For at least two decades now, the terms “retro” or “alternative”, or even “hipster”, have been lodged as qualifiers to describe any surf craft not of the three-finned, high-performance shortboard variety. Despite sometimes being dismissed as a-functional relics, incapable of performing the kind of mainstream surfing displayed by the professional surfers whose names are attached to the signature model thrusters traditionally pumped out by big surfboard brands, alternative boards–keel-finned twins, single-fin eggs, etc.–have refused to go away. In certain pockets of the surf world, in fact, alt crafts retained a dedicated ridership, many of whom continued to tinker with and modernize these offbeat designs. Led by a handful of inventive crafts-people, many alternative designs, earned particularly fervent followings: Marc Andreini’s hull-bottomed single fins, Rich Pavel’s Lis-style fishes, and Ryan Lovelace’s fleet of off-kilter pocket-rockets come to mind.
Today, alternative shapes seem to be having a moment. In California, a quick survey of any lineup from Ocean Beach, San Diego to Ocean Beach, San Francisco is likely to reveal as many multiplex bottom contours and fin setups as potato chip thrusters. And that’s likely because many average surfers are realizing that, when compared to knifed-out, high-performance thrusters, some alternative boards are just easier and more fun to ride.
“Our mind state in general has changed,” says Southern California stylemaster and longtime mid-length acolyte, Devon Howard. Howard believes that the kind of smooth, stylish surfing he and others do on alternative boards is more relatable to many surfers than what the “elite athletes” are doing at ‘CT events. “The majority of people relate less to that and more to ‘experiences.’”
This week, Channel Islands released a new mid-length model (the CI Mid) and a retro-style twin-fin (the Fishbeard). CI’s latest foray into the alt-board market follows another multinational board brand Firewire’s hugely successful, Rob Machado-backed twin-fin line, which now includes an even more out-there model, the stretched out, mid-length fish called the Seaside and Beyond.
Now, if twin fins and bonzers are considered alternative, mid-lengths may more accurately be described as normcore–a kind of unpretentious outline that, put under the feet of the right surfer (see: Devon Howard), can be fairly radical.
No doubt the alt-board ascendance owes much to Howard’s smooth, stylish surfing on mid-lengths over the years. He’s had his share of egg-y models, most notably the Howard Special, a 2+1-style midlength that’s earned its own cult following.
Howard agrees, though, that the mid-length is having a moment. “What’s really clicking for more people these days on mid-lengths is accessibility,” Howard says. “The surfing most folks can do on those boards is more relatable than what the top pros are doing on the ‘CT on 5’11” chips.”
But just because the boards are relatable to a broader range of surfers, doesn’t necessarily mean boards like Howard’s are evolutionarily stunted. Even though he’s been riding mid-lengths for decades, Howard continues to tinker with outlines, rail shapes, bottom contours, etc. With the CI Mid, he says he’s arrived at a board with a broader range than his past egg-y designs.
“Most mid-lengths feel limiting in small surf because the longer rail and bottom contours on the majority of them require a bigger, more powerful canvas to really open up and do their thing,” he says. “When we hand shaped our initial [CI Mid] prototypes, I was instantly surprised how well they went in waist-to stomach-high surf. It was like discovering a whole other gear I’d never accessed before, especially in the small stuff—and it was mostly thanks to that added speed from the double-barrel concaves that had directly descended from the evolution of Al [Merrick]’s Tri Plane Hull designs he did in the ’70s. We landed on modern relaxed rocker design that scoots, squirts and swivels with ease.”
Will we see big board brands like CI continue to experiment with mid-lengths and alt-leaning shapes? Given the consumer demand, Howard argues, it seems likely.
“Social media is really changing the landscape of what surfers are exposed to, and what most of today’s surfers are engaging with,” he says. “You see 10-times more views for many of Torren Martyn’s videos than you do of most of your top CT surfers. It seems that this is translating into demand for the big brands to make boards that address what people are liking.”