Nick Carroll stands over a pile of surfboards. Wet and sandy. Freshly waxed and newly ridden. A herd of broken horses. He is their master. He is their slave.
He's been riding on and writing about these things for over three decades now. He knows everything. He knows nothing. He knows that some things just can't be known.
Maybe that's a bit dramatic. All I mean is: Nick Carroll knows a lot about surfboards. As much as anyone out there, I'd suspect. And even more better: he can explain it well.
"For me, journalism relies solely on my curiosity," he says. "If I'm curious about something, I can write about it well. I've only got about three or four weeks of curiosity about surfboards in me each year. So I try to make the best of it."
For this year's tour of duty, Carroll's in Bali leading Australian Surfing Life magazine's annual surfboard test trip, in which he and a few thoughtful pros lug a few dozen new surfboards to some third world shore and, you know, test them. (Okay, they really just go surfing.)
Nick's been doing this for 13 years running now. In addition to "testing" most of the boards himself, he also interviews the pros, wrings pertinent information from their soggy noggins, and distills it all into something palatable and useful. He's also the frothiest man-grom you'll ever meet (unless you meet his brother, Tom). On top of all that, he's just a really smart, insightful, CURIOUS person who's been catalyzing the strange un-science of surfboardology since he first interviewed Gerry Lopez for People Magazine in 1975.
1975!?! Doesn't that make him, like, old or something? Ha, tell that to the spray he just threw riding roundy little 5'2" Firewire Sweet Potato. Nick can out-froth a 14-year-old on a sugar high, paddle the Molokai Channel, then go surf pumping Sunset with all the local hellmen.
And when he talks about surfboards, people listen. (Well, I do at least).
SURFING: Surfboards are the coolest thing in surfing, and yet somehow the boring-est thing to read about. Why is this?
NICK CARROLL: I wonder if it's just because we know so little about them. Surfboard design is such a massive hole in the surfing consciousness. We don't have any scientific evidence for any of this stuff we do. It's based purely on experience — and mostly on the experience of a fairly small group of surfers. So, it's just this hole. Or maybe it's because everyone's got a theory and no one's theories coincide with each other. So you're reading someone's theory and it's like, "Nah, f–k that, that doesn't coincide with my surfing experience."
So, what have you learned from thirteen years of board tests?
It's a really simple device. It's made for riding a wave with you on it. That's a very simple thing. It doesn't need to be drowned in thousands of words of discourse and you don't need to have a massive intellectual theory built up behind it to make it work.
Is that why there's not a lot of variation between in the boards you brought on this test? I mean, 20 out of 25 of these boards are…
6.0" by 18.5" by blah blah blah, yeah… There's definitely some sort of gravitational pull there.
So, you're just testing the Thruster some more? What's the point of that?
Most surfers fill a spectrum somewhere in the center of the sport. There are people that are better and people that are worse, but most people are somewhere right in the middle. And — without suggesting it's a bad thing — most of them suit a fairly simple surfboard that's not making them think too much about what they're doing. If they start thinking too much, they will slip from that middle band down to the lower tier.
What's most important when selecting a board for yourself?
The single most important factor in a board is volume. Most surfers will find over time that surfboards of a certain volume will work for them every single time. Surfboards that are lower or higher may seem fun for a little while, but they'll eventually betray you. Volume is number one.
It's interesting that most shapers don't include some sort of volume measurement on boards. Like, cubic inches or something.
The computer can do that, too. I bet a lot of intermediate level surfers actually do know their basic volume measurements. And that number probably will be included as more people catch onto that. I'm always amazed how many surfers know so much about their boards, even if they're not even great surfers. I think every surfer knows that a good board can elevate your surfing, so they're always looking for that board. Whether it be Kelly Slater or Joe Blow, it's the same pursuit.
Of all innovations we've cooked up in the last years — from parabolic rails to carbon fiber flex tails and whatever else — is there anything you would consider a major breakthrough?
I don't think there is. I think all the best things about surfboards have already been included in the modern board. A center stringer holds the board on a line. The polyurethane polyester combo allows the board to flex just right around that center stringer. It's a bit brittle and it does fall apart, but surfboards aren't meant to last forever. They're meant to break. You're supposed to destroy them surfing in the course of your surfing life and move on to the next one.
How is it possible that we got it right so long ago?
What's happened is that surfing style and technic have evolved around those boards and it's too hard to break away from. Too many things about surfing are embedded in the way a center-stringer, PU board behaves. So, to break away from that now is to throw away a lot of surfing technique. That's an extremely difficult thing to do for even one brilliant surfer, and for everyone to do it, well, it's never going to happen. But that doesn't mean I'm not a real fan of things like Firewire. When those things come out, I'm the keenest person around. I want to immediately surf one. Who knows what it'll teach you.
The board test quiver is still on scattered across the lawn as Nick packs his bags and departs. Chasing some new thread of cultural curiosity, no doubt. Leaving all that fin and fiberglass to the surfers to sort out.
Looking back on our conversations, it strikes me that we may never completely understand our wave-riding vehicles. And that's actually kinda the point:
Destroy them surfing and move on to the next one.
[If you're interested in hearing more from Nick Carroll, check out this interview on the Australian journal Kurungabaa — it's a few years old, but still an insightful view into Carroll's long history of cultural curiosity]