Intro by Jim Kempton Interviews by Mike Latronic
They say the world is shaped by two things: stories told and the memories left behind. Nowhere is this truer than in surfing. The stories are where we go – both in real life and imagining in our minds about waveriding. That imagination is the catalyst for the shape of surfboards – and the conduit to take the surfer to new and unexplored places on a wave. Jon Pyzel recently told me that the leading edge surfers today are striving not just to drop into the face, but to take off under the lip. To go there is not simply to shorten, or narrow, or sharpen the tool. Today’s waveriding vehicles – while employing the undisputed principles of hydrodynamics – are also inventing whole new ways of expanding performance. Shaping visionaries of past decades – Tom Blake, Bob Simmons, Matt Kivlin, Dick Brewer – each made massive leaps in the design of a surfboard. They were to surfboard design what DaVinci, Newton, Edison and Einstein were to science. They wedded complex theory to the simple beauty of utility. As the time passes, the incremental advancements to push the performance forward become a study in fine art and applied science.
Surfboards are, after all, both artistic pieces of technology and functional pieces of art. They require the vision of an architect, the craft of a sculptor, the fundamentals of an engineer. Each facet of a surfboard intricately interacts with the others in order to achieve its purpose: the taper of a rail creates speed or desired mobility. Volume relates to a matching body weight. Fins are functional wing levers, defining direction and stability. Rocker and width are determined by the type of wave being surfed. Understanding the theories and concepts themselves is better heard in the shapers own words – and many of the contemporary greats speak in the following pages. But we can safely say that the relationship between a waverider and shaper is a symbiotic bond that involves a deep trust and a equal amount of respect for the other. And the collaboration can sometimes deliver magic. Occasionally a shaper will create a model of perfection for the surfer intended. Each of us can remember finding that magic board – but it is rare. And due to the vast number of variables it is too often seemingly impossible to recreate an exact match. It frequently takes years for a shaper to define the intricacies of a surfers style and ability – complicated by the changing age and ability of the surfer Himself.
In some cases – particularly in big wave riders or dangerous slabs and reefs, the surfer is putting their lives in the hands of the shaper – and not just by creating the equipment. The contribution a shaper make can go far beyond act of mowing foam. As with many a shaper, Al Merrick was a mentor and uncle to Tom Curren, Lisa Anderson and Kelly Slater – three of the most consequential surfers of the modern era. Longstanding surfer/shaper relationships can become deep – even instinctual. Andy Irons told me the story of a year his shaper made a monumental difference that wasn’t even related to the surfboard shape. Eric Arakawa always made him a board and an exact replica for each world tour event insuring that should his trusty board be lost, damaged or broken he would have a doppelganger twin to ride in its place. But one year Arakawa had an intuition to make three boards for the Pipe Master’s. In one of the most celebrated duels of all competitive history A.I. managed to irreparably damage not one board but two. Taking his third board out for the finals Andy managed to beat Kelly Slater, win the Pipe event, capture a Triple Crown and take the World Title. That was a board of consequence. And in the end the stories told and the memories that are left are all that we have.
Deep water waves require more paddle power in a board (ideally). I like to put a lot of foam in the center of the board and up under the chest area, while still keeping the rails less bulky for maximum control and speed. A fat rail is hard to sink and also creates more drag than a thinner rail will. All aspects of a design can change how well they paddle, but rocker is a big one for me. If you have a long, clean entry rocker the board will paddle better than a thicker, bulkier board with too much rocker in the nose.
In hollow waves, different parts of the board will be engaged depending on the stance of the surfer. If they are taking off backside and pulling in right away, then the whole rail will be engaged right away. For frontside takeoffs they may be able to knife under the lip right away, but can also often end up doing a little air drop and connecting the tail first. Shorter boards have allowed me to use a little less rocker in the noses since they fit into the curve of the wave easier, but that only works if you have a wave that allows for an early entry. For slabs you have to have more rocker to fit the curve, or really short boards—it depends on how the surfer wants to approach the wave.
Fins are the surfer’s choice, though I have designed fins with both Futures and FCS that I know will work well for my boards for most surfers. Sometimes, people just have their favorite set of fins they stick with no matter what.
The Bottom Turn
During the bottom turn and all turns really, all the parts of the board are working as a whole, but the rocker and outline will have the most obvious effect on the outcome. The more curve in the outline and rocker, the easier it is going to be to turn and the less drive you will get out of the bottom turn. If you have a straighter rocker and a less curvy outline, the board will project more on the bottom turn and generate speed easier.
Down the line speed
More powerful waves automatically create speed for a surfer, so my goal is to build boards that harness that speed and allow maximum performance at speed! That means more rocker because the added curve through the bottom of the board will help release pressure and add control through big carving turns. You also have to consider that thickness in the rails is felt even more at higher speeds, so keeping them thinned out (especially through the tail) will let you tip your board onto its side much easier.
A good board should not have any severe limitations in the tube or turning, but board choice really depends on the type of wave. Is it a short slab that you have to backdoor to get into or is it a long one that runs down a reef that you need to generate speed and drive just to make the barrel? Those factors would influence the best board design more than “tubes or turns.”
If you watch John Florence on any bigger wave, you will see that his turning ability is not limited by the boards that he is riding. The big difference between small wave turns and big wave turns is bigger waves require more rounded, less pivotal turns, mostly because the surfer is going much faster in big waves. This means you want the board to be able to tip over onto the rail at high speeds and also hold through that turn without sliding out or laying back over flat. There are some very simple design principles that can help make these boards work, but it’s the little details that make some boards stand out from others. I always try to remember that there is a huge amount of pressure built up under a board as it tips over at high speed and I try to design something that will help the surfer deal with that pressure and harness the energy without losing control.
I would say a wave of consequence is anything that is large or powerful enough to hurt you, should you make a mistake. Usually hollow, shallow and barreling. Could be three feet, but generally speaking overhead, hollow, powerful and shallow. These waves require boards that are designed to harness and control the speed and power of the wave, rather than generate their own speed.
Regarding subtle differences between boards for heavy surf versus more playful waves, I believe there are pretty significant differences. For me, it tends to be less concave and less surface area in the rear half of the board. Narrower tails foiled more and with less concave.
The board should also have enough curve so as to not poke or get sticky in the pit and be able to stall and control speed to stay in the tube as long as possible. Rails that knife in and grip a steep face and don’t release the wall, but don’t feel too edgy. An outline that has enough curve and tail area to be maneuverable, but pulled in enough to not get uplifted by foam balls and turbulence. Shallower than normal concave combos, to negate the extra thickness and allow the board to surf “in the water” not “on the water.” Finally, fin placement, to allow turning from a bit more forward stance, but still provide drive and stability.
For typical, solid surf (anywhere) around the world we have developed our Step Driver which excels in head high powerful surf, up to (about) double overhead. The details on that board are all on our website.
I would say that waves of consequence could be any wave that would be very dangerous to the surfer. It could be a small, powerful, compact wave that breaks over a shallow reef or a big, open ocean type of wave. Waves of consequence will determine how the surfboard designs will change and adjust to the type of surf conditions and ability of the surfer. There are a lot of factors involved for the overall design such as rocker, volume, and tail for different types of waves of consequence.
The design differences are huge for playful waves versus heavy surf. Board designs for bottom contours, dimensions, and volume are very different for heavy surf or small waves.
Having the right equipment in waves of consequence is very important: it’s a matter of life or death! Having the right equipment allows the surfer to have fun in large surf and survive. Having the wrong equipment could be detrimental and cost you your life. As far as being a surfboard designer and shaper, I feel I have a huge responsibility in making the right equipment for each surfer.
The major aspects I look for in surfboard design for waves of consequence would be good paddling, easy to get into the waves, control, speed, and durability. All those factors make a big difference when surfing waves of consequence.
The model we use for waves of consequences is the 4VC, which is the model that most of the surfers use on the North Shore up to 12 feet. The 4VC is a model we have been using for years and it slowly evolved over the years to where it’s at right now. It’s been proven at Pipeline, Sunset, and Haleiwa. It’s a good all-around board for waves of consequence. When the waves get a lot bigger at the outer reefs and Waimea, we use another model which is a 4X, an offshoot of the 4VC which has a lower entry rocker, the wide point up more, and thickness towards the nose to help with paddling to get into really large surf. Some of the surfers we have been working with these designs are Seth Moniz, Reo Inaba, Zeke Lau, Keanu Asing and Jamie O’Brien. The base of the design had a lot of influence from Sunny Garcia.
Board design needs to fit the size and location of the wave. I would say that 10-foot and up local scale would be considered waves of consequence. Good-to-better board volume is probably most important, along with the appropriate rocker, bottom contours and fin size/placement.
The heavier the wave, the more different the board needs to be. In playful waves, boards can be shorter, thinner, and narrower, just enough to get by. But in heavier waves, everything needs to be beefed up. Being able to catch the wave is primary, so you need a board that can get you over that ledge early. Bottom contours need to be shaped to be able to handle gnarlier takeoffs, more speed, and more bumps and chops.
I think that a big thing in riding in bigger surf is your mental state. You need to have confidence in the lineup when the big sets show up. I believe that a huge part of this confidence comes from your board. If you don’t trust your board or if your board is not right for the surf you’re in, your confidence level will be way low and you’ll be flailing round in the lineup. But, if you have a board you really trust, it’s the right shape and length, and it paddles well, your confidence will be way up and you will be in “charging” mode. It’s like fight or flight, the right board puts you in fight mode.
The main models I have for bigger surf are the F-3, Waimea, and Outer Reef models. F-3’s have a wide range of lengths from 7’0 to 8’10, for waves from say 8-12 foot max. For waves over 12-feet, the Waimea and Outer Reef models take over. Each model is similar in general theory, but the longer ones become more exaggerated in its structure, meaning they get longer, beefier, and heavier. They can handle more wave size, more current, more bumps, wind, and speed. I still want the boards to be fast, but as the waves get bigger, I tone down the bottoms and rails so it can handle speed rather than create too much speed.
Waves of consequence start at around 8-10 feet, enough to get your heart rate going. Board design starts to really change at that point to match the power of the waves.
For smaller waves, you are trying to make boards that have more lift and speed, so the boards tend to have deeper concaves, which make them ride higher in the water. As for boards that are made for larger waves, the waves have the speed and power, so you are trying to make boards that will sit a little deeper in the water for more control and responsiveness. Boards made for larger waves tend to have more pulled in outlines with shallow concaves and even some deeper vees around the fin area.
When it gets to the heavy surf, life and death stuff, guys are putting their lives in your hands when they are on your boards. Feedback becomes even more critical when designing and making changes to these boards. I am lucky enough to be working with Billy Kemper, who is one of the best heavy wave surfers.
Guys are riding shorter and shorter boards nowadays as compared to a few years ago, so paddling into heavy waves becomes a big factor. It’s a fine line when adding more volume without hindering performance. Allowing the rider to use shorter boards without sacrificing paddling, equates to higher performance in larger waves.
There are two aspects of [boards on consequence]: size and the amount of volume of water that’s moving over the reef. There are certain locations around the world that tend to produce a lot more powerful waves than you would see at your average break—places like Hawai’i, Tahiti, and even Europe. I visited the Canary Islands this year and they have heavy slaby waves, just as heavy as Hawai’i. It’s crazy what surfers are riding right now in waves of consequence compared to what they were using fifteen years ago.
I think the thing with waves of consequence is that they are really powerful. They’re dangerous and you’re risking serious bodily injury or death—it doesn’t even have to be huge. When it comes to waves of consequence, you’re trying to maintain control in a very precarious, dangerous, high-risk situation. So we’re not trying to design boards that generate speed, we’re designing boards that give you control of the speed and power of the wave.
There are differences on some basic things. You have to reduce lift and you have to engage your rail at the same time. By doing that, you’re creating control, but you still need a board to turn. The tricky part is designing a board that gives you control in very powerful conditions, but then with that control, producing a board that also turns. That’s the magic.
One of the things that I have to constantly explain to customers is attaining equivalent volumes from board to board model to model and brand to brand doesn’t equate to equivalent paddle power. I often get customers that are riding, say, 28 liters on a shortboard, who want to go to the next step up board and they want the same volume and they think it’s going to get the same amount of power. I was just telling a customer a few years ago I was at J Bay and I borrowed a friend’s board that I shaped. It was a 6’3”x 181/2” and 2 5/16” thick. And man, I don’t ride boards that narrow and thin anymore but the surf came up and I just jumped on it with a fullsuit. The thing sank when I got onto it. But when I started paddling it just had this glide to it. I had no problems catching waves. The board was probably 25 or 26 liters but it just slipped through the water. Rocker, foam and flow, it all has to come together.
The specific model for me is our RP (round pin) model. That’s our bread and butter board for the North Shore and places with waves of consequence.
The performance characteristics are what we talked about earlier, control, maneuverability and paddling. It’s technical for me to describe and likely I think it’s boring to everybody. I think maybe its more of an ethereal, more esoteric kind of answer that helps to connect. I think with every spot, every type of art, every expression of art/engineering, you have to have a vision for it, right? And you have to be able to see it when you’re creating something. It’s not a haphazard thing. There is an evolution and there’s a linear process. And so, if you can’t see it, you can’t design it. What’s really important is being able to see it and then being able to conceptualize what the board needs to look like, how it’s got to fit in the wave, how the wave and the water wraps around the rail, the tail, and how it moves across the bottom with the different contours.
Waves of consequence are when the waves get over 15 feet or 30 foot faces.The conditions are very dangerous or it’s some slab surfing or heavy, heavy beachbreak, like Puerto Escondido or Banzai Pipeline. Typically the design will have increased volume to make sure that there’s enough flotation to get into the waves in time so you can make the drop. .It can be a matter of life and death; the board has to perform.
I try to ride some big ways myself and I’ve been designing the boards for myself and then passing those on designs off for other surfers. I’m 72 so I can’t push it as far as I was when I was younger. I’d like to thank Dick Brewer for loaning his personal board some years back for my first waves at Waimea Bay and then just being a constant influence in my big wave designs. He was a leader and always will be.
If you got a board that’s too light, it may feel good for small surf but it is not gonna feel the same in waves of consequence. It’s gotta have that solid feel to it.
It’s all about the entry, the acceleration and the release, and then having enough volume. I like the area in the nose, the rail, and the outline. Not so much in the thickness.
I feel that most all waves of consequence have the same design requirements. Getting into the wave is first and foremost and what I’ve done in the recent years is gone back to more of an eighties style flat deck with a fuller boxy rail. And I find that it has more leverage than a dome deck and that it has flotation in the rails—keeping the rails up, it goes faster.
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