Last December, during a drizzly afternoon on the North Shore of Oahu, I was playing cards on the porch at Conner and Parker Coffin's home fronting Off The Wall when I realized the surf had switched on with overhead sets and remarkably thin crowds. The only problem? I hadn't brought a surfboard.
I asked Parker, who was out of the water and nursing a slightly tweaked ankle, if I could borrow a board. "Of course. But if you wanna surf, you gotta try this thing," he said, pointing to a purple 5’8″ with a bizarre-looking fin setup: four canted-out, glassed-on side fins and a fifth, larger middle fin. At first glance, the board looked over-engineered—gimmicky, even. I'm not typically one for alternative craft, especially in powerful North Shore surf. But my choices were riding this Frankenboard or not surfing, so I begrudgingly took the board and paddled out, assuming Parker was sending me out on a lemon.
I took off late on my first wave and pulled in. Despite being too deep in the tube and feeling the foamball with my back foot, the board maintained control while generating enough speed to somehow send me flying out onto the shoulder unscathed. On my second wave, the board held through a tight frontside wrap without so much as a hint that it wanted to slide out, as single-fins and quads often do. I was shocked, and walked back into the front lawn of the Coffin's house an hour later singing the board's praises to Parker, wondering how the hell it worked as well as it did.
"Right? I told you!" Parker shot back from the balcony. "It's the fastest surfboard I've ever ridden."
The board, called the Bonzer 5 Shelter, is a new model from Channel Islands, although it's built on the foundation of a decades-old design originally dreamed up by Oxnard, California-based shapers Malcolm and Duncan Campbell in the '70s. According to Malcolm, the Bonzer's primary purpose is to efficiently direct water flow. The fins and bottom contours work together so that water can move diagonally across the board. When this happens, the outside fins deflect water down and back through the tail. This maximizes the force created while turning, which results in increased drive, and gives you the ability to create more speed while using less energy. More for less, or at least that's the theory.
What I had never considered until my surf on Parker's board in Hawaii is that, despite its unusual appearance, the Bonzer may not actually be an "alternative" to high-performance surfcraft at all. In fact, it's being used by surfers like Parker, Bobby Martinez, Yadin Nicol, and Dane Reynolds to achieve surprisingly high levels of performance. When Reynolds signed on as a test pilot for 2016's "Stab in the Dark"—a video contest wherein 13 shapers create unmarked boards for a top professional to ride and review without any preconceived notions of who built them—Britt Merrick of Channel Islands and Malcolm Campbell shaped him a 6’0″ x 19-1/8″ x 2-1/5″ Bonzer for the contest. Why? According to Merrick, "We just wanted to switch it up and build Dane something that would feel a lot different from all of the other entries."
In the resulting video from the contest, Reynolds' surfing on the Bonzer was smooth and quick down the line, with a lot of drive and projection, which makes perfect sense considering the theory behind the design.
While the Bonzer design has existed for decades, the recent collaboration between Merrick and Campbell is being produced on a larger scale than the Bonzers of yesteryear, making them more readily available to an entirely new generation of surfers. "It's quite something to have our logo next to the CI logo," Campbell says. "This model is the culmination of 30 years of work and it's a chance to get the Bonzer out there to a larger group of people."
Parker is one of many new converts, and with a few months of Bonzer testing now under his belt, I asked him if he was still as enamored with the design as he was in Hawaii, and how often he'd been riding it.
"A lot, actually," says Parker. "That board is so drivey. You can really project out of turns and then hold rail on flatter sections. When I was in Hawaii, I even rode it at solid Off The Wall and got one barrel that got me really psyched. It was a pretty eye-opening experience to get off a normal shortboard and try something completely different, yet have it still give you really high performance. It's not like going and jumping on some novelty board that you're not actually going to be able to turn; you can really rip on it. I've seen Taylor Knox and my brother ride Bonzers, and the way they're surfing, you'd never think they were on alternative equipment. If anything, I think a Bonzer is the board guys like Conner should be riding when it gets good in perfect, lined-up waves like J-Bay. If you're a carvey surfer, like Conner, you benefit from the Bonzer because you get a lot more hold on it than you would on a normal thruster."
It made sense that a board with those design characteristics would be a great option for those of us looking for a different approach to high-performance surfing. But, considering how long the five-finned concept has existed, why haven't these craft already become commonplace in lineups around the world?
According to Parker, the answer to that question may lie in the Bonzer's center fin. He explained that when he first jumped on the craft, he found that he had tremendous speed, but little control through turns, making the board initially difficult to ride. It was only after moving the fin around in the box and finding the sweet spot that he was able to properly put the design through its paces. Since most shortboarders today are used to fin systems like FCS and Futures, which don't allow adjustments in fin placement, it's a learning curve that many surfers aren't accustomed to.
"You don't jump on one and immediately surf it the way you surf a normal shortboard," says Parker. "But once you get everything working, they're pretty special. They give you a feeling that you'll find yourself chasing."
[This feature originally appeared in our June 2017 Issue, “Influencers,” on newsstands and available for download now.]
[Featured Image: Britt Merrick and Malcolm Campbell, Photo by Lesh]