Archive for May, 2009

The big breakthrough

May 31, 2009

It is my view that the more a surfer understands about his (her) surfboard, the better he will be as a surfer. I know many of you might have the attitude, “Shapers make surfboards but I shred on them, I don’t need to know.” Fair enough, but I’m saying you will have much greater potential if you understand the surfboard. Let’s see if I can illustrate this for you.

The first few years that I was surfing, I was riding and soon started shaping, the same design surfboards as everyone else. Often, while surfing, I’d try some move, fail at it and wipe-out. My thought was always, “I gotta work harder at it and learn how to surf better”, which was true enough, but….  One day, I made a turn, stuffed my board into the wave and wiped out. This time however, I didn’t think “I need to learn to surf better”. I thought “I wonder if there is something wrong with the surfboard?”

This was a huge breakthrough for me, not only in my shaping but also in my surfing. I discovered that I had been trying to do things with the surfboard that it was not shaped to do. I crudely reshaped the offending part of the surfboard; it was ugly, but it worked great. I had discovered a new freedom in riding that was not possible with existing surfboards, and my surfing ability increased dramatically just because the surfboard was now capable of doing what I had been trying to do all along.

Does this mean that you have to become a shaper if you’re going to be a good surfer? No it does not, what it does mean is that if you understand how a surfboard works, you will be able to make good choices in surfboard selection, you will also be able to talk to a shaper and get a better surfboard, and when someone tries to sell you the latest beaver tailed surfboard, you’ll know it’s BS.

With a good understanding of surfboard design basics, you will begin to see where improvements to your surfboard will improve your surfing. There’s a good chance that the right surfboard for you already exists, but you haven’t recognized it, there’s also a chance you could be part of improving the surfboard by questioning, “I wonder if I could get a surfboard that would do…?” You can be riding a better surfboard than what you now have, but only if you do something to make that happen.

I wrote the book: “The Basics of Surfboard Design” because I’ve seen very little good information about how a surfboard actually works; I’ve talked to shapers that are excellent craftsmen who don’t know, and most of the magazine articles are little more than wishful thinking. The truth is quite simple and easy to understand and the basics are the same for any surfboard; the only difference is in how the basics are manipulated and combined. You can learn more about The Basics of Surfboard Design at:




May 27, 2009

Thought I’d say something about Malibu (Surfrider Beach) one of the most famous surf-spots in the world. I used to surf Malibu in the 60’s, but it got too crowded. Sometime in the late 70’s and early 80’s I started riding it at night, but that got too crowded too. I rarely go out there any more, but I do stop by on occasion after surfing a secret spot, elsewhere along the coast.

 The beach at Malibu is sand but underwater it is small rocks (visible at low tide). I don’t know what the bottom structure is further out, since I’ve never dived on it, but it’s obvious that it’s fairly substantial (not sand) or it would have eroded away long ago. Inshore of the point is the Malibu Lagoon which is normally full of water in the summer and fall, but it breaks out in the winter when enough water flows into it from winter rains.

 In my experience the lagoon would normally break out into the small cove between what was then called 2nd and 3rd point. (Note that what is called 3rd point now we used to call 2nd point; I used to ride it quite a bit because 1st point got too crowded.) A few years ago, however, the lagoon broke out between 1st point and the cove at the inside of 1st point.

 From my view, allowing the lagoon to break out at that location was a disaster to the beach. Not only did this adversely affect the beach but it eroded the state owned/operated property that the historical Adamson house is on. This erosion undermined a section of the fence fronting the beach, necessitating replacement. I believe the fence was undermined again a year or two later.

 The usual breakout point between 2nd and 3rd point (I’ll discuss the points below) puts the sandflow from the lagoon and creek into the cove between them. The new supply of sand fills the mouth of the cove, building the beach seaward. After the rains taper off, the wave action pushes the sand up onto the beach, filling the channel and blocking off the lagoon for another season. This extra sand then replenishes the beach.

 The flow of sand at Malibu is from 3rd to 2nd to 1st point and then on along the coast to the east toward Santa Monica. It can’t go the other way because the waves would have to break left up the point to move the sand that way. (See Waves and Beaches by Bascom for an in-depth study of sand flow.) The normal sand flow was adversely affected, since the new sand was put into the cove below 1st point. Additionally the flow of water stripped sand off the beach at 1st point and wave action stripped most of the rest of the sand from 2nd point. The beach has largely disappeared.

 When I first saw this I was shocked that anyone would allow it to happen. I talked to the nearest lifeguard and he acted like “Wow man it’s natural.” I couldn’t believe that he would care so little about the beach he worked at, or for the county property (he works for the county and I think most of the lifeguards surf). I hadn’t been around so it caught me by surprise, but the regulars and the lifeguards should take responsibility for their turf (beach). Also where is Surfrider Foundation on this one? If we can’t take responsibility for one of the most famous surf spots in the world, where is our credibility for protecting the waves and environment?

 I realize I’m a little late on this one, but I just started this blog. Aside from Malibu I want to inspire all of us to take some responsibility for our “own” beach, safeguard it and improve it. Would Malibu have been hard or expensive to manage? No just a small amount of time when the lagoon was full; dig a little channel and the water flow will take care of the rest.

 Here’s the deal on the points at Malibu: if you look at it from above, it’s clear to see the three points, also they are correctly identified in the aerial photo in the classic book “Surfing Guide to Southern California”. It’s pretty much the same today as it was then. My guess is that some Johnny-come-lately decided he was a hero taking off behind others at 2nd point so he decided he was at 3rd point; “Way back man; cool”.


Midway between the extremes

May 24, 2009

One of the things I’ve done in my experimenting is to go to extremes on the various parts of the surfboard. Extremes such as: putting the wide point at the nose, putting the wide point at the tail, making the rail template (outline) straight, making large extreme sweep fins, placing the tip of an extreme sweep fin well past the tail block, placing the fin well forward, putting almost no rocker in the bottom, putting lots of rocker in the bottom, putting extreme concave in the bottom, putting convex on the bottom and much more.

Did other surfers laugh at me, you bet! But I learned what each part of the surfboard was doing and how it related to the other parts. One of my design philosophies is that you won’t know the optimum shape if you don’t know the extremes on each side of it. This goes for each line that makes up the board shape as well as the fin shape and placement. By making and riding these extreme surfboards, I knew what happened and I could tell when I had the shape midway between those extremes. Note that “midway” isn’t necessarily that the curve of the line should be half way between “too straight” and “too curved”, but rather the ride characteristic should be “midway”, and that the “midway” point will be different for different surfers. By understanding this, I can tell if I’m a bit off the ideal shape and in which direction and by about how much.

Since, in my understanding of the shape, I’ve been able to separate the functions of the lines that comprise the shape of the surfboard, I can often make an experiment, learn from it and modify just the part in question, without making a new surfboard. For example, I was experimenting with width and I made a board that was substantially wider than I normally rode. First time out, the waves were real small (1 to 2 feet) and the board was fantastic, a real rocket in no power. However, the next time out, the waves were bigger (4 to 6 feet) and the board was awkward because it was too wide for those conditions. As a fix, I sawed a tapered section out of the middle of the board nose to tail (2 inches out of the tail, tapered to nothing out of the nose) glassed the two halves back together and the board worked great.

In my book “The Basics of Surfboard Design” I describe cutting the board lengthwise in half, to illustrate the point I was making. I actually cut a board into thirds, adding two wedges of foam and two side fins, but I didn’t actually split the center fin.


The magic? surfboard

May 22, 2009

An interesting thing I’ve seen over the years is the term “magic surfboard”. This term is used to describe a surfboard that its owner found to be superior to other surfboards he’d owned. It also has been said that the board can’t be duplicated and is irreplaceable. Now I will agree that an outstanding surfboard is magic and so is an outstanding wave. However, a “magic” surfboard can always be improved upon, and my own most magic surfboard is usually the most recent one I made myself. Since I am always trying to push the limits on my own boards, some of the experiments are far from magic, but I always learn something valuable from them and incorporate that lesson into my next (and magic) board. There’s no question that a shaper has an advantage on this one.

 So how can others wind up with a surfboard that’s irreplaceable? Well, I’m not going to rag on shapers; they’re all good craftsmen, but I will say this: something about that magic surfboard is being missed. Here we go: there are a variety of factors to examine, and one of them may well be that the shaper has to “read your mind” to get some of them. (You see the advantage the shaper has for his own boards?)

 Mind reading is probably not considered to be a required shaper’s skill, but it would make it possible to make more magic surfboards. The shaper must find out what the surfer really wants and that might take some questioning. A lot of this can be learned by finding out where the surfer likes to ride and even under what conditions (tide, swell direction, size, and more). Things can get interesting because when he says 10 foot waves, it might be different than what you call 10 feet, so you have to find out what the real size is etc.

 There is no perfect surfboard that will do everything, so a surfboard is always a compromise. A shaper has to make sure that the surfer understands this because any surfboard will work best under certain conditions, and not as well under other conditions (refer to my two posts of 24 Mar 09 for more on this). I’ve had trouble with people I’ve shaped for on this; you know, the guy wants a board that will paddle and catch waves like a ten foot board, but wants it to do aerials like a six foot board.

 I probably came closer than anyone to succeeding on that one by making a short (6ft) board that would out-paddle longer boards. I did it by designing a board that could be paddled with the board submerged (surfer not submerged). It worked great, I could out paddle guys on boards that were 7ft plus. I’d even make most of my takeoffs with the board fully submerged (nose too) and pop it up after I caught the wave. However there were other drawbacks to the board, so while it was wildly successful for what it was designed for, it hurt performance in other areas.

 Another point to look out for on magic surfboards is that it worked best under certain wave conditions; are those conditions the same for the replacement board? Also a surfer advances and that surfboard might only be magic for the way he was riding then. This is a big point and I’m sure it gets missed at times. My advice is: don’t get stuck with a magic surfboard, get a better one because a surfboard can always be improved upon.


Joe Hero’s surfboard

May 19, 2009

When we read tech articles by, or interviews with shapers, we notice that they often give specific dimensions for various parts of the surfboard such as: the board should be “x” inches thick, “y” inches wide, with the fins “z” inches from the tail etc. While these numbers might be of interest, they actually have little to do with you or me getting a board that we like to ride. The real secret is how the parts interrelate and if we are going to reduce a surfboard to numbers it would be better to use percentages, not specific numbers. In this case the fin’s position might be specified as “z%” of the board length from the tail. In this manner the basic relationships of a surfboard would be maintained, while the actual dimensions could be adjusted to fit different surfer’s preferences.

 I do not know what the shops are doing with computer design, but it would appear that any specific model (such as the Joe Hero model) would benefit by such a formula. Once all the dimensions of Hero’s board were entered into the computer, then any changes a customer might want (such as a bit bigger board for a bigger guy) would be simple to do. Specifying a longer board would result in the computer adjusting all the dimensions proportionately, and the big guy’s board would ride almost the same as Hero’s board. Note that if the big guy and Hero swapped boards, the boards would not ride the same for them because of size differences, etc. Also I want you to understand that not only are surfers different physically, but they all ride differently. This means that if you got Joe Hero’s board and it was the best board you ever rode, the shape could still be fine-tuned for you and it would be better.


What does a surfer really want?

May 19, 2009

A shaper has to understand what the surfer he is shaping for wants. “Yeah, Bob what else is new? All ya gotta do is take the order from the surfer and mow that foam.” My reply is that (usually) shaping a surfboard to fit what the surfer says is incorrect and will not result in what the surfer wants. You have to shape what the surfer wants, which is often somewhat different than what he says. Let me give you an example.

A while back a friend asked me to make him a surfboard. He described the shape he wanted and how it would ride. I understood him well enough and what he was trying to get his surfboard to do and I knew that shape wasn’t going to do what he wanted. I told him it wouldn’t work for him, he wouldn’t like it and I refused to make it. He persisted and insisted that I make it. I must have refused 3 or 4 times, but he was so certain that he had the hot shape, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. I finally relented, told him he wouldn’t like it, and made it for him. He didn’t like it (he went on to become a good shaper) and he immediately sold it to a mutual friend, who did like it! I describe how I learn what a surfer really wants in my book: “The Basics of Surfboard design“.


Good waves/bad waves?

May 18, 2009

I’ve made some interesting observations in connection with surfing over the years that I’d like to share with you. “There is more going on than meets the eye.”

 When I was surfing Town (South Shore of Oahu) some years back, I started to notice something interesting. I was (as always) experimenting with surfboard design and I was continually looking for the fastest, hardest breaking waves. I’d check for the best waves and go out. Now I’ve always been something of a surfing recluse (that’s why you never heard of me) but at that time, I could go out at some of the best spots in town, when they were at their best and not encounter a bunch of other surfers. I’d surf till the quality of the waves decreased a bit (due to tide or wind shift) and head for shore.

 When I went in, I noticed there would be guys paddling out as if everyone had suddenly discovered the surf was good. I’d smile to myself, or if with a friend, remark that those surfers missed the best waves. I’d get something to eat and go to another spot that was now working best (the tide was right) and the same thing would happen.

 There is another variation in which I’d go out, often with a friend, the surf was good but there would be a modest number of other surfers out. While we were surfing, the waves would get really good and suddenly we noticed that the other surfers had all gone in. It was great! I started to ponder this after a while and it seemed like there were times when I could “hear” other surfers thinking: “that wave’s too fast, that one is going to close out, that’s breaking too hard…” But I was thinking “those are exactly the waves I want to ride.”

 Well things changed over the years and with the increase in the number of surfers, I noticed something a bit different going on. I was watching Pipeline and Off-the-Wall and there was a pretty good crowd but the surf was fair in quality. I watched for an hour or so and I noticed the crowd was thinning out; then I noticed the surf was getting better and I decided to get ready to go out. Well, at that point, surfers started paddling out, the crowd increased like before and the wave quality got worse. Unfortunately, this seemed to happen on a pretty regular basis.

 Some time later I read an interview with Gerry Lopez in which he stated that the quality of the waves at Uluwatu was not as good as it had been for the first few years before it got crowded. It sounded like he had been noticing much the same thing as I had.

 Can we learn anything from this? I believe we can. I have come to realize that we have a tremendous effect on the environment around us, much greater than most realize. We can be putting out “good vibes” or “bad vibes” and it will alter things for better or for worse. If we get along with our fellows and work together to improve things for all, the surf will get better. This is similar to what I said in my earlier post “Making waves”. Try it, you’ll like it.



May 17, 2009

Many of us consider that the number of fins on a surfboard is the key point to a superior surfboard and we argue that “my quad is better than your tri”, etc. Is there a superior number of fins? No, in fact if we think about the board primarily in terms of the number of fins, we’ve missed the basic understanding of how a surfboard works. The whole key to fins is: where is the fin (or fins) placed? The number of fins is insignificant! The location of the fin is crucial to the board’s performance and it may take more than one fin to get the location correct so we often need more than one fin, but each fin must be placed properly for best performance. I discuss this in greater detail in my book “The Basics of Surfboard Design”.

My best advice for anyone getting a surfboard is to insist on fin boxes for every fin that board will have. This will allow you to select the best fin(s) for that board and will allow for a certain amount of adjustment to the positioning. I would even suggest considering a fin box for a finless board, if you’re interested in experimenting.

Recently there has been an interest in old Hawaiian surfboards, primarily in the “Alaia” surfboard and re-creations are being made and ridden. My understanding is that all the ancient surfboards were finless. The proper fin position in that case would be “nowhere”. While putting a fin box on an alaia might be considered heresy by the great kahuna, an experimenter could learn much by so doing. Learn more about the alaia at:


Rocks and holes

May 2, 2009

We’ve had a glimpse at some ways to make waves at sand beaches; I’d now like to take a look at rock or reef beaches. There are a lot of beaches where the bottom is rock or reef with perhaps a strip of sand along the beach face. While a few of these beaches have good waves, most do not and we’ll have to do some intelligent work if we want good waves. There can be a variety of problems, but usually we will observe that there are rocks in the line-up or there are unmakeable sections or there are “holes” in the wave (flat spots that don’t break).


I want to insert a note here; we all know that the breaking wave is formed by the ocean bottom under it, but how many of us have really thought this through? I actually have long held the view that I was “riding the bottom” of the ocean, under the wave, as much as the wave itself. Some of you might view that as an odd idea, but the bottom forms the wave and the wave is totally dependent upon the bottom for its shape.


Let’s look at the problem of rocks in the line-up. The obvious answer to that is to simply move the offending rocks and place them where they will be more useful. This is likely to be a bit more difficult than making mini sand points, since it may require a barge and crane to do the job. Be aware that if the rocks forming the bottom are fairly large, the wave itself will have to be fairly large to be ride-able so smaller rocks will allow for smaller waves that can be ridden.


If our potential surf spot has unmakeable sections, we may have to nibble a bit of structure off the bottom where those sections occur. On the other hand if the wave has flat spots, we may have to add structure to fill the “hole” or deep area. There will be combinations of nibbling and filling in many cases.


From my discussions on making waves so far you can see that it’s possible to make good surf spots without bringing in a lot of material or making major changes to the beach. This minimizes the expense and the environmental impact.