Split Peak: Will There Be Another Breakthrough In High-Performance Surfboards?

Editor Todd Prodanovich and features editor Justin Housman debate the likelihood of a post-thruster future

In our latest issue (58.2, available on newsstands or for download here), features editor Justin Housman had a big question: where can high-performance surfboards go from here? It’s a real head-scratcher, considering that the last watershed moment in high-performance surfboards happened nearly 40 years ago when Simon Anderson created the Thruster. According to some of the best builders of hi-fi surfcraft, including Darren Handley, Marcio Zouvi, Rusty Preisendorfer, and Britt Merrick, the future will be marked by incremental advancements in materials, and subtle refinements in the shapes themselves, rather than quantum leaps. So what does this mean for the future of performance boards? Housman and editor Todd Prodanovich discuss.

TP: Reading your piece about the future of high-performance surfboards, I was surprised to see that so many of the best shapers in the world felt that, essentially, this is it—the modern shortboard is as good as we’re going to get, minus a few incremental changes. Obviously those guys are the experts, but part of me is still skeptical of that conclusion. By definition, we don’t see breakthroughs coming ahead of time, so just because we can’t foresee what that next watershed design will be, that doesn’t mean it’s not on its way. Do you think the shapers you talked to were being a bit conservative in their assessments?

JH: Sure, that’s definitely possible. But I think it’s telling that over nearly 40 years of Thruster shapes, the design iterations we’re seeing aren’t leading toward anything different — they’re just ever-more refined versions of the same thing. Plus, at some point, you do sort of hit a limit in terms of design advances. You need to stand on a surfboard, and you want it to do certain things on a wave, well, there are finite ways for that to happen. It seems to me that unless the best surfers in the world change what our idea of good surfing is, board design probably doesn’t have a radical future coming. Keep in mind, too, these shapers are making boards for the best surfers on the planet. If they thought there was a way to improve on the shape dramatically, they’d be doing it.

TP: Would they, though? In the piece, Marcio Zouvi from Sharp Eye talks about how the “old shoe” feeling, and how pros like Filipe Toledo want something that feels familiar and dependable. Makes sense, right? These guys have way too much on the line to try some crazy left-field surfcraft when they’re warming up for an event, let alone in an actual heat. Part of me thinks that it’s a mistake to believe that the next big thing is going to make its debut under the feet of a World Tour surfer, because those guys just don’t have any incentive to really take a deep dive into weird designs. I think the next quantum leap is going to have to come from freesurfers and fringe characters. Shit, maybe it’s already out there but no one knows because they haven’t seen world-class talent put it through the paces. There’s a chance, right?

JH: That’s true, but if somebody invents a board that lets guys surf faster, turn harder, and launch bigger airs, you better believe that pros will be more interested in riding it and way better at riding it than workaday surfers. But at some point this becomes a philosophical question about what world-class surfing looks like. If an unknown shaper makes a board that revolutionizes surfing, well, what does that even mean? What does that revolutionary kind of surfing look like? A board that lets you do what exactly? What level of ability would it take to ride it? When you look at the Thruster, for example, it brought into being a kind of standup surfing that kneeboarders were already doing, and that people had been doodling in cartoons. But does it feel like there’s a whole new part of the wave that you’ve always wanted to surf, but can’t? The hydrofoil is revolutionary as shit, but I have no interest in riding one.

TP: You don’t think it would be fun to ride a board with a three-foot sword attached to the bottom? But seriously, just because surfboards right now allow us to do a lot, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t do those same things more efficiently. For example, every shaper talks about the balance of speed and control like it’s a zero-sum game. Maybe someone in a garage somewhere will come up with new fin templates, or new configurations of fins, paired with the right bottom contours and tail shape that allows for lots of having cake and eating it too. Or maybe the next revolution comes from a finless experimentalist who designs a rail that allows much more control when you set an edge. More speed and more control would heighten airs, allow for deeper barrel rides, and more spectacular turns on the elite level, but that same innovation would also be useful for workaday surfers—they would just use it differently, much like pros and average Joes use modern thrusters very differently. Look, I know I’m being very optimistic here, and the best part about being a futurist is you’re not on the hook to explain tech that hasn’t been invented yet, but doesn’t surfing feel more exciting when you believe the high-performance surfboard hasn’t peaked yet?

JH: Absolutely. But, when you think about it, your argument just points toward continued iterations of the shortboard we already know. Rusty made a nice analogy that I probably should have included in the article. He brought up the iPhone. Revolutionary at first. Changed every single thing about how we interact with each other and the world. Seven years later, the tech world is all excited about whether or not the damn camera lens protrudes from the phone. That’s pretty much it for revolution in smartphones right now. That’s sort of the arc of technological development. So I think it’s very likely that the basic shape of the high-performance board has gone close to as far as it can go, while still allowing what we think of as good surfing. The iterations will come in fin design, and bottom contours, but really, even there, those changes are ever more incremental, too. Not a whole lot of new ways to tweak the bottom of a surfboard. But to answer your question, yes, surfing is more exciting when there’s an idea out there that high-performance has lots of room for radical growth, but, well, that has to slow down at some point. And maybe we’re reaching that point. At a certain stage, hydrodynamic changes to make boards faster makes them hard to turn, and vice versa. It’s not like a race car with zillions of moving parts and different ways to deal with drag. Once you start tweaking boards at a certain level, you’re gonna have to accept that high-end surfing will look different.

TP: I see your point, and Rusty’s, but I’m also pretty sure the iPhone 15 is going to be a pair of contact lenses that give you a heads up display, paired with an inner-ear implant. Technology has always advanced in fits and starts, it hits plateaus and then some weirdo has an epiphany and we enter a rapid growth phase. It’s difficult to imagine what the next big idea in surfboard design is, because we haven’t had that idea yet, but I’m gonna cling to hope. In an ideal world, if a time traveler brought a board from 2050 to our time, we wouldn’t even recognize that it was a surfboard because it would have changed that much.

JH: What if they already did? And it was the three-finned, high-performance longboard? And that’s where the future actually leads? The horror.

[Featured Image: Filipe Toledo. Photo: Miller]