Review, August 1997
Eight great ways to catch a summer wave
By John Stein
A Kayak That’s at Home on Any Surfer’s Turf
Surf kayaking is the ugly stepsister of wave riding: How can you groove in the tube on that bulky contraption? At least that’s what the hard-core beach bums say. Not that we care, but they may have a point. Sit-on-top boats have an unsettling high center of gravity, and whitewater rodeo boats — surprise! — are designed for the river, with their
rounded, wave-whiffing hulls. But anyone who’s enjoyed the advantage of using kayak and paddle to zip into the thick of the surf will welcome the Alamax sit-in boat from Morro Bay Manufacturing ($1,050).
The new kayak represents a unique clamshell of a surfboard’s bottom and a river kayak’s deck, constructed in rotomolded polyethylene. The ten-foot, six-inch hull, designed by noted surfboard shaper Dave Johnson, is modeled after a high-performance board, save for the nose, which is curled up like an elf’s shoe to prevent it from torpedoing under waves.
The deck looks squashed next to a river-boat deck, but the seat, internal structural pillars, thigh braces, and adjustable foot braces are the same. It can accommodate paddlers of any height between five feet and six-foot-five.
As a veteran surfer and an average kayaker, I found the 42-pound Alamax provided a fast, stable paddling platform and willingly caught the swiftest of waves — more so than any surfboard, actually. Of course, rolling it back upright after a wipeout is another matter; the flat cross section makes it tough to right. But after only a few sessions, I
felt plenty comfortable in the boat. With its three removable fins in place, you can maintain control over your line with the sort of accuracy that will earn the respect of the crustiest of surf rats.
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.
Yater Balsa Longboard
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
Not all longboards reek of nostalgia. The nine-foot Jeff Kramer LSP ($560) from Stewart Surfboards is masterfully designed to combine longboard speed with the maneuverability of a shorter board. This high-performance tri-fin longboard tips the scales at under 14 pounds, about seven pounds less than a typical longboard. The Kramer LSP owes its negligible heft to its thinness: It’s
merely two and three-eighths inches thick, whereas most longboards are closer to three inches. The result? A delightfully flickable longboard whose performance belies its size and that’s effortless to paddle compared with a shorter board. By design, the LSP is less stable than a typical longboard, which makes it best suited to intermediate or advanced surfers. Likewise, it’s not
intended to last more than a few years.
Wave Riding Vehicles Hy-Performance
The most versatile stick we reviewed is the eight-foot, four-inch Hy-Performance ($475) from Wave Riding Vehicles, a Virginia Beach firm of long standing with East Coast surfers.
|Wave Riding Vehicles Hy-Performance
The Hy-Performance’s aptly named “fun shape” falls between a full-on longboard and a twitchy shortboard, making it a fine option for surfers of all abilities. It has enough flotation to paddle easily, and its balanced shape means you can ride it any which way you like — from the nose to the middle to the tail. Its length will get up some speed on slow-rolling sets,
yet its rocker lets you cut under the lip at just the right moment. Quite simply, it’s at home in a variety of conditions, from large, glassy peaks to crumbly shore break.
Patagonia Rocket Sled
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.
The mongoose of boards is the high-performance shortboard, such as Rusty’s six-foot, six-inch C-5 ($420). Featuring five fins (rather than three) jutting beneath its
tail, the C-5 will send you in a new direction in, oh, a few milliseconds, with the slightest flick of the ankle. That’s great if you’ve got the skill to know exactly when to make that cut, but it also makes this frenetic board an imprudent choice for the surfer who’s still learning how to wax his deck. Indeed, it doesn’t have great flotation, but it’s got the reflexes to
shoot the face of steep, fast waves, as well as pull off tricks.
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.
Custom X XXX
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
No toy jokes, please. Sure, Mattel makes the Barbie Doll, but that doesn’t mean Morey
Bodyboards-Mattel owns the company — aren’t performance oriented. Indeed, Tom Morey commercialized bodyboards with the original Morey Boogie in the 1970s. The Morey Pro Comp 42 is a fine example of a good, mass-produced board. Plenty stiff for heavy conditions, the Pro Comp 42 has a slightly narrower nose than the XXX, making it well suited to dropped-knee riding. Of
course, the advantage is that Mattel can make a high-quality board and sell it for $135.
Where To Find It
|Alamax, 805-772-4302; Custom X, 619-722-1585; Mattel, 800-524-8697; Patagonia, 800-638-6464; Rusty, 714-252-1197; Stewart, 714-492-1085; Wave Riding Vehicles, 800-486-4978; Yater, 805-963-1281
Freelance writer John Stein caught on to surfing 31 years ago.
Photographs by Clay Ellis