The following essay was written at the beginning of 2001 for my surfboard design forum entitled Shapers' Bay in Swelldotcom, which perished in the Great Dotcom Bubble soon thereafter. I will leave it to the reader to determine how accurate this futurecast turned out....
One of the more regrettable characteristics of the world of surfboard design and construction is that there seems to be very little written down about the trade. And what ends up being printed is often contestable, maybe even downright silly. Other fields, such as science or medicine, have journals wherein new theories or technologies are described clearly and accurately by their initiators. The idea or formula is then subjected to review by the respective peer group, and is combed over with the utmost scrutiny and either applauded or scorned.
Lacking a respectable bona fide forum for peer review in surfboard design, much of our technical information ends up appearing in the surf media, where it is often distorted through the imperfect prisms of commercialism and ego. Worse, all of the truly vital hands-on information often ends up never existing in print at all; it is spread by word-of-mouth or passed on with non-written instruction from mentor to protege.
The end result is that there is far more misinformation in regards to surfboards than there is factual, sane and irrefutable text.
Naturally, since there are very few absolutes in surfboard design and no 'gold standard' scientific experimentation to prove a given claim, most of the various ideas and techniques involved in designing and constructing a 'magic' board are open to debate and individual interpretation.
We've decided to create this column in Shaper's Bay in order to periodically question and examine some of the more common myths and "old wives' tales" that persist in what is supposed to be a modern era of enlightenment and ultra-refined surfboards.
To kick off this new column we figured that the new year of 200I would be a good excuse to look at some of the factors that may well influence surfboard design in the future, and explode some of the commonly-held notions that seem to always turn up whenever "futuristic" surfboards are envisioned.
2001 & The Surfboard: Something Wonderful?
If one were to spend a rainy, blown-out day reviewing all the back issues of every surf mag in print, it would be obvious that very few predictions concerning the "Surfboard of the Future" have ever come true. Perhaps looking into the promising frontier of the Future does something to impair foresight; upon examining many of the surfers' pipedreams we see that many would-be prophets assume that there will be no gravity, crowds, oil dependence or paddling in the World Of Tomorrow.
It is now the year 2001, and while surfboards have improved through continual refinement of both design and materials used, they just haven't changed a whole heck of a lot in the past 20 years. They are still mostly hand shaped and laid up, made from molded polyurethane foams and polyester resins, and in the past 10 years have seen their dimensions fluctuate only by perhaps an inch here, a quarter-inch there. Here are some of the myths and old wives' tales that seem to distort the crystal ball when surfers look towards the future:
1. The future is, well .... Futuristic.
Remember when Detroit put fins on cars so that they'd resemble rocket ships? Surfers have often done the same thing when asked to envision the boards of tomorrow. Most of us were raised during the Space Age that began in earnest in the late 1940s, and we've all been conditioned by advertising and the media that foresaw everything in the future as being the fantastic progeny of the Age of the Rocket. From the "Jetsons" on, we were brought up to believe that everything futuristic had to be rocket-like, sleek or jet propelled.
Perhaps ultra-compact jet motors powered by fusion will someday be built into 16" wide rocket boards that will allow surfers to transform places like the Potato Patch into a walk in the park, but l really doubt it, at least in our lifetimes.
Barring such an exotic scenario, we must realize that our surfboards will always look pretty much the way they do now. The truth of the matter is that the basic dimensions of board design have been set for a long time. It is a fairly closed system, too. All the components are static — we have pretty much defined the extremes of width, length, thickness and rocker. What this means is that any board you ride in your lifetime will be between 5 to 13 feet long, 16 to 26 inches wide and 2 to 5 inches thick, regardless of fad or function.
Thus, I offer that the future of surfboard design is akin to trends seen with haute cuisine: fusions of seemingly contradictory foods creating 'new' combinations, such as "Southwestern Thai" dishes. The shapers, our "chefs", as it were, must abandon the era of refinement that we've been in for the last few decades, and move towards the future of surfboard: hybrids.
Jet-assisted surfcraft aside, there will be no entirely new surfboards, only new combinations of existing designs. All the components are already on the shelf, and progress will only come from creative hybrids of these parts. Examples might include paddle/surf boards, longboard guns or high-performance funboards and postmodern "Fish" shapes.
Unless, of course, hoverboards replace Razor scooters, and there is a sudden cessation of gravity ...
2. A New Surfboard Innovation Will Change Surfing
A common misconception held by many surfers is that someone will come up with some bizarrely original type of surfboard that will allow surfers to come up with a whole new way of surfing or open up new areas of the wave to maneuvers.
This belief essentially puts the cart before the horse. Actually, new surfing engenders new design. Elite surfers lead design; design doesn't lead the elite surfers. Exceptionally gifted surfer/designers, be they George Downing, George Greenough or Simon Anderson, have always changed surfboards by first coming up with a new approach to riding waves, and then concocting a board ( out of frustration with current equipment limitations or perhaps according to a vision for quantum-leap improvement) to implement their leap ahead.
Form follows function. Surfboards will usually conform to whatever fad or fixation is currently embraced by the surfing world. lf everyone decided that standing on the nose for the longest possible time was "in", then surfboards would evolve to suit that specific purpose. If making the fastest peeling walls in the world would suddenly make a gawky Surf Eddy irresistible to the Reef models, then boards would morph, overnight, into speed machines that would buckle Terry Fitzgerald's knees.
The vision of a new type of surfing ( or the 'colonization' of an untapped wave field) always comes before the design that will eventually allow it. George Greenough didn't just invent his knee machines one day, and decide afterward that, wow, they would fit into the curl better than the logs of the day. He was possessed with a burning ambition to surf with 'total involvement' deep in the curl, and designed his fantastic plastic machines to suit that vision. There have been instances where accidental discoveries were made (usually while mass manufacturing boards) that helped the evolution of the surfboard, but by and large the most relevant, progressive contributions have consistently come from throw-ahead surfer-shaper-designers. (see # 3)
3. Computer Generated Boards Are The Future
Computer shaped or generated boards may be the future of mass-market, retail surfboards, but they will never come up with the next "Magic Sam" or "Thruster".
Regardless of the push-button agitprop emanating from the computerphiliacs, no programming of any robotic shaping device will ever supply the necessary alchemy for breakthrough surfboard design. It is very unlikely that they will ever be anything more than simple replicators. The technology may conceivably exist someday, but there is no financial basis for it to be applied to the traditionally profitless business of making surfboards.
Traditionally, valid new design stems from fresh thinking by red-hot surfer-shapers living in a wave-rich (preferably low-crowd) environment. The demise of the once plentiful surfer-shaper and this type of environment has led us to the present era of minute, whittling refinement. Over the past two decades progression has come, for the most part, by merely tinkering with the Thruster.
A production shaper with the requisite talent will garner a reputation, like a white-hot Hollywood hairdresser, and will attract a stable of top pro surfers. These shapers are very competent craftsmen, but aren't designers in the true sense. The surfers are gifted athletes, but know very little about the concrete basics of design. Thus, the value of their input and feedback is muted, and the shaper ends up working in a very narrow framework —afraid to deviate from the norm and forced to contend with a performance envelope that is largely imaginary for all but the hottest surfers.
This 'push me-pull you' method of creating surfboards will never create revolutionary designs, only faddish, commercially viable models.
Breakthroughs and original thinking have never been more difficult to attain; there are fewer frontiers and innovations to discover than, say, during the 50s, 60s or 70s. As stated previously, all the dimensions and extremes have been mapped out. It only remains to ingeniously recombine them if we are to progress.
With this in mind, it is even more important than ever that we have a base of working surfer-shapers, or at least some elite surfers who are mindful of advanced theory. Otherwise, the next epoch in surfboard design is destined to the offspring of production shapers who smooth the ridges off of computer-whittled blanks .... and we'll all be driving AMC Pacers instead of Lamborghinis.
4. Exotic New Materials Will Save The Day
Yes, exotic aerospace materials would re-invent the surfboard .... if surfboards were made by Boeing. Since that is unlikely, surfboards will continue to be built in much the same way they have since the early 1960s. There is not even a remote possibility on the horizon that would, any time soon, supersede the foam sandwich construction that is the basis of virtually all surfboard manufacture, regardless of the type of foam or fiberglass used as the core and skin.
There are, however, plenty of materials (mostly resins and fiberglass cloths) readily available that are largely ignored by builders who all too often can't or won't break out of the inertia created by their years of experience. Many of these materials could improve the value and quality of most types of surfboards, but would raise the cost of the board, lengthen the construction time, or force a manufacturer to learn new techniques.
On the other hand, there are certain materials that, from time to time, receive unwarranted publicity from an ignorant surf media. Some of this hype springs from editorial or advertiser nepotism; often it comes from the desire to create excitement and the illusion of fast-breaking innovation that loosens the billfolds of readers eager to be on the cutting edge. Whatever the impetus, many "exotic, futuristic" materials may be fine for certain specific uses, but are misapplied in their use on most of the surfboard design spectrum. That said, it is very likely that surfboards will continue to consist of a hand or robot shaped foam core, laid up by hand with a narrow range of resins and fiberglass cloths whose uses are dictated by the following concerns: cost, strength-to-weight ratios, ease of use (less labor and time-intense), toxicity and, of course, the inertia of habit.
5. Molded Pop-Outs Threaten The Custom Surfboard
Molded surfboards have been the bogeyman to every working shaper since the 60s.
Once a decade, it seems, a shaper will be confronted with a layman surfer brandishing some sort of newfangled molded composite surfboard and teased with the claim that he will soon be out of a job.
In fact, this just happened to me yesterday, come to think.
But, in reality, the only threat (historically) that molded or' pop-out' surfboards pose is to investors in the company producing them.
No molded or 'pop out' type of surfboard has ever attained mass acceptance. There are many reasons why they've never taken off, each dependent on the quality and sophistication of each particular make and model. Experienced, hardcore surfers have usually dismissed them as being 'entry-level' or kook boards. Molded or pop-out boards have had a long history of being plagued with major design and construction flaws, each hinging on the specific materials and manufacturing methods used.
If you examine the history of molded boards all the way up to the present day, you wiII see a few common problems that keep surfacing, regardless of the quality of the product. Many of them have been heavy, which is the kiss of death as far as the better surfers are concerned. One of the maxims of any surfboard design states that any design or shape will always see performance increased with a decrease in weight. Major structural delamination has always been the deathwatch beetle of molded surfboards, for reasons far too numerous and technical to delve into here. Some of the technologies and materials used with molded boards are fine for oversized surfcraft like paddleboards or the original Windsurfers, but are terrible for use with modem surfboards.
The volume of a surfboard's foam core as compared to its fiberglass skin is called the 'skin-to-core ratio'. Since modern, thin surfboards have a much higher skin-to-core ratio than, say, a sailboard, the use of an ultra-light, weak core (like Styrofoam) skinned with more layers of fiberglass, and usually laminated with an expensive and exotic epoxy, is a mistake for that particular application.
The public is romanced with the use of buzzwords, such as "epoxy", "composite technology" "unbreakable" or "vacuum bagged." At trade shows molded boards are hammered with 2 X 4s — not that I've seen many too many waves wielding clubs as they plunge towards shore. Impact strength, which may prevent dings, is far different than tensile strength: the properties that keep a board from snapping in two under a violent load.
But aside from a molded board's construction flaws or merits, there is an over-arching reason as to why they will never replace the custom-shaped, hand laid-up surfboard. Production techniques of the molded board — whatever its level of sophistication — demand that each model be designed to exploit a specific market. This market has traditionally been the entry-level surfer. And because it costs money to produce new plugs, molds and models, the more financially successful pop-out boards will be those whose designs are least likely to change suddenly. That, in turn, leads us to a fairly middle-of-the-road line of funboards and longboards, which is hardly revolutionary or "futuristic."
That leaves a huge field of contemporary surfboard design to be contested between the two factions. Who will prevail? Well, every time a custom hand shaper comes up with a hot new design that surfers line up for, he will make more money. Every time a molded board company must bend to those design trends, it will cost them a substantial amount of money before they can retool and produce the new model to turn a profit.
Regardless of the advertising claims made by molded board manufacturers, there will always be an unimpressed, solid base of experienced and discerning surfers who will demand a custom surfboard.
In reality, the hand shaping, custom design community has the pop-out boys over a barrel. Design changes can come fast and furious; the custom shaper can lead or react to trends overnight, at little cost. The pop-out boys can never lead, but only follow. No matter who is shaping their plugs, they'll never be able to keep up with the far-sighted designer alone in his shaping bay, with his ability to shape and glass a board overnight, if need be, so as to ride a wave differently the next morning.
The future will see boards widen or narrow, curve or straighten, thicken or thin — but these changes will never come from an assembly line.