When it comes to tackling heavy tubes, most surfers turn to lengthy step-ups and narrow pintails. But in
the past few years, some have started to rethink the ideal size and shape of a board born for barrel hunting. On a recent trip to Tahiti, Rob Machado and Ryan Burch put their theories to the test with a few unconventional, self-shaped surfcraft.
SURFER: What percentage of your boards are you shaping these days, and what inspires you in the shaping bay?
ROB MACHADO: I think I've actually made 100 percent of my boards in the last year. You kind of take the nuances of shaping for granted until you try to do it yourself. I've been able to spend a lot of time in the shaping bay with Al Merrick over the years, watching what he does, and that has really influenced me without me even knowing. I love what Burch is doing with his boards, and he's made me a couple boards that came out awesome. I love his direction with extreme asymmetrical designs, but he also makes a great log and great mid-lengths. He's really versatile. But there are a lot of dudes out there making interesting surfboards today if you're looking for inspiration.
What are the defining characteristics of the board you rode in Tahiti?
Very low rocker and lots of volume. I actually shaped it for small, fun waves at home and I didn't think I was going to ride it much in Tahiti. It was the last board I threw in my bag, but sure enough I rode it for almost the whole trip. It's weird how often I end up riding these types of boards in situations where it wouldn't seem ideal, but they end up going really well. The same thing happened with the original Biscuit: I took that board to Desert Point unsure if I'd even ride it, and that became my favorite board for that wave. What I learned from that trip is that I didn't like having a lot of nose ahead of me in the tube. Sometimes Desert Point isn't a super-round tube, so you have to navigate your way through it. The difference between a more standard 5’10” and, say, a 5’2″ is pretty substantial in terms of the way you can maneuver it through tight tubes.ROB MACHADO’S BOARD:
Width: 19 3/4″
Nose Width: 14 1/2″
Tail Width: 15 3/4″
Thickness: 2 5/8″
Fins: FUTURES AM2
How do you compensate for the 8 inches that you lose?
You need a lot of volume throughout. What really inspired me to make boards like this was a '70s-style single fin that I begged Al to shape for me. When he did, it was this beautiful board that resembled an egg but had a pointed nose. From nose to tail, there was just tons and tons of volume through the board.
That board evolved into the Biscuit, which is much smaller but also keeps volume throughout. My 5’2″ Biscuit probably has more volume than a 6’6″ that I would ride. The original Biscuit was probably 2 inches thick all the way from 12 inches down from the nose to 12 inches up from the tail. When you look at a foiled-out shortboard, if the thickness is 21/4 inches at dead center, it decreases pretty quickly throughout the rest of the board. These small boards with high volume throughout actually paddle really well and catch waves early, which is important when you're lacking rocker because they aren't going to handle late drops very well.
Does that change the way you approach waves?
Yeah, positioning becomes super key at a wave like Teahupoo. The board was originally designed to ride crappy waves during summer in Southern California, so you can fly around and just squirt over little flat sections and make 1- to 2-foot days more fun. But it's weird to think about how many different situations it actually works well in.
But you could probably make any board work. Do you think these ideas can be applied to most surfers?
I think there are so many factors that go into it, but I know what you mean. I trip out when I see John John and what he's surfing at Pipe. He goes out at 8-foot Pipe on a 6’3″ because he's able to position himself underneath waves and kind of slide right under the lip. There aren't many people in the world that can do that. In that sense, it doesn't really cross over to the average surfer. On the other hand, in more manageable conditions I think the general consensus with surfboards today is to go shorter, wider, and thicker. I think that evolution has been good for most people. If you can take a 7′ egg and squash it into a 6’2″ egg, the guy riding it is going to have more maneuverability and probably more fun.
As far as making shorter, thicker, more functional boards goes, have you already taken it to the logical extreme or is the evolution still in progress?
I'm never really satisfied when it comes to design. I always think something could be better. I'm definitely stoked on this board, and these types of boards in general, but there are so many options and things that can be adjusted that your mind is bound to wander. That's the coolest thing about surfboard design: It's a constant evolution. It really keeps things interesting.
SURFER: Do you and Rob have similar views on board design?
RYAN BURCH: We agree on a lot of design ideas, but I feel like we use them in completely different ways. Our boards look and feel very different. When I get on his boards, I can't even ride them. They are so tuned into the way he surfs, and how technical he is, and I just don't have the same skill set. Rob is so quick and agile that he skates across the water on his boards, whereas I feel like I'm sinking on them. For me, I don't want to have to worry about generating speed, so I always make boards that generate their own speed and all I have to worry about is control. Rob will build more control into his boards because he can generate speed on anything.RYAN BURCH’S BOARD:
Width: 20 1/2″
Nose Width: 16″
Tail Width: 15 1/2″
Thickness: 2 3/8″
Fins: 5″ Twin Keels
The board you rode in Tahiti looks like a pretty traditional fish. Did you make any modifications for those waves?
I've always really loved to ride the fish in its classic form, and I always try to keep its original design elements intact to really recreate something from the past. But for this one, I actually broke my own rules completely and messed with everything. So this fish has a parabolic curve right after the wide point, right before the fin, and it has side cuts. I got the inspiration from the Mirandon brothers in La Jolla, CA. They used to do these Porpoise boards with really extreme side cuts. It seemed like a concept that could be beneficial in a fish by taking out a little surface area while keeping your rail really straight, getting a lot of bite out of it, and making pretty distinguished pivot points by the fin and by the wide point. I figured a couple of hard breaking points could get the arcs of your turns a little tighter. I rode it a bit in Australia and New Zealand before I went to Tahiti, and it felt really dynamic. You can still do those traditional swooping fish turns, but you can also get vertical.
That doesn't sound like it would help you much at Teahupoo, though.
I know it sounds weird, but I've actually always used fish as step-up boards for good waves. I use big keel fins—like, the fins in this board have an 8-inch base, are 5 inches high, and have a 1-inch slant. That's a lot of fin to push against when you think about it, much more than standard thruster fins. And they're right on the rail, so they hold really well. It's kind of similar to why a lot of guys like quads for barreling waves: You have fins right on the rail that have a fast attack angle in the barrel and really cling to the face. Keel fins seem to do the same thing for me. Fish are also really fast and skate-y, so getting them to slow down can be hard. That's why I ride them so small, because with a 5’3″ you can overpower it even if it wants to race away. If you're riding a traditional 5’6″ fish, you're going to have a hard time slowing down all that volume.
How did it feel at Teahupoo?
It felt great. Honestly, the most difficult part of surfing there had nothing to do with the board. It was my first time surfing Teahupoo and there were a lot of guys out who were tuned into the place. If you're riding an unusual board in a situation like that, you feel this kind of social interruption. You see someone who's ridden a million waves at that spot and he looks at your board and says, "You're going to ride that?" Even if you're confident in your board, hearing that fucks with your head. But after a few waves, the fish felt really solid. I love the way they feel in good waves, because in really good waves you're not focusing on throwing the tail around or doing super-radical turns; your main goal is getting tubed and putting yourself in the most critical part of the wave.
Does any part of you feel like you're trying something different, but the truth is that a fish is not the best board for waves like this?
No, I definitely feel like that's my ideal board for those conditions. When I picture a perfect double-overhead barrel, I see myself dropping in on a fish. But part of that comes from the fact that I've put in a lot of time on those boards, so I feel very comfortable on them. When I'm in waves like that and I trade boards with someone on a standard pintail thruster, I'm scared shitless. For me, that's way more of a gamble. But if I put the same amount of time into shaping and riding pintail thrusters as I do fishes, I'm sure that wouldn't be the case. Who knows, maybe I'd get more barreled if I spent all my time on a 6’6″ thruster, but I don't think I'd have nearly as much fun as I do on my 5’3″ fish.