Trickle-Up Surfonomics – When will we right the upside-down logic of modern surfboard tech?

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I know this sounds like a stretch, but even if you aren’t an auto-racing fan, the sport still manages to touch your life every time you drive a car. Pardon the gearhead-speak for a moment, but useful and often lifesaving advances like disc brakes, radial tires, fast-shifting automatic transmissions, and traction control—among many other bits of automotive gadgetry that you’re using whether you realize it or not—all had their debuts as cutting-edge technologies in the car-racing world years before they found their way into your dinged-up Civic. This trickle-down effect is pretty common in the rest of the sports world, too. Howitzer-powered carbon-fiber tennis rackets, space-age graphite-shaft golf clubs, those springy gel-foam running shoes you love to wear to the coffee shop and the mall—all were designed for the world’s best athletes. That gear made its way into our Amazon carts (and became forgotten in the backs of our closets) long after the tech it was based on was vouched for by the pros.

In surfing, however, that tech flow seems to run upstream.

With the exception of subtle board-design tweaks that would be useless and incomprehensible for most of us, anyway, today’s highest-flying pros are, for the most part, riding boards made with technology that lags far behind what your average Joe can grab off the rack at pretty much any surf shop in the country. Polyurethane foam and fiberglass, still? Really? It’s been 60 years since Dave Sweet first started selling foam boards at Malibu, and the world’s best surfers are still slaves to these things? Do they really think we reached the pinnacle of surfboard construction with the first advancement after wood?

Weirdly, this means that if you’ve ever ridden a carbon-railed, stringer-less epoxy (and I’d assume you have, considering how many of those things I see clogging up my local lineup), then you’ve ridden a board made with materials far more advanced than anything most of the pros on Tour have ever ridden in a heat.

And the advances in surfboards go way beyond fancy stiff rails or weird tail shapes. If our sporting surf stars were a bit more open-minded, they’d learn that some of the most adventurous leaps in surfboard materials these days are being made by the mad eco-warrior scientists tinkering away in their solar-powered, passively heated labs. From epoxy resins made from biowaste to durable, recycled-EPS blanks to strange new foams made from pretty much any organic material you can think of, lots of the most radical advances in surfboard construction are coming from the sustainably minded wing of the board-building industry.

Yet the days when a WSL pro steps onto anything but a board made with the traditional polyurethane/wood-stringer sandwich are rare indeed. Sure, there’ve been a handful of exceptions. Slater’s taken to toying with oddly shaped boards made with exotic epoxies over the past couple years. Michel Bourez, Sally Fitzgibbons, and Taj Burrow all have ridden Firewires in competition. And Stu Kennedy destroyed Fantasy Surfer dreams everywhere when he used his quiver of otherworldly Tomos to punch above his weight class as a wildcard in the first couple ’CT events of the year.

If you’ve ever ridden a carbon-railed, stringer-less epoxy, then you’ve ridden a board made with materials far more advanced than anything most of the pros on Tour have ever ridden
in a heat.

But even the relatively advanced materials ridden by Slater and company were already widely available to civilian surfers years before they found their way under the elite feet of the world’s best. It’s strange when you consider that top pros will often blow through 100 boards in a year; with that kind of turnover, you’d think they’d be more willing to mix in a new bit of kit every once in a while. But the pressure to win, and the predictability of the old polyurethane standby, has proven too big a hurdle for them to really embrace new materials. It’s almost as if us common folk get to decide what works when it comes to advances in surfboard materials, and if the pros want to give it a whirl, they take a cue from us.

Beloved shaper and half-man, half-bear Maurice Cole is just as perplexed as I am by the weird lag between interesting advances in surfboard materials and the archaic equipment elite pros ride. He’s especially interested in the advances in sustainably produced materials. At a panel discussion during the most recent Boardroom surf show in San Diego, Cole suggested to the crowd that the WSL should implement a rule requiring the use of environmentally friendlier boards in their contests. A longtime auto-racing fan, Cole explained that back in 2014, the suits directing Formula One (the world’s most elite car-racing series) decided that all cars would switch to six-cylinder hybrid motors, which are far more fuel efficient than the gas-guzzling eight-cylinder motors they replaced. If Formula One could require a dramatic change in the equipment their pros use—all in the name of being a bit more environmentally friendly—Cole wondered aloud, why not surfing?

It’s worth pointing out that Formula One’s experiment was a huge success. The cars are actually more efficient while producing the same, if not more, power and even higher performance. And whatever secrets automotive engineers unlock powering the world’s most advanced race cars will get plugged right into consumer cars in the next few years.

Cole recently shared with me a letter he wrote to the WSL brass. In the letter, Cole asked why surfing shouldn’t follow Formula One’s lead, and he outlined a multi-year proposal that would phase in sustainable surfboards for all riders. (The WSL responded saying that they’ve been trying to figure out a way to encourage more sustainable directives in all phases of the Tour, including surfboards.) Cole’s hope is that if more pros start riding sustainably made boards, more average Joes will too.

He’s probably right. For those materially conservative surfers who still take their cues from whatever Kolohe Andino is riding, WSL-level endorsement of non-traditional board construction would be a big motivator to give something different a try. And it’s certainly about time. The Shortboard Revolution was 50 years ago, and the next revolution in surfboards is long overdue. Who knows, in another 50 maybe somebody like me will be bitching about riding the same old blanks made from tree fungus.

[This feature originally appeared in “Hidden In Plain Sight,” our October 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.]

Artwork by Steven Harrington

Sixty years after polyurethane blanks made their debut, they’re still the norm for top-tier pros like Matt Wilkinson, despite the fact that John or Jill Six-Pack can buy a board made with far more advanced materials, some built with sustainability in mind, at pretty much any surf shop in the world. Will pros still be tethered to toxic blanks in another 60 years? Photo: JoliSixty years after polyurethane blanks made their debut, they’re still the norm for top-tier pros like Matt Wilkinson, despite the fact that John or Jill Six-Pack can buy a board made with far more advanced materials, some built with sustainability in mind, at pretty much any surf shop in the world. Will pros still be tethered to toxic blanks in another 60 years? Photo: Joli

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