For most of us calling the various coastlines of the northern hemisphere home, the annual transition into winter means one thing: the surf comes back. Because of this, the deadening of leaves and the crisping of air evoke a Pavlovian response in wave-hunters the world over, an urge to call our shaper of choice and order something we may not be able to afford but absolutely need. The formula is simple: new surf season equals new surfboard. Period.
Which begs a question: what exactly is the "perfect" board for winter? Certainly there are variables that transcend Mother Nature's moods such as how big you are, where you surf, and your level of expertise, but even without those factors there are certain things that are essential ingredients to making that magic ride for those magic months.
"Basically, you are looking for a surfboard that will give you more paddling ability," sums up Hyland Surfboards namesake and shaper John Hyland. Based in Big Sur, California, Hyland enjoys a devoted underground following of assorted slab-hunting psychos. He also knows a thing or two about shaping boards for cold, fast-moving, heavy water.
"During the winter, you are usually wearing more rubber, currents tend to become an issue with the big northwest swells and, of course, the surf gets both larger and more consistent," he says. Taking all of these factors into account, Hyland reckons your typical shortboard design needs "more length, more rail, and a narrower tail design so whenever you duck-dive a big wall of whitewater you don't get pushed back toward the beach." Acknowledging that not everyone is excited to have their shortboard shapes stretched out or beefed up, Hyland adds that increasing the surface area of your fins can go a long way to helping your "smaller" shapes hang tough in the big stuff.
On the craggy shores of New England, where summer is hopelessly flat and the arrival of the colder months marks the only consistent surf season they know, 5Star Surboards shaper Sashi Lyford provides an interesting twist on the "perfect winter board" debate. "All summer long it is nothing but fishes and short, fat, stubby boards," says Lyford. "Winter really is the only time of year we start making and using what you might consider a 'traditional' high-performance surfboard."
For surfers in the coldest regions, Sashi takes into account the extra 10 to 15 pounds you have to paddle around with thanks to 5/4 wetsuits, boots, hoods, and gloves, and adds an extra one-eighth of an inch of foam in a board's width and thickness to compensate. When asked if a certain type of blank material or glass job helps in the winter, Lyford laughs, "Nah, that stuff stays pretty much the same. Besides a little extra volume and length and a maybe a more pulled-in tail design, the main thing winter means is a lot of extra wax goes on from people sitting around inside, drinking beer, watching vids, and waiting for a the surf to come up."
Back on the West Coast, tucked safely in the groomed perfection that is the leeward side of Point Conception, J7 Surf Designs co-owner and shaper extraordinaire Jason Feist figures that the major improvements in wetsuit technology (i.e. the 4/3s of today feel and flex like the 2/2s of our youth) have actually curbed how much a shaper has to worry about the added weight of winter. "I really don't change as much [from summer to winter] in my designs as I used to," says Feist. "You know, that inch or two or three that maybe you shaved off for your summer board, definitely comes back, and because you are surfing the points again and larger surf tends to see you get caught inside more, I do still like to add a hair of volume to help with paddle speed."
Another winter-inspired trick of the trade that Feist employs is to add a bit fuller foil through the stringer line of the board. "That really works to hide the extra volume so when you jump on it doesn't feel like you are suddenly riding a pig," he explains. Beyond that, as J7 and others have pointed out, a winter-specific stick will often have a more rounded tail and stretched outline to help with down-the-line speed, and a slightly "thicker and heavier" glass job to help get you through the chop and over the ledge on the bigger days.
In the end, of course, there may not be a one-size-fits-all answer to what exactly is the perfect winter surfboard other than, of course, the one you're currently getting barreled on.