SOFT TOPS AND BLACK BALLS
THE RISE AND RISE OF THE SOFT-TOP GENERATION
Jarvi delves into the world of foamies being ridden in waves of consequence.
The very existence of soft-top surfboards came about in the '80s with the Californian ‘Black Ball’ system, where surfboards were banned from bathing beaches for safety reasons. It turns out, and rightly so that a fibreglass surfboard underneath the feet of a beginner surfer is a dangerous weapon that can wreak havoc on innocent bathers and their heads. At the time there was no distinction between beginner surfers and highly experienced and competent surfers. It was merely a blanket-ban on all surf craft, causing much frustration for many surfers who were not allowed to surf their local breaks during certain times.
There was a loophole, however, and someone figured it out at the time that finless soft-top surfboards (original boogie boards) were legal in Black Ball-demarcated areas, and while they were quite challenging to ride in their earliest form, they still provided endless of amounts of pleasure. Thus began a revolution of sorts.
This movement, for want of a better word, has gone full circle now, with surfers taking their soft-tops out in the most challenging of conditions. Jamie O’brien and friends are totally nonchalant with their approach to surfing on their Beaters of different lengths and taking them out at places like Pipeline and Jaws to name a few. It does not stop there, with these surfers getting up to antics like tandem surfing at Pipe on soft-tops, surfboard to soft-top transfers at grinding Backdoor. Some of the most revered waves in the world are now subject to surfers paddling out on pink soft-tops on decent size days to have their fun. Bruce Irons even surfed Teahupo’o on a soft top once upon a time.
While these moments are highly entertaining and show the silliness of the act of surfing at times, the soft-tops also have a distinct function in the hierarchy of surfing in that they are the best craft for kids to learn to surf on. No chance of getting a big board to the head or leg, and very little chance of a fin cut. Also, if the groms are at the really early stages and are riding all the way to the sand on small foamies, then when the softtops dig into the sand and come bouncing back at them, they won't suffer injuries. Soft-tops are the way to get going in the surf with minimal risk. The amount of stoke on a groms’ face as he or she flies towards the shoreline on a soft top is reason enough to buy one, no matter what the price.
For adults, however, there is a modern trend to this, and that is the breakdown of the contemporary thruster mindset, as lamented by so many elder statesmen, and the subsequent addition of fun quivers to the everyman. Only once we had all finally gotten over our ridiculous notion that the only way to hold your head high as a surfer is to ride a 6’0 thruster and that all other craft are uncool, did things start to come right. The advent of the modern-day fun quiver was the renaissance our sport needed, and while watching a hipster crouch-riding a tiny leashless twin-fin can eventually get incredibly irritating, at least there were these many surfers who were willing to experiment, and to expand their surfing zones, that saw the fun quivers emerge.
Soft-tops have emerged as a favourite vehicle in that simple bid to make absolutely crap waves and tedious sessions more fun. With little expectation and the ideology that you’re just riding with your mates and not shredding, softtop surfing can bring a whole lot of extras into your surfing experience.
There are a few things to remember when surfing a soft-top, and here are a few of them.
• They actually don't paddle that well. Being less dense, and so soft, they fail to gather any
momentum and drive when paddling. It’s not really a problem though; it’s just a slight mindset change because you can take off really, really late on a soft-top. You’re not going to have a chunk of resin hit you if you don’t make the take-off and there are no real threats of a pointy nose spiking you. So you can literally take off under the lip and not be too stressed about it all.
• Many of the modern design soft-tops don't have much rocker. They’re pretty flat. If you’re serious about buying a soft-top for your quiver, be sure to do your research and find the model with enough rocker in it. What this ultimately means, however, is that when you first start riding them, you’re probably going to be digging some unexpected nose for the first few sessions, and not understanding why. Maybe JOB, Julian and crew don't nosedive much, but they are some of the best surfers in the world who innately know how to keep that nose out of the water on the steepest of take-offs.
• They have less control than you might think. The rails are always going to be chunky 50-50 kind of rails, which means that they’re not going to track, and are great for slipping and spinning In other words, most of the soft-top designs are ridiculously loose, and spin 360’s can be done with the greatest of ease, if that’s what you’re into. However, much like the original boogie boards, they can be manipulated very easily. Once you learn how to engage the rails, everything changes, and once you learn how to do a full bottom-turn, you’re in the game. Even if they have fins, you need to engage the rail to get the most out of the equipment concerning performance.
• Soft-tops come into their own in big waves, for many reasons. Firstly, you do not have a fear of a heavily glassed, triple-stringer with XL fins smashing into your head, face or arse if you eat shit on the take-off. If your board is soft, then you only have the ocean to deal with, and it does make things a bit easier to comprehend. If you crash on a massive wave on a soft-top you just need to get under that wave and out the other side. So the real or imagined dangers of big wave surfing are lessened somewhat.
• It gets you out there when the waves are abysmal, because fun. If you’re out there with a few mates, catching a couple of family waves and generally having a hoot, it’s great to be soft. There are no risks and dangers, and the soft-board underfoot can be ridden in different ways with unique turns and tricks to put to the test. You can kneel, sit or stand, and even pull into barrels while lying down. It’s cool, and it’s different.
What’s good about ‘em.
They make unreal travel surfboards. It is way harder for a spiteful airline employee to maliciously ding deck and rails. Unless they have a knife, which they shouldn't because they go through security checks on the way to work.
Safety: This cannot be overemphasised, although I am obviously trying my hardest to do that right now. The soft deck and rails of this surfboard will soften any blow to the head.
Durable: Those dings will eventually sap the life out of your standard board, turn them brown and make them tired, but soft-tops stay young forever.
They will save you time and money: These boards are typically cheaper to buy off the rack. Dings cost your board time out of the water and cost you money out of pocket to fix.
The soft material will also prevent you from damaging other surfers' surfboards. So if you fuck up and ride into someone on a top-end Firewire or similar, they won’t get too bummed and try and hit your face with their hands.
Good value: unless you find a real sucker or a noob, it is impossible to recover your costs when reselling a dinged up brown surfboard. When you're ready for a new softie, you can sell the one you have and make the majority back.
Some soft-top manufacturers, unbelievably, provide a warranty up to 12 months. You’re not going to get that from any EPS/PU manufacturer under the sun.
Improved technology and materials make this an excellent option for someone who wants to become a fundamentally sound surfer. You’re not going to become another John John, but you could become competent and confident, understand your paddle, make late drops and understand rail work.
What’s less good about ‘em.
Many people believe that because they are riding on soft-tops, the rules are different. Not true, the normal rules of surfing apply – like don't drop in, flick board, punch or swear at other people in the water. Be cool. Always.
Some soft-tops can seriously rash you up. Wear a tee.
At certain beaches, it might still be ignominious to be walking down the beach with a soft-top. Hold your head high and your soft-top higher. Be proud to be soft.
SOFT-TOPS COME INTO THEIR OWN IN BIG WAVES, FOR MANY REASONS.
There's a perverse amusement in seeing JOB get barrelled on a foamie at Teahupo'o. But it does reinforce their legit status.
Soft tops are the future? Discuss.
Imagine the reaction if you paddled out on a foamie in a Hawaiian shirt if you weren't JOB...