Design Forum: The Merits of a Proper Soft-Top with Jack Coleman

The California surfer and filmmaker has a soft spot for free-friction

It's been nearly 60 years since Mickey Muñoz introduced the world to the "Quasimoto." Angling across a small Los Angeles county wave, hunkered over his parallel stance, arms stretched in opposite directions, Muñoz's pose–captured by SURFER founder John Severson in 1959—set the surf world on fire, as surfers on both coasts were quick to not only mimic the maneuver, but add all manner of inventive hot-dogging to their repertoire. While hot-dogging wasn’t new, spinners, coffin rides, Quasimotos, and butterflies were part of a new era of innovative recklessness in which riders sought to express their creativity.

The reverberations of the Quasimoto can still be felt in such maneuvers as Mason Ho's Disco Floaters. But the best the example of Munoz's enduring image may be found in the recent edits of filmmaker Jack Coleman, who has been documenting the early throes of a full-on soft top revolution. In everything from dumping shorebreak to reeling points, Coleman's crew of spinning, sliding, leg-stalling, butt-riding Hellman are redefining hotdogging for a new generation. And the fun these cats are having, which, if you've watched Coleman's clips, is inexorably clear. And soft tops comes with a bonus that wasn't available to the showmen of the '60s performing tricks on 30-pound-plus logs.

"My favorite thing about riding soft tops is that they are really safe," says Coleman, who has become one of the crafts most strident devotees. "You can lie down, sit, kneel or stand on all kinds of waves without worrying about the thing bashing you in the head."

Coleman says his transition to riding soft tops was a gradual one, as he started experimenting with longboards, then finless crafts, after spending his formative years riding high-performance shortboards. Coleman's recent films like 2014's “Groove Move" and 2016's "The Zone" have done much to spotlight the emerging soft-top scene, which he says is correlated to the free-friction movement initiated by idiosyncratic surfers like Derek Hynd and Ari Browne. Through it all, Coleman's been riding a range of soft top boards, dialing in preferred lengths, widths, and board stiffness. He's even tapping the ingenuity of the free-friction scene by removing fins altogether.

"Riding a soft top with no fins gives you the ability to have fun at the not-so-popular spots," Coleman says. "You can have a blast in just about any conditions. And if you do choose to surf at a popular spot, you can go down to the end section of that wave and collect plenty of scraps that would otherwise go unridden."

Coleman's been busy lately working on a follow-up to "The Zone," as well as launching his own brand of soft tops with Australians Harry Henderson, Brodie Jackson and Ryan Heywood called 88 Surfboards. While it's clear the quartet is on a quirky trip, they know that soft-tops won’t be replacing most hard boards in your quiver anytime soon.

"There are certain days where it's not really good for a shortboard or a longboard, so it's nice to just have [a soft top]," Coleman argues. "Even though I'm really into it, it's not, like, a hardcore thing where I say, 'I'm not going to ride anything except a soft top.' I don't want people to get rid of any boards. I want them to add a soft top to their quiver because it's the right board for certain days."

We recently caught up with Coleman and asked him to elaborate on the key design characteristics that make soft tops "the right board for certain days," as well as the origins of his own soft-top conversion.

What was your introduction to soft tops? Is there a ground zero for soft top innovation, in your mind?

Laguna Beach is where I was introduced to it. The skimboard scene is still pretty big there, and a lot of skimboarders would bring soft tops down to the beach and ride them on dumpy closeouts. It's big in Byron Bay, too. It's kind of grown out of all of the finless stuff that has really been going down over the last three years.

It started as a small group of older guys. Now, there's kids just riding soft tops, exclusively. It's not as frowned upon as it was before. It was seen as kooky for a while. People kind of got over the stigma about it.

What makes riding soft tops fun?

I would say it's not really about performance. You're just on this piece of soft foam. It's more of a horizontal approach rather than vertical. The motto of 88 Surfboards is 'Lie, sit, kneel, and stand.' It's not just about standing up, exclusively. It's just about having fun.

There are lots of makes and models of soft tops out there. What are the most important design elements that make for a good one? And how have you incorporated those into your 88 Surfboards brand?

Just like the hardboards, the shape and the rocker make a big difference. There are different brands like INT Softboards, Catch Surf, Surface, Doyle, and lots of others. I rode Surfaces for a long time. They are just a little flatter. Not as much rocker. They are quite a bit harder on the deck. Some of the cheaper soft tops are too flex-y and don't really go. The quality soft tops are stiffer.

We make our 88s with reinforced core and a special stringer. We have proper fin boxes and a shape that has been tried and tested with the proper rocker. We are going to offer a range of sizes from six to nine-foot. My favorite is the seven footer because I think it's the best all-around size. When it's big, you can chip in. When it's small you still have enough surface to glide and get speed.

Honestly, though, there are a lot of quality soft tops out there. Catch Surf boards are fun. The INTs are great, too. I was riding those for a few years and I'm very thankful for them. I appreciate all of the boards, really. They are all different.

We don't like Wavestorms, though. We don't back them. The 88 team, Catch Surf, and INT guys are grassroots – local to their region’s brands – who are actually surfing and refining the boards. If you paddle out with a Wavestorm, you are getting no respect.

What about the rails? It's seems like the majority of soft top boards have chunky, 50-50 rails, with very little roll off the bottom. What are the benefits to having such beefy rails?

Yeah, they are all round and chunky. Some boards like the old Doyles have a little bit of an edge, but mostly they are 50-50 round rails. That helps the boards not track too much, which ends up being great for spinning and sliding.

And rocker? I imagine you don't need a very complex rocker—just some gentle flip in the nose.

There's a particular amount of rocker you want in the nose for both spinning and tube-riding. The INTs have a little less-rocker in the nose. They are a little bit flatter and good for noserideing. The Catch Surf and the 88's have a little more nose rocker, so you can ride top-to-bottom waves and even get tubed. Then, for beginners, that rocker helps keep them from pearling. The best advantage of a little flip in the nose is it helps you get sideways. You can ride in the bowl and turn the thing in ways we didn't think were possible, whether you're lying down or sitting or standing.

What kind of fin setup do you prefer?

Fin design is where the next evolution of the soft top thing is going to be. I was fin obsessed for a while. I would look for boards that had been left out in the sun because the fins on them would be way softer and more squirrel-y.

I have a half-inch fin that I've been riding over the last couple of months. It's just a little bit of friction, but you can release at any time. I have one that's an inch-and-a-half, and then one that's two inches. I'll do a four-inch fin when it's bigger. I just use the stock fins and cut them down and add the foil I want.

All the fins in the majority of boards are plastic. In the 88s, we'll have fin boxes that fit FCS [fins]. The [Catch Surf] Odysea "Stumps" are quad setups with FCS. There are guys getting deep tubes on them.

But when you are going fully finless, it gets to a point where you have to be a freak like Ari Brown or Derek Hynd to really be in control—the kind of really skinny, really flexible, really talented surfers who can have that kind of control without fins. It's really rare. There are only a handful of them on the planet who can do it properly. So having a little friction, or hold, can be helpful.

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Once you've got your setup, is there a proper approach to riding a soft top? Or is it anything goes?

Go on your stomach, your knees, or your butt. It's kind of a hybrid between body surfing and kneeboarding and surfing. You can do spinners from any approach. My favorite thing at the moment is just sitting and spinning. It's super fun. Then with coffining—lying on your back, feet-first—we are finding out it's possible to do a lot of fun stuff that way. I've been in tubes where I'm on my right elbow, leg out on the front of the board fully. Take a bit from each practice and then you're out there having a blast. You don't even have to stand up. It's all surfing.