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