I recently decided to fully embrace the NorCal, outdoorsy- male stereotype that I was already the walking embodiment of, and went out and bought my very first real-deal mountain bike. I spent an embarrassing amount of time researching my new steed. Oh, there were dilemmas. Hardtail or full suspension? The number of gears I'd need took some serious thinking. The color? Huge decision. Tire size? My god, the mind-bendingly-hard choices never ceased. When the box containing my new bike showed up at my door, a buddy and I cracked a couple beers and spent a boozy afternoon assembling the thing. While threading on the pedals, I noticed a big "Made in China" sticker on the frame. I thought absolutely nothing of it at the time. I would have been shocked had it been manufactured anywhere other than China, really. I finished the build and went out for a shred…or whatever mountain bikers call it.
It wasn't until the next morning when I started loading boards into my truck for a morning surf that the "Made in China" sticker came back into my mind. Despite all the handwringing choices I mentioned above, where the bike came from was never even close to being a factor. The color? That mattered. The drivetrain? Holy shit, yes, that mattered, too. Yet whether the bike was fabricated in China, California, Pakistan, Honduras— hell, even Mars—just did not matter to me at all. But the surfboards in the bed of my pickup (a vehicle built in Tennessee, for what it's worth)—where they were made is a whole different story.
I've been thinking about that story quite a bit, lately. You may have read my article, "A Crossroads for Surfcraft," in our last issue. For that piece, I looked at what it means for the domestic surfboard industry that boards made overseas by largish companies like Firewire and Haydenshapes have become, for the most part, accepted arrows in a modern surfer's quiver. It was a nuts-and-bolts examination of the ramifications for American shapers involuntarily tossed into the gladiator's pit of globalization. But there was one question that my research couldn't answer: Should we actually care where our surfboards are made?
For a surfer who doesn't have any skin in the surfboard-industry game, who just wants to spend $750-ish on a new board that will hopefully work well and last a long time, can we fault 'em for pulling the trigger on a board made overseas?
Lots of the epoxy boards being cranked out by the shipping container-load from Thailand factories are undeniably good surfboards. Sprightly, light, tough— there's a reason you see them under the feet of so many surfers happily sliding down the line, imagining they're Craig Anderson. In fact, one of the best boards I've ever owned was made by Global Surf Industries, the same big Thai factory that cranks out Haydenshapes. I fell just as hard in love with that board as I have any custom board I've ever owned. I learned then that a board with a UPC code stamped onto the stringer can have just as much "soul" as one that says "Made for Justin."
They're also easy to buy. Easy to order, too, if you want custom dims. Pull up a website on your phone, thumb through a few choices, pass over a credit card number and the board can be shipped wherever you want in a few days, not the classically frustrating "8 to 12" weeks a run-of-the-mill domestic shaper usually quotes.
Sure, there's a lot to love about the overseas model. But then there's this: I personally know the shapers of every single board in my garage right now. I've surfed with some of them, shared beers with others, engaged in late-night email threads about rail shapes and tail rocker with the rest. The boards I surf were all specifically built for me, tweaked for the way I surf by the same person who actually designed and finished the board. As cool as online board-ordering software has become, walking into a shop, grabbing a scuffed Bic pen and doodling the board you want on an honest-to-god paper form is still cooler. Surfboard shopping is one of the last things in my life not dominated by faster, better, more efficient technological innovation. Maybe the surfboard making and selling process doesn't really need to be streamlined and improved. There's something pleasantly analog about the process of buying a board the old-fashioned way.
Many surfers have fought for years against the idea that a surfboard is merely a tool or a toy. Even if we're not shapers ourselves, or particularly interested in the minutiae of board design, we've helped breathe life into inert foam and fiberglass as a collective group. We've mixed a heaping helping of meaning and significance into the history baked into the surfboard. Probably too much, really, for something that exists solely to help us to play in the ocean.
When you purchase a surfboard, whether you realize it or not, you're adding to that history—or possibly altering the course of its future. If surfers increasingly become comfortable buying boards online from huge manufacturers, and having the boards shipped to wherever we live, we're going to need to be okay with lots of today's mid- and small-market shapers going out of business. We'll need to accept that surf shops will change, too, and that unless those shops cater to the boutique shapers making $1,200 fishes and logs, they'll all soon be offering the same four or five big board brands, regardless of where in the country that shop is located. Finally, we'll need to acknowledge that a vibrant chapter of surf history—one in which a rich tapestry of local board builders use their knowledge of local waves to cater to a local crowd—may come to a close.
I didn't care where my new bike came from because I have little tie to mountain bike culture and don't have any idea of the history of bike brands or shops. I wanted a good bike at a good price, regardless of who made it or where they made it. Whether or not you approach buying a surfboard the same way is up to you, which means the way the future of surfboard making unfolds is up to you, too.