, more refined board for bigger, better surf.