Review, August 1997
Eight great ways to catch a summer wave
By John Stein
They come from far away. Waves steamroller across thousands of miles of ocean before they reach our shores, transient gifts to a cosmic sport. New Zealand storm waves march across both hemispheres to California. Caribbean depressions send waves rumbling along the span of the Atlantic Coast. And you're on the receiving end. You feel the swell lift your board, hop up, and slip down a smooth face before a caldron of whitewater. You make a bottom turn, a cutback, and then trim forward for a long, fast ride. What was it you said you did for a living?
Surfing has earned its reputation as the ultimate soul sport by its simple elegance: The waves come in, you catch them. It boomed in the 1980s, a raw alternative to the trend toward prepackaged adventure. Now U.S. manufacturers turn out some 300,000 surfboards a year to feed the demand in what once was very much a fringe pastime.
Suddenly, people who live in Iowa are starting to realize that you don't have to be a Malibu local to enjoy the surf. In addition to conventional surfing, more and more people are embracing alternative forms of riding waves, such as lying on a bodyboard or sitting in a surf kayak, watercraft that put you in the curl of a wave a little more easily than a surfboard. Anyone can hop on a bodyboard and come to understand surfing's essence. Ditto a surf kayak, assuming you know a bit about paddling. Not that surfing has lost its edge. Let's just say that freedom belongs to everyone, and riding the waves is as easy as hitting the beach. All you need to do is decide which wave you want to catch.
It used to be that no two surfboards were quite alike, which made buying one something of an art in itself. Then in the early nineties, machining introduced an element of homogeneity; a company can now mass-produce a decent facsimile of a hand-shaped board. There's little difference in performance (though hand-crafted boards do tend to be more desirable).
All modern surfboards, whether made by man or machine, have a similar basic construction. Boards typically have a foam core of polyurethane or polystyrene, are stiffened with longitudinal wood stringers, shaped for the desired dynamics, and then wrapped in fiberglass and sealed with a resin.
The weightiest decision for a surfer of any ability is choosing length. Aspiring kahunas will appreciate the stability of a longer board, while expert surfers can handle something shorter and more responsive. Of course, that decision has to be tempered with a consideration of rocker, which refers to the board's curve from end to end, and flotation, a function of length, width, and thickness. Beginners are advised to start out on a longboard.
As for other details, a deck with two layers of fiberglass provides durability, a leash anchor means convenience, and removable fins make traveling with your board doable. But enough shop talk — here are five worthy boards from $400 to $2,000 that represent the gamut of available designs.
In about 1951, balsa supplanted heavy redwood, ushering in the modern era of surfboards. Its heyday was short-lived: Polyurethane foam — lighter still, and stronger — came along in 1960. But balsa is making a comeback of sorts, with seminal shapers turning out a few dozen of the relics every year for nostalgic surfers. Nothing harks back to surfing's roots quite like a Yater ten-foot balsa longboard, shaped by Santa Barbara, California, board-builder Reynolds Yater. A tanker by today's standards, the beautifully crafted Yater is perhaps more a piece of art than a piece of equipment you'd trot out on a daily basis. The flat planks allow very little rocker, and at about 40 pounds, it takes a bronzed veteran to wheel the thing around. Still, the Yater glides like a dream on long, fast rides. It can pick up nearly any wave quickly, roll through mushy sections with aplomb, and garner the awe of fellow surfers, thanks to its arty $2,000 price tag.
Jeff Kramer LSP
Wave Riding Vehicles Hy-Performance
Surfing has long been a passion of Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard, and this year the Ventura, California-based manufacturer unveils its first board, the Rocket Sled World Traveler ($585), a widish high-performance board available in four sizes, from six-foot-eight to eight-foot-two. Perfectionist that he is, Chouinard assembled a team of 12 shapers, engineers, and surfers and charged them with creating one board they'd want to surf all over the world. They settled on using expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) with an epoxy shell, a relatively untested construction that's touted as 70 percent stronger and, in keeping with Patagonia's sensibilities, environmentally cleaner than polyurethane. The downside is that if you do puncture an EPS board, you need to get it out of the surf quickly if it's to be repaired, because the core is prone to soak up water and perhaps cause the shell to delaminate. Regardless, it's a truly nimble performer.
Bodyboarding is a cheaper, easier way to experience the delicious thrill of dropping into a wave: Just slip on some swim fins, lunge onto a bodyboard, and kick out to the break. As for the boards themselves, the cores are polyethylene or a mixture of polyethylene and polystyrene, making them lighter, stiffer, and quicker-snappier-than surfboards. We're not talking spongy chunks of Styrofoam here. The best models use different types of foam for the deck and rails and have a slick bottom to promote speed. Size ranges from about 38 to 43 inches and should essentially match your body size. Fins underneath, once a popular option, are now scarce, because the sport has evolved from straight-line surfing to trick riding, which requires a smooth bottom to perform spins and such. Like surfboards, the most expensive boards are hand-shaped, and less expensive models are machine-made. Considering that half your body is hanging in the water anyway, the difference says less about performance than cachet.
The 42-and-a-half-inch XXX ($235), hand-shaped, is a bullet train of a bodyboard. Its bottom features two short, shallow grooves alongside each rail, giving it quick acceleration and the ability to hold a firm line on steep wave face. You'll also appreciate what's called a split-level deck, which means the thick layers of foam are sculpted down at the edges, giving you surer purchase and thus maneuverability when the going gets fast. And while it's great for prone riding, a wide nose and convex-shaped tail give the stiff XXX good stability for performing tricks.
Morey Pro Comp 42
Freelance writer John Stein caught on to surfing 31 years ago.
Photographs by Clay Ellis