[This feature originally appeared in our May 2017 Issue, “Frontiers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
"Designing surfboards is so easy," I thought aloud, sitting in the glow of a mammoth computer monitor with beer in hand, watching a colorful 3-D rendering of my next surfboard come together before my eyes. There was no paper with dimensions and templates scribbled out in pencil. No foam dust. I wasn't in a shaping bay at all, actually, but a tastefully appointed San Francisco apartment, with the sound of streetcars trundling by in the distance. I spent 10 or so minutes clicking around with a mouse, altering the board's template by pulling in the tail here, widening the nose there, drawing deep and totally non-hydrodynamic channels and contours through the bottom of the board. I made the rails too thin, then too thick, and obliterated any sense of proper curve in the rocker. Julian Hoenig, who sat next to me, was annoyed, I'm sure. He's an actual designer, who, in addition to his day job creating impossibly cool gadgets for Apple, also runs a surfboard business, selling boards of his own design.
"That depends," Hoenig said. "Do you want the board to actually work? Designing bad boards is really easy. Making the good ones is the hard part."
Hoenig explained that while it's plenty easy for a schlub like myself to tweak an existing template, designing the template and understanding the physics at play was the important part. Screwing with the board's dims on a screen didn't make me a designer.
I reluctantly relinquished control of the mouse to Hoenig and he finished fleshing out my board (a sort of teardrop-shaped, eggy 5’11”). We settled on the final dimensions and color, finished our beers, and shook hands on a newly ordered board.
A former Audi and Lamborghini designer, Hoenig's sketched out the shapes for lots of high-cost and high-performance products, all of which have a whole lot more moving parts than a surfboard. He showed me some models he's kept over the years of cars he'd designed—beautiful, miniature super-cars that were so complicated, no manner of software will ever allow me to come up with anything even remotely resembling them. Hoenig explained that in surfboard design, as in car design, the minute changes are the ones that often yield the greatest performance, and therefore are the most difficult to get right.
After watching Hoenig use 3-D software to bang out a surfboard shape in 20 minutes, I felt like I was glimpsing the future—one in which high-performance shapers are more like number-crunching sports-car designers and less like salt-of-the-earth carpenters with rusted pickups, calloused hands, and pencils behind their ears.
In the past 30 or so years, surfboard design has become more and more about changes that are incremental rather than monumental. If you drew a graph that represented the scale of surfboard-design advancement from modern surfing's beginnings at the opening of the 20th century to the present, the graph would take the shape of a plateau. There'd be a steady, almost parabolic upward trajectory from Tom Blake's introduction of the fin, rising through Hobie Alter's popularization of polyurethane foam, climbing faster amid the shortboard revolution, and peaking at Simon Anderson's unveiling of the Thruster before leveling off for a much more gradual rise in the years since.
Pick up a high-performance board from 1990 and one from 2017 and the changes in design over that nearly 30-year period will be fairly minimal. The dimensions and bottom contours will likely be different, but the differences in the overall shape will be far less extreme than those between a board built in 1990 and one made in the early '60s. Think about it this way: Kelly Slater could probably compete somewhat successfully on the World Tour in 2017 on the same board he rode to his first championship back in 1992. Now imagine Nat Young trying to ride Magic Sam—the 9’4″ single-fin he used to win the '66 World Title—in a World Tour heat at Bells in the early '90s. Seems nuts, but that's how much high-performance board design has plateaued.
Of course, some shapers are trying things that are quite different. Shapers like Daniel "Tomo" Thomson, with his squared-off, double-ended boards, may very well succeed in his campaign to change the global perception of what a high-performance surfboard should be. The asymmetrical designs championed by a number of high-profile shapers seem like they're on the edge of mainstream acceptance and could also eventually set a new performance standard. And it's certainly possible that some mad genius banging around in a shaping bay somewhere will one day produce a craft that the surf world laughs about at first, then, a decade later, can't picture riding anything but, à la the Thruster. But at this moment, it's difficult to imagine any design breakthrough as impactful as those of decades past, or any of the world's best surfers embracing anything besides the standard shortboard.
Which begs a series of questions: Is this it? Have shapers reached the pinnacle of board design, or are there still massive leaps to come? In another 30 years, will some future surf writer be pondering how it is that the best surfers are still riding a board shape that debuted in the early 1980s? I put those questions to some of the best surfboard builders in the world, and the answers, it seems, are complicated.
For pretty much every surfer who's been around since the invention of the surf shop, browsing for new surfboards has gone like this: You walk into the shop and a board on the rack catches your eye—right size, right outline. Pick it up, feel the rails in your hands, heft it under your arm with a couple bounces to judge weight and balance. Peer between the fins to pretend like you know what the bottom contours reveal. Mentally picture yourself flying out of a tube and fileting a wave's open face. But, increasingly, a major aspect of a board's performance isn't obvious from picking it up and running your hands over it.
Many of the biggest advances in board design in recent years are being made in materials, rather than in templates and dimensions. Changing the foam is much less aesthetically obvious than making boards with forked noses or 10 fins or electric motors. Polyurethane (PU) and fiberglass are still, by far, the dominant materials in surfboard manufacturing—incredible, considering that foam-core boards first began appearing in the market some 60 years ago—but strange new foams are beginning to make inroads, coupled with changes in the spines of boards.
Gold Coast shaper to the stars Darren Handley is enthusiastic about these advances and has focused his company's attention on being on the cutting edge of surfboard materials. With a stable of team riders that includes Mick Fanning, Matt Wilkinson, and Stephanie Gilmore, he has little choice but to be out in front of whatever advances are being made. "With all these new epoxy materials, and hybrid epoxy/polyester stuff over the last couple years, we're starting to see companies like ours and others spending a lot of money on research and development," he says.
Handley's newest construction is his EpoxiCore line, a hybrid of PU and expanded polystyrene foam (EPS). He puts the PU foam out on the rails to maintain a traditional feel, but the center of the board is the lighter, stronger, more buoyant EPS foam—training wheels, sort of, for the surfer who wants to experiment with EPS foam, but isn't ready to leave the comfortable feeling of PU behind.
"We have so many more choices in materials today," Handley explains. "More carbons, better fiberglass cloths, better resins, better fins, better fin plugs. Over the last few years, the materials have been getting better because there are more and more people surfing, and there's just more money in the industry. Companies are cashing in on new materials and coming up with some stuff that we can actually use. People will be ready to pay $1,500 or $2,000 for a board with better materials, too. I see that in the future."
Half a world away, Rusty Preisendorfer—San Diego–based shaping icon and favorite board-builder of World Tour stalwart Josh Kerr—agrees.
"Finally, this last year, it seems that everybody is getting on epoxy and EPS boards. More surfers are realizing that because they're lighter and have more float, they're often a better ride than PU boards. Board builders are finally widely embracing it too."
When I asked Preisendorfer why he thought that more board makers and customers have only recently begun taking the leap in droves toward epoxies, he thought about it for a minute and laughed: "Because Kelly Slater's been ripping on them."
Preisendorfer says he likes seeing board builders experiment with different materials, which can result, hopefully, in them hitting on the right combinations that can improve performance for everyone. In his case, Rusty Surfboards is experimenting with a new foam core that's waterproof and lighter than traditional PU foam. They reinforce boards featuring this new foam with a carbon/Kevlar wrap, which, according to Preisendorfer, "is the optimal way to get flex out of the business end of a board."
The increased flex comes from the lack of a traditional wooden stringer running down the center of the board, which, while providing a great deal of strength and rigidity underfoot, does nothing at all for the foam at the rails. While our rails bend and twist through turns, wooden stringers are unable to store that twisting energy. Take away the stringer and add lengths of carbon at or near the rails and you get a stiffer rail that stores energy during turns and quickly springs back into shape when the turn is released, giving a lively acceleration out of turns. The hope is that these boards will allow average surfers to get more drive, allowing us to pretend we surf like Kerr, who does lots of the testing for Rusty Surfboards.
"The energy that boards like these give back during turns is mind-blowing," says Preisendorfer. "You feel it the very first time you get on these boards."
Performance boosts hidden in revolutionary materials are certainly nothing new to surfing. All you have to do is look at how much surfing changed once balsa was consigned to the historical dustbin in favor of PU foam. But that was 60 years ago. To see such radical material changes being accepted by surfing's mainstream audience—not a crowd typically embracing of change—is relatively new, as is the dawning realization that surfers are willing to pay the necessary cost (most of these craft start at $800 or so) for boards that are built with exotic foams and resins.
When Channel Islands Surfboards' new "Black and White" model was still in development, team rider Dane Reynolds paddled out a few times on a prototype, but something felt the slightest bit off. He got out of the water after a session, drove to Rincon, and swung north up a tree-lined canyon road, past a handful of horses, to shaper Britt Merrick's house in a little slice of Santa Barbara heaven. Reynolds had an idea for how to improve the board, so he marched into Merrick's shaping bay and handed it over.
"I feel like you need to scrape a little bit right here," Reynolds said to Merrick, gesturing with a swiping motion at a spot on the board where the nose rocker begins to flatten into the deck, near where Reynolds plants his front foot—a part of the surfboard that most surfers probably never give a second thought.
"Dane showed me with his hand what I should do with the sandpaper on the next version of the board," Merrick says. Reynolds' suggestion wasn't dramatic—no rocker adjustments, no tail trickery. Just a few sanding passes in one small area. Merrick was a bit incredulous, but did what Reynolds asked. "I sanded down the section Dane suggested for the next board and it was so much better," Merrick said. "Think about how fast someone like Dane surfs, how hard he pushes through his turns, and still, he's able to feel what equated to four strokes of sandpaper. It's astounding."
When it comes to performance boards, especially at the highest end of the athletic spectrum—the sleds our World Tour heroes and freesurf icons ride—advances in design are coming in smaller and smaller increments than ever before. Smaller doesn't necessarily mean less innovative, but more refined and more data-based.
"The incremental changes are what really excite me," Merrick said when asked if the future of design lies in tweaks rather than wholesale shifts in templates. If you've watched a Formula One or IndyCar race and noticed the pit crew making tiny adjustments to the front or rear wings of the car to improve feel and handling, a difference that an average driver would never notice in a million years, well, sometimes shaping surfboards for pros isn't all that different. If a few passes of sandpaper are enough to change how boards feel at the highest performance levels—traditionally where advances in board designs have come from—what does that mean for dramatic changes in board shapes in the future?
"We're always experimenting as much as we can," said Marcio Zouvi of Sharp Eye surfboards, who makes boards for surf video-game character Filipe Toledo. "But touring pros have very little downtime. The only real chance to experiment I get is during the break after the Pipe Masters, when Filipe has two months with no competition. Then we can mess around, try fishes, twin-fins, create new models, change this or that a little to see if something catches. But substantial changes in design for a guy at Filipe's level? I don't think that's going to happen. I'm focused on dialing in the boards that we know work already to get ready for the next competition."
Interestingly, Zouvi pointed to Stu Kennedy on Tour last year—he showed up and blew minds riding some of Daniel Thomson's otherworldly designs with strange tail shapes and exotic epoxies—as an example of why elite-level pros don't often experiment with boundary-pushing shapes.
"Kennedy had some great performances, for sure, but there were waves where, to me, it didn't look like the board had that familiar feeling—like a comfortable old shoe—and he had to hold back just a bit. You could tell he'd surfed those boards a lot, and he surfed very well, but there were times when it looked like the board wasn't doing what he expected. I don't think you're going to see someone pull out a super-modern, futuristic-looking board that's going to blow everyone out of the water."
The "old-shoe feeling" is crucial for the highest-level pros in the world. New designs and revolutionary foams are interesting, sure, but elite pros like what they're comfortable riding, regardless of what their shaper is fascinated by that week.
According to Preisendorfer, the plateau of surfboard design isn't unique, but rather an extension of what tends to occur with innovations in any field: they increase in leaps and bounds at first, then become ever more finely tuned iterations of the successes that came before. In other words, it's possible that we have already reached the pinnacle of a performance board's shape.
"I look at these shapes from the guys way out there in left field, lots of these groovy little labels that charge a thousand bucks a board, or I'll see an all-carbon board and the shaper says, 'This the future,'" says Preisendorfer. "Then I'll dig up a picture of a board just like it that I made 20 years ago and put it on Instagram just to show we've done that before. We've tried really short boards. We've tried narrow boards with lots of rocker. We've tried wide, fat boards. We've tried it all. I love to see younger shapers revisit old designs and put their own tweaks on them. But I think any changes in design coming in the future will continue to be smaller and smaller."
For as much derision as CNC shaping machines engendered in the surf community when they first appeared, there's something undeniably fascinating about watching one at work. A bulky foam blank goes into the machine and robotic arms swing into action, smoothly planing and sanding the blank in a flurry of foam dust, accompanied by the whine and shriek of high-strung motors powering the cutting surfaces. From raw, unshaped blank to nearly finished surfboard in minutes, these machines use a process that can be repeated exactly the same way, over and over again. No slipups with a handheld planer. No misjudging of a curve. For many surfers, the romantic notion of hand-hewn surfboards, while appealing, was reluctantly cast aside in favor of a future in which machines pump out endless, exact replicas of favorite boards. That future is getting closer, but we're not there yet.
The "magic board" has been devilishly hard for shapers to reproduce, and part of that difficulty is what makes a board magic and unique in the first place. Shaping machines and construction techniques have improved dramatically in recent years, and they're key to copying the magic board, but they're not quite ready to pump out flawless reproductions.
"If I could dictate what happens with high-end board production in the next few years, it would be to somehow replicate the magic ones," Merrick says. "I remember my dad and I talking about this in 1990, when shaping machines first came out; we thought we were finally going to be able to do that. We're getting closer, but we still can't. That's what makes it so maddening, but that's also what makes it so fun. It's why we've all adopted the ideology of a magic board: it's something that is beyond the reach of what you can understand. You can do everything the same—cut it on the same machine, have the same guy glass it and the same guy sand it—but something in one particular board will be different."
Zouvi feels like he's getting close to better replication.
"Machines are still getting better and better, which means that we can reproduce a magic board a lot easier," he says. "But there are so many variables that you have to be on top of in order to get that magic board every time."
Zouvi recently made two batches of boards with the same shape, using the same materials, that nevertheless turned out completely different in terms of feel on a wave. The culprit? A cooler, wetter winter in San Diego (Sharp Eye's location) that affected how the foam cores in the boards responded to the fiberglassing process. The cooler foam absorbed more resin and made the boards ever so slightly heavier.
"As for controlling the shaping part of construction, we are getting better and better," Zouvi says. "But once that shape goes into production, you still deal with hand lamination and hand sanding. There are no machines yet to do those things, and that can change everything." And sometimes nature itself colludes against you. So Zouvi now has to take into account the ambient temperatures when boards are glassed.
Controlling for variables in surfboard construction will be indispensable as design tweaks become ever more refined. This may, in fact, be a far more important part of building the best-performing surfboards in the world than radical design changes. If you can hit on a board design with the perfect blend of weight, balance, and flex, and can then reproduce that without fretting over the variables that have traditionally impacted the finished surfboard—the particular grain of a wood stringer, impurities in foam, peculiarities of the final sanding touches, or even the way a board is glassed—then you can lock in the exact dimensions and design tweaks that are proven.
Tinkering with easy-to-use board-design software can pump one full of chaotic visions of the future of surfboards. "Boards with fins on both sides of the board," you might think to yourself. "Why not?" You can use a computer to dream up asymmetrical boards with channels running from nose to tail, triple wings on one side, continuous curve on the other. Or you could whip up double-ended boards with mirrored nose and tail templates, as well as identical nose and tail rocker, allowing you to ride it either way, depending on fin placement. If you can picture it in your mind, it can probably be built. But if we've learned anything over the past four decades of thruster dominance, it's that grandiose theories in board design seldom actually deliver better performance than traditional craft.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a group of shapers more dedicated to making the highest-performing boards in the world than Zouvi, Preisendorfer, Handley, and Merrick. And if you ask them, the traditional thruster shape, with continual fine-tuning, is likely to remain cutting-edge. The future of surfboards, it seems, will look pretty similar to the boards we see today: foam blends, carbon stiffeners, or even just more-refined PU shapes. They'll just be a little more refined and a lot more uniform in manufacturing.
With that said, one of these four world-class shapers didn't rule out the possibility that a true breakthrough for surfboards may lie ahead, capable of completely changing our perception of both catching and riding waves. "In 20 years' time, I reckon we are finally going to have little motors in our boards," says Handley. "That is my dream—having a little motor on my board so I can out-paddle Parko at Snapper and get all his waves."