Re­defin­ing Nor­mal

A “nor­mal surfboard” once meant a thin, nar­row, roughly 6-foot thruster. Now it means what­ever we want it to mean

Surfer - - Contents - By JUSTIN HOUS­MAN

A “nor­mal surfboard” once meant a thin, nar­row, roughly 6-foot thruster. Now it means what­ever we want it to mean

“Nor­mal.” For years now, that word has been front and cen­ter in ad­ver­tise­ments for al­ter­na­tive sur­fcraft, mostly fish or fish-in­flu­enced hy­brid short­boards. “Ride this shape a cou­ple inches shorter and an inch wider than your nor­mal board,” the ads typ­i­cally im­plore. Some­times “nor­mal” is re­placed with “stan­dard,” but, of course, the idea re­mains the same: That there is a Pla­tonic ideal of a board that all of us can eas­ily point to, nod in uni­son and agree, “Yep, that’s a nor­mal surfboard right there.”

But lean back, close your eyes, and pic­ture a “nor­mal” surfboard in your mind. What do you see? A wafer-thin, high-per­for­mance thruster? A twin-keel fish with a psy­che­delic air­brush? Maybe a sin­gle-fin log with a thick red­wood stringer run­ning down the cen­ter? Or how about a gar­ish pink soft top? What you pic­ture de­pends en­tirely on who you are, where you surf and the par­tic­u­lar joys you’re chas­ing when you pad­dle out. You may even ride all of those boards on the same day if you’re lucky enough to live some­where with a wide va­ri­ety of waves. Each one of those shapes could be con­sid­ered per­fectly nor­mal for the mod­ern surfer de­pend­ing upon abil­ity level, waves on of­fer and surf style pref­er­ences.

Of course, roughly a decade ago, “nor­mal” for the vast ma­jor­ity of the board-buy­ing pub­lic meant a 6-foot-or-so high-per­for­mance thruster. And while it still does for many, take a look around at pretty much any lineup in the U.S. not fea­tur­ing waves that re­quire spe­cial­ized equip­ment, like heavy bar­rels or huge surf, and it’s clear that the “Ride Any­thing” ethos—the be­lief that a surfer should ride what­ever they feel like, and not be held to some ho­moge­nous stan­dard of what a surfboard should be—is win­ning the bat­tle for the hearts and minds of the day-to-day surfer.

With the ex­pand­ing menu of board choices avail­able and the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of al­ter­na­tives to the high-per­for­mance thruster, ev­ery surfboard has, in ef­fect, be­come a nor­mal surfboard. Gone are the days when to stroll across the sand car­ry­ing a hand­made twin-keel fish in­vited snick­ers from the park­ing lot crowd, all with 5'10" thrusters un­der their arms.

The line­ups where I surf in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia have mor­phed from 90 per­cent thrusters to equal parts thrusters, fish, mid-lengths, hy­brids and weird asym­met­ri­cal shapes. But I wanted to look be­yond my lo­cal beach breaks, talk with the fig­ures, both big and small, that move and shake the surfboard in­dus­try to­day, to find out if my ex­pe­ri­ence—that the con­cept of a “nor­mal” surfboard has ba­si­cally be­com­ing oblit­er­ated—is anec­do­tal, or if the in­dus­try re­ally is see­ing a shift from thruster to, well, ev­ery­thing else. I wanted to find out where shapers on both sides of the per­for­mance curve think the move­ment to­ward al­ter­na­tive surf­boards is go­ing, and, maybe more in­ter­est­ingly, I wanted to ask them how, ex­actly, the move­ment man­aged to slowly gain footholds in pop­u­lar surf cul­ture, even­tu­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in the global pro­lif­er­a­tion of di­verse sur­fcraft.

ÒTHERE I was, this fat American in Ja­pan, sur­rounded by all these smaller, fit­ter, 130-pound Ja­panese guys, and I’m get­ting a ton of waves rid­ing this fish shape in 1-foot surf,” Matt Bi­o­los, founder of …Lost Surf­boards, told me over the phone. “That’s about when I re­al­ized that these boards would be big with the pub­lic— when I started mak­ing them for my­self.”

Bi­o­los was talk­ing about the mid ‘90s, when he be­gan pro­duc­ing these strange high-per­for­mance fish shapes that were smaller, but much eas­ier to ride than the stan­dard short­board of the day, with wider noses and tails and more for­giv­ing curves. …Lost de­buted these boards to the pub­lic with the hit 1997 movie “5' 5" x 19 1/4",” (named, of course, for the diminu­tive board’s di­men­sions) fea­tur­ing Bi­o­los’ mod­ern fish de­sign be­ing ripped to high heaven by …Lost team rid­ers like Chris Ward and Cory Lopez, among oth­ers. For ‘90s surfers ac­cus­tomed to watch­ing the pro­fes­sional elite do im­pos­si­ble things on im­pos­si­bly thin, dif­fi­cult-to-ride thrusters, the high-fly­ing airs and power carves on wide-nosed twin fins were game chang­ing. “5'5" x 19 1/4"” ex­ploded across TVS and got jammed from overuse in VCRS across the coun­try.

In­ter­est­ingly, while it was Ward and com­pany’s mind-blow­ing surf­ing on the Bi­o­los fish that helped open the surf­ing pub­lic’s eyes to what was pos­si­ble on al­ter­na­tive sur­fcraft, Ward was first in­spired by—who else?—tom Cur­ren, whom he saw ride strange lit­tle knee­boards on a trip to New York in the early ‘90s. Later, Ward watched Cur­ren pad­dle out on a small fish shape into meaty surf on the North Shore of Oahu and de­cided he had to have one. Cur­ren was rid­ing the “Fire­ball Fish,” a board made fa­mous in 1997’s “Search­ing for Tom Cur­ren” when he pad­dled the tiny craft into thump­ing reef pass surf in Indo. Ward was struck by the urge to surf some­thing re­moved from his nor­mal thruster shapes and got Bi­o­los on the phone. Lit­tle did they know, they were on the cusp of a rev­o­lu­tion.

“Wardo called me from the North Shore and told me Tom Cur­ren was out at Log Cab­ins rid­ing this weird lit­tle fish,” Bi­o­los said. “He said he re­ally wanted to try one and asked me to make him a fish right then.”

Bi­o­los scoured lo­cal surf shops that had held onto old ‘70s fish shapes, felt the rails, ex­am­ined the out­lines and sat down to sketch out his own. When he’d fin­ished, he’d made his first fish shape; a pro­to­type that would be­come one of the first mass-made shapes rein­tro­duc­ing past board de­signs with mod­ern­ized rail shapes and bot­tom con­tours. In the process, he helped tear a hole in the cur­tain of nor­malcy that the stan­dard thruster had draped over the surf world.

How hard the star-stud­ded cast of “5'5" x 19 1/4"” ripped was prob­a­bly more im­por­tant for the pop­u­lar­iza­tion of the de­sign than the ac­tual shape of the Bi­o­los fish. For the stoked teens and 20-some­thing surfers watch­ing the …Lost crew go to town on the lit­tle boards, it was a jolt to the sys­tem to see high-level surf­ing on some­thing that didn’t look just like ev­ery other board on the mar­ket.

The board-buy­ing pub­lic im­me­di­ately wanted in. “Af­ter that movie came out, I went from hav­ing 15 deal­ers around the coun­try car­ry­ing my boards to hav­ing 75 deal­ers car­ry­ing them,” Bi­o­los said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a di­rect line from “5'5" x 19 1/4"” to the kinds of hy­brid shapes peo­ple are buy­ing to­day, like the board we sell a ton of, “The Rocket,” with a fuller nose and a more for­ward wide point.”

In­creas­ingly, those hy­brid shapes are push­ing the re­fined, hi-fi thruster—what was once the stan­dard idea of a surfboard—off surf shop sales racks. While Bi­o­los still sells a boat­load of his most ad­vanced per­for­mance mod­els—like team rider Kolohe Andino’s fa­vorite board, “The Driver”—he makes roughly 90 per­cent of those for the cus­tom mar­ket, not the cus­tomer walk­ing in off the street to pick up a new toy. “Shops are stock­ing a lot less of the high-per­for­mance shapes than they used to,” Bi­o­los said. In other words, in re­cent years the off-the-rack buyer is look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle less pro-grade and a lit­tle more av­er­age Joe.

BI­O­LOS isn’t the only big board maker to no­tice the trend to­ward un­con­ven­tional craft. “Purely high-per­for­mance, as a cat­e­gory of surfboard, is ab­so­lutely shrink­ing,” Scott An­der­son, Gen­eral Man­ager of Chan­nel Is­lands Surf­boards told me. And he would know. Chan­nel Is­lands makes some of the world’s most ad­vanced and best-sell­ing per­for­mance shapes, found un­der the feet of top pros from Zeke Lau to Dane Reynolds. They also track how peo­ple buy boards in ways that you prob­a­bly never imag­ined.

In re­cent years, the team at Chan­nel Is­lands has been min­ing data col­lected from Transworld Busi­ness polls, look­ing for any sign about what cus­tomers might want from a surfboard maker in the fu­ture. Trend spot­ting, ba­si­cally, but look­ing be­yond the sim­ple stats of what shapes are sell­ing and ex­am­in­ing the psy­chol­ogy of the peo­ple buy­ing boards.

“We looked at the ques­tions that asked surfers what in­flu­enced them most, and the an­swers were things like mu­sic, art and travel,” An­der­son said. “I was shocked to see that surf­ing it­self was pretty far down the list.”

For An­der­son, that data proved that a con­sid­er­able part of the surfboard buy­ing pub­lic is shift­ing away from fo­cus­ing on the high­est stan­dards of per­for­mance and board de­sign that for so long had been set by the most vis­i­ble, elite-level pros. As the world’s best surfers have pushed the per­for­mance en­ve­lope to more dizzy­ing heights, lots of worka­day surfers have been left scratch­ing their heads, feel­ing a bit alien­ated by an abil­ity level they can’t re­ally hope to reach.

“Pro surf­ing is fun to watch but to­tally elim­i­nates re­lata­bil­ity for the av­er­age surfer,” An­der­son said. An in­creas­ing amount of board mod­els on the racks of surf shops that al­low for more fun, and less worry about per­for­mance, are the re­sult.

Even boards like the Dump­ster Diver, one of Chan­nel Is­land’s most pop­u­lar per­for­mance-based de­signs of the past decade, is a wider, more sta­ble, friend­lier type of high-fi sur­fcraft that catches waves eas­ily and for­gives the oc­ca­sional mis­placed foot. Though it was made with in­put from Dane Reynolds, about the most elec­tric surfer on the planet at the time back in 2010, it was also a board that an in­ter­me­di­ate surfer who only got in the wa­ter a cou­ple times per week could still hope to wield with at least a lit­tle bit of dig­nity. That it sold like gang­busters is surely no co­in­ci­dence.

An­der­son has a the­ory, based on the data he’s pored over, about what’s driven the cur­rent surf­ing land­scape to move away from a sin­gu­lar, nor­mal surfboard to the cor­nu­copia of quiver choices we have to­day. “Surf­ing, for more and more surfers, seems to be just a small seg­ment of what they do,” An­der­son said. “It doesn’t de­fine who they are like it used to. And the boards peo­ple are buy­ing that catch waves eas­ier, and al­low for more fun ev­ery time you surf, are re­flect­ing that trend away from the sort of jock­ish, hard­core surfer.”

He con­trasted that idea to the early ‘90s, when surf cul­ture cel­e­brated rid­ing stan­dard high-per­for­mance thrusters ev­ery day, no mat­ter the con­di­tions, be­cause, well, that’s what you did if you were a hard­core surfer.

“If you had an In­sta­gram feed from back in the early ‘90s, all the surfboard pic­tures would prob­a­bly look ex­actly the same,” An­der­son said, laugh­ing. “Now, it’s not even close.”

WHILE com­pa­nies like …Lost and Chan­nel Is­lands, who were once syn­ony­mous with high-per­for­mance thrusters, are evolv­ing to meet the al­ter­na­tive ap­petites of to­day’s av­er­age surfboard buyer, plenty of smaller shapers are en­joy­ing a trend that’s em­brac­ing the kind of sur­fcraft they’d be mak­ing any­way.

Travis Reynolds is a long­time shaper well-known for his mod­ern takes on fish, mi­dlengths, and sin­gle-fins—boards that have typ­i­cally been called al­ter­na­tive, but are more and more be­com­ing the new nor­mal in the Santa Cruz, Cal­i­for­nia line­ups that he calls home. But that wasn’t al­ways the case.

“There are way, way more peo­ple on odd boards than there used to be,” Reynolds told me. “No­body re­ally rode sin­gle-fin logs around here when I was younger. But there’s a snowball ef­fect to board trends. The more peo­ple see al­ter­na­tive boards in the wa­ter, the more they want to try them. Now they’re be­com­ing the new nor­mal.”

I asked Reynolds if he could pin­point the mo­ment that the cul­tural shift to­ward an open-minded board-rid­ing pub­lic be­gan. “I’ve al­ways thought ‘The Seedling’ is what re­ally kick-started the resur­gence of in­ter­est in al­ter­na­tive board de­signs for peo­ple,” he said. “The Seedling,” Thomas Camp­bell’s 1999 film show­cas­ing a vari­ant of the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia long­board re­vival scene, led by surfers like Joel Tu­dor and Devon Howard, was in many ways the po­lar op­po­site of “5'5" x 19 1/4".” Where the …Lost movie was all punk and shaky video footage, Camp­bell’s work was light-hearted, jazz-in­flected and shot on gor­geous 16mm film. Yet in an era when tra­di­tional long­boards were frowned upon by the short­board com­mu­nity, it had a sim­i­lar ef­fect to …Lost’s hit film, help­ing to pop­u­lar­ize what a small clique of long­board rid­ers in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia were up to, spread­ing the idea that there was no one right way to surf.

“I think what …Lost did with their fish turned hard­core short­board­ers and surfers ded­i­cated to high per­for­mance onto the pos­si­bil­ity of dif­fer­ent shapes,” Reynolds told me. “But ‘The Seedling’ was an en­tirely dif­fer­ent path, for peo­ple who were in­ter­ested in a dif­fer­ent ap­proach.”

Though Tu­dor’s well-rounded surf­ing was a high­light of “The Seedling,” his cap­ti­vat­ing quiver full of sin­gle-fin long­boards, stubby fishes, cruisy mi­dlengths, and pin­tail rac­ers meant for thread­ing big bar­rels at Pipe were the real stars of the film.

“‘The Seedling’ re­ally opened my eyes,” said Tyler War­ren, shaper and artist best known for build­ing—and rip­ping on—ev­ery­thing from racy twin fins to heavy 10-foot logs. “Es­pe­cially the sec­tions with Tu­dor, who surfed so good on so many dif­fer­ent boards. I was just fas­ci­nated by that. It drove me to ex­per­i­ment even more.”

For War­ren, the trend to­ward more di­verse quiv­ers among the surf­ing pub­lic, even if that quiver em­braces de­sign el­e­ments from the past, isn’t retro or a nos­tal­gia-fu­eled look back­ward. It’s about em­brac­ing a mul­ti­tude of ways to ap­proach a wave. And as a shaper, he’s busily sift­ing through board de­sign el­e­ments in the search for some­thing unique that of­fers a new path for­ward. “Try­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of boards is what got us to where we are to­day, when you think about it,” he said. “The thruster seems nor­mal to us now, but it was an al­ter­na­tive step to put a third fin on a board in the first place. With my boards, I’m al­ways look­ing for a new feel­ing—some­thing no­body has ever felt be­fore. Adding mod­ern el­e­ments to older shapes feels like the fu­ture.”

Reynolds agrees. “Pro­gres­sion and func­tion drive my busi­ness,” he said. “There’s still a lot of room to fig­ure out how to mod­ern­ize old boards with new de­signs. Still, there are a lot of in­ter­est­ing foils from the ‘70s and ‘80s that are wait­ing to be in­cor­po­rated into mod­ern shapes too. It’s an ex­cit­ing time.”

An­drew Kid­man, shaper of beau­ti­ful, al­ter­na­tive sur­fcraft and film­maker who’s 1996 film “Lit­mus” is also of­ten pointed to as a turn­ing point in open­ing the surf­ing pub­lic’s eyes to boards out­side of the main­stream, would agree with Reynolds. “I think boards to­day are bet­ter than they’ve ever been.”

Ev­ery shaper I talked to about the move away from pure per­for­mance boards to the kalei­do­scope of choices we have to­day re­ferred to “Lit­mus” as mas­sively in­flu­en­tial, mostly be­cause of a mid-film seg­ment fea­tur­ing for­mer pro surfer Derek Hynd surf­ing a bizarre quiver at pump­ing Jef­freys Bay, South Africa (Reynolds even sang a cou­ple bars of “Green Hor­net,” a song from the much-loved “Lit­mus” sound­track as we talked about it). In the film, Hynd’s ab­so­lutely-any­thing-goes ap­proach to per­fect point surf shines while he rides ev­ery­thing from twin-keel fishes to mas­sive guns that re­sem­ble pad­dle­boards.

“Lit­mus” was Kid­man’s at­tempt to ex­pand the realm of pos­si­bil­ity in the minds of a surf­ing au­di­ence mired deep in the per­for­mance short­board mind­set.

“I wanted to make a state­ment with that film,” Kid­man said. “I was spend­ing a lot of time with [shaper and for­mer World Tour surfer] Dave Par­menter back then, and those boards Par­menter was mak­ing in the ‘90s were some of the first to buck the trends of the day. That’s where my spark came from.”

Par­menter was some­thing of a cult shaper in the ‘90s, but his Stubb Vec­tor shape—a board with the wide point for­ward and a full nose, in­tended to pad­dle well while be­ing an eas­ier-to-surf per­for­mance model than the tiny thrusters of the day—formed an­other branch on the evo­lu­tion­ary tree lead­ing to to­day’s Ride Any­thing move­ment.

I re­mem­ber surf­ing one of Par­menter’s Stubb Vec­tors in 1998—a 6'8", I think— at a Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia beach­break. I’d bor­rowed the board from an older friend who’d al­ways sought out unique shapes. I put down my stock-stan­dard 6'3" thruster, pad­dled out into clean two-foot surf, and was blown away by how easy the Stubb Vec­tor was to surf—it was fast, in­tu­itive and sta­ble, with none of the twitchy per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics of my high-per­for­mance boards. It felt like some­body had shrunk down the best parts of an egg, mashed it to­gether with the best parts of a thruster and then souped it up with a Chevy big block V-8. It was a sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tion of what surf­boards could be out­side the realm of the stan­dard thruster.

Though it was an out­lier at the time, it turned out to be a tiny taste of what al­ter­na­tive shapes would even­tu­ally be­come in the 2010s: Per­fectly nor­mal surf­boards.

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