My first custom board was a disaster, not the shapers fault, just mine. I didn't know any measurements apart from 9'6", I didn't know anything about the thickness of cloth, or the way the cloth can be lapped over the rails, or resin tints. What I got was a lightweight 9'6" with too much flex, resulting in stress fractures appearing almost immediately. I sold this board within the month of getting it and weirdly found the exact board I was seeking on the second hand rack in a shop in Brighton. I bought it immediately, rode it until is death, and when that day came that I needed to replace it, I understood exactly what boards I wanted, the type of surfer I admired with their stylrs suiting the designs they surfed, and that really interested me. From this day onwards,I collected, surfed, and sold some ultra fine boards from across the globe.
If I'm alone in this rambling blog about my thoughts on surfboards I'd be amazed, and I'd relish your comments, because I bet there are hundreds, actually, hundreds of thousands, like me who really started their surfing life riding longboards after some horrific board choices. After a short stint on a 6'0" shortboard and a hystericaltrip to Newquay in 1989, I was convinced this board would be OK, and subsequently sold by the surfshop. I immediately realised my mistake and bought a 7'6" 'Mini Mal'; my second mistake. However, i still have this first board so read to the foot note to find out more.
I persevered to catch that eleusive green wave on those frustrating weekend trips; sound familiar so far? The weekend warrior travelling hours to the coast from cities or landlocked towns, or villages where your mates think your weird because you got hooked on surfing and now your selfishly obsessed and rather than commit to saturday football, travel west instead to get cold and wet, but try to explain this and you'd be better banging your head on a wall.
When I eventually got to Australia and bought a 9'0" Sam Egan longboard, that's when things began to progress, quickly and stoke levels have been high ever since.
Sadly, the majority of mini mals, around the 7'6" length are notoriously difficult for beginners to surf for various reasons. Named after being a short version of the Mal (Aussie name for a longboard), they often have too much rocker (curve of the board) especially in the nose, making the board push water, and thus making it harder to catch waves. Imagine a speedboat moving slowly through the water with a hefty wake in the bow, put the power on and the boat begins to lift up and plane, the wake now at the back of the boat. Boards with too much rocker are like boats before they get planing. Troue with Mini Mals, they rarely get planing.
Usually sold to unsuspecting customers, already intimidated by the nuances of the surfshop, but in awe of Laird Hamiltons latest big wave exploits seen on the big screen in the beach bar, or Jonny Utah in the movie Point Break, needing to change his life, learn to surf or die; many buy online, or walk away from the surf shop with a board made in a chinese factory. They also have a three a fin set up meaning the board will only really turn properly if the back foot is directly over those fins. This can really only be learnt after you've begun the basis of trimming down the line on an unbroken wave, stepping back over the fins to turn, understood the rotation of the shoulders and weighting the rail; something unlikely to have been achieved in your lessons on the beach with your ever so motivated surfing instructor, who's got two hours to teach you everything. But its too late you've handed over your cash, you are now the proud owner of a board that will not help you in the slightest.
Many shapers have Mini Mals in there line of stock boards, most online shops now sell them too, as they're great sellers. Please don't get me wrong, some shapers make some really well thought out mini mals so please read on as these can be revisitied at a later date.
My first mini mal was shaped by Chops Lacshelle (RIP) from St Agnes, and thinking back, was a pretty cool board. Pre shaping machine, I bought this second hand in Brighton off a lifeguard named Rich Unsworth, that many years later became mates with and competed against in UK Longboard competitions.
Sometimes known as 'pop outs', often made from some form of plastic, or just machine shaped polyurethane clones finished by someone who's never seen the ocean, they are cheap, or at very least a more affordable entry to surfing and arguably more of a service provided than the bread and butter for surf shops, that is probably still clothing. You can buy the threads and instantly look likw a surfer on dry land! In summer mini mals sell all day long to the keen wannabe surfer, with a bag, fins, leash and block of wax deal, thay buyers simply can't refuse; and probably because they know no different.
However, on a positive, these boards are always eventually sold on, reused, recycled, never just thrown away. Some just sit in the garages of the weekend warrior, never to see the light of day again, probably because they were too difficult to surf in the first place, so the owners just thought 'fuck this', and hung them up, ending there surfing career right there and then...if only they'd perservered, at least until discovering the next stage of the surfing lifecycle.
So moving on....Please, please, please don't confuse these boards with 'Mid Lengths', a term used for a board around the same length between 7'-8'ish. These boards date back in design to the late 60's when boards were drastically cut in lengrh over a short period before settling in early 70's where the remained around the 7' mark for a few years. Mid Lengrh boards are both refined, amazingly good fun to surf, designed and shaped with more progressive surfing in mind as they were back in the day. Today though the mid length is often a second board of choice for the more accomplished longboarder. Ridden in larger or more punchy waves, and an equally great travel board if only taking one with you. Mid lengths have also become a larger choice of board for short boarders looking to cruise a little, emulating their super heroes who chose to ride one, and visually having so much fun, not taking surfing too seriously, but surfing really nicely, flowing rather than tearing the wave apart or spinning 360's. Surfers now don't have to be miserable, wishing that the waves were two foot bigger, and hollower; or depressed that the waves are not up to their requirements for a wafer thin pro model short board; the mid length has now come to their rescue, and not bragiing but Ive been riding one for about 15 years now, unphased by the hype!!
To recap so far; Mini mals are sold to those new to surfing, myself included (many years ago), as the best way to catch waves. I can hear the standard sales patter now, but I totally disagree. They are not a great way to catch waves, mini mals are boards to surf once you have learnt to surf, once you have learnt to ride waves, understand waves, learnt to paddle hard, taken about a million waves on the head and nearly drowned at least twice, learnt how to turn, move around on the board, and learnt to trim and lost that 'looking like you just shit yourself, Pooh stance'. However, once you've done all this, you've realised the pointless, wasted effort of riding a board that is too small. Learning to surf happens quicker on bigger boards then move down in length.
So what are the options...
The longboard, lets say for this purpose is 9'0" and above. They catch waves more easily because of the planing surface, but still has a steep learning curve to over come, like turning a board with longer rails and learning the all important trim. They also have a flatter rocker so more prone to nose diving on take off. Ride your longboard for a few years, getting better, turning, trimming, (not being greedy like so many), and learning the intricacies of a graceful pastime but, let me now if you disagree, I bet you'll also find yourself looking and admiring the guys and girls on the shortboards getting a little more radical to say the least. Putting in harder, tighter turns, critical bottom turns, hitting the wave with more power, everything seems faster than your big longboard. You like what you've seen on all the Youtube you've been watching as VHS and DVD are are well and truly dead. You decide you want a slice of this, and the urge grows to get a little more radical.
When you feel comfortable, this is when you start looking for shorter boards, but be careful, choice is everything and believe me, there's a lot of choice.
Transitioning from a longboard to a shorter board is a very difficult thing and
all of a sudden a whole new set of variables comes into play. Wave judgment and positioning, body position, paddling and timing, and not to mention the physical side of things. Your wave catching ability has improved ten fold, and importantly you've come to understand your equipment. But be prepared now for less waves, less board length, less planing surface.
Avoid the 'Mini Mal', go for a Mid Length. My first one was 7'10" and it was literally a mini longboard with a wide nose, single fin, and lots of volume or litres as they say now. I was coming off a 9'6" heavy single fin longboard, but losing that extra length was still hard work. Could I surf it? NO!
It wasn't like getting on a twitchy little shortboard, it.was simply less paddle length and found I could no longer sit outside with the longboarders, and there were certainly no SUP's to contend with back then. But moving down in size was not easy, surfing is not easy. But with the right equipment and some perseverance can be made so much easier.
Here's what I honestly think, not that I'm a great surfer, but I've been through the process that I've described from beginner, weekend warrior, obsessed newbie, improver, longboard to short, done a few competitions and I've seen and made every mistake too. Witnessing beginners struggling on the wrong equipment, walking down the beach with tiny shortboards for tiny waves, or boards designed for Hawaii paddling out in tiny slop and struggling to catch even whitewater. So during this never ending learning curve, I've been asked many times about the right board, I've worked in the surf shops, I've also taught surfing for many many years in groups or one to one private tuition, so I'd say I have a reasonable idea.
Based on this, I'm convinced of what length board will be most beneficial, and provide that feeling of being a little looser, without losing the paddle length, and still be able to mix it with the longboarders; this is a board atleast 8'0"- 8'6".
Firstly you'll be getting waves and not struggling with a huge length difference, moving down a little at a time, not losing that stability thats accustomed to a longboard. Turning will feel looser and it will feel immediately different, not as twitchy like a shortboard, but you'll notice the same element of trim, and your body and foot adjustment will still be needed to control the speed and turns. Having less board to manouvre, surfing will feel like so much fun, whilst not feeling like a huge effort all over again.
Secondly, the board around the 8' mark is most often overlooked by most surf shops, arguably only really available as a custom shape. The idea of owning a custom shape only really becomes understood after you've immersed yourself in the surfing lifestyle for a couple of years but I truly feel the 8' board is the hidden gem, the mystery number, the ideal length and dare I say, for the average surfer almost a one board does all, within reason, if the design is right.
There's so much added value; If your a larger person and reading this you might well be a chunky brother, surfing longboards and looking to step down in board length, or simply reading this as part of the surfing community, and know someone who is either starting out, or in that confused board buying phase, then please let them read this as boards around the 8'0" are a perfect length.
This is why so much thought has gone into this board you see in the pictures. The 'mid life' is for those of us who want to move the board around, feel a little loose. The wide point of the board is behind the centre (wide point back), which directly helps your turning up to a certain height wave. The tail has hard edges allowing the board to hold the wave but also cut into the face of the wave when executing a nice healthy turn, and with a 9"/10" fin that combo allows you to whip that board back around and into trim quickly and fluidly but also allow some great hold on those steeper drops and bottom turns. This length of board is also ideal for those junky, weak onshore days when riding a longboard is just too much of an effort. The board is wide with plenty of volume, but please don't ask 'how many litres'?, I don't know and quite frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. Just because a board is 45 litres and 6'0" does not mean you can surf it, especially if you struggle to catch a wave on a longer board.
This 8'2" 'Mid Life' was shaped here in West Cornwall after spending the past five years riding a similar board from my great friends at Gulfstream Surfboards in North Devon. The fact that this board is now pretty weathered is a testament to being ridden so much. But sometimes we just need a change, and with the knowledge that this length is perfect for so many conditions, removing any indecision when choosing one board to take to the beach, it's long enough for small waves, or super fun when it gets a little bigger up to about head high.
The key factor going into this particular board is the element of sustainability in terms of keeping it really local this time. Under the Chunky Brother brand, I didn't want to have to put any unnecessary miles driving to get a board shaped, although heading to Devon to collect another beautiful board is never a hardship but I wanted this board to be shaped here in West Cornwall. Hand shaped by the clever hands of Hugh Brockman at Boss Surfboards, this young shaper is mowing foam a mere five minutes from my house, in a barn set up, next to a Pet Cemetary befitting his brand slogan 'We are not normal', and this shows in his boards. He's among those shapers willing to listen to ideas, with a passion for boards, and shaping for some of the best local shredders. He shapes and surfs really well too. This is a must; shapers that surf well will understand what your asking them to shape, and they will have the confidence in their shaping, skill and design to convince you to change ideas for the better.
In our ever expanding crowd base, the majority of surfers are travelling from afar to the coasts; from cities, rural areas, and over seas, and I feel the least we can do as surfers, is to support that economy and to support our local shapers. I travelled for years to the West Country, and I have always used the local shops and especially shapers.
Yes I'm promoting the 8'2" Mid Life shaped by Hugh at Boss Surfboards, he's supporting Chunky Brother as a brand, but in all honesty after surfing this board for a few weeks now, I'm hooked on this design. This board works so well, and although I've not even been in great waves yet its doing everything I had imagined. However, this being said, I'd also like this blog to be shared, or simply read by those unsure of approaching a local shaper, or those looking for some recommendations of South West shapers, as thats where I'm located.
Don't be intimidated, every one of them were once beginners, not just as shapers, but surfers too, and they'd remember what its like to be a newbie, breaking into the surfing culture. Primarily, be honest with what you ask; take reference pictures as if going to a tattooist, these offer a visual starting point for discussion on measurements and weight of cloth, and colours can be decided a little later, but provide as much detail as you understand. Importantly let them know what your presently riding, your ability and your objectives for the board, like where you surf the most, the type of waves and how often. Be honest about your ability, please don't exaggerate, this won't help you as a board can be designed around this, as the technical side of hyrodynamics can come in play the better you ability.
Shapers are full of knowledge, and every surf town will have preferred shapers, whether North or South Devon, North Cornwall, Wales, North East...etc. Ask around, do your research and ask for recommendations. Do they hand shape or use a shaping machine? Many established shapers are now using machines to develop their boards and thats cool, but I still believe a hand shaped and personally finished board, from blank to glassing is something worthy of our support as surfers.
Its too easy to walk into a shop and just grab a board of the rack, imported from abroad. Please support our local shapers. I'm so lucky to have my boards shaped by Jools from Gulfstream in Woolacoombe, North Devon, and now Hugh Brockman, five minutes from my house in West Cornwall. Supporting my ideas and adding their design and shaping experience and expertise, I have a great quiver of boards that is designed for my needs, and the waves I surf the most and I'm so grateful for these.
Before I end this blog/essay; I'm completely open to criticism in terms of cycling, but before I'm called out on this one, I do try as much as I can to support local bikes shops, and at least British designers like DMR and manufacturers like Hope, but I'm no angel, my road bike is German, but atleast I bought it 10 miles from home. Anyway, this is another story for another day, British bikes are on my radar, but for now, I'll begin with components.
If your reading this and ride bikes, then just change surfboard to bike, and support your local.......
My first board was a 6'0" Custard Point Channel bottom thruster, shaped by Tim Mellors in Newquay, UK. The board is an 80's design with plenty of volume, winged square tail, with the sickest tiger striping air spray. Custard Point was also another name for Brighton Marina, a local surf spot in Brighton that has bred some great British surfers like Cliff Cox, Steve Darch, Jock Patterson and many more. This board represented a functional and radical design, and had plenty of volume. Sadly, throughout the 90's boards got thinnner and thinner to the detriment of the average surfer, but these surfers bought into this new phase, in their masses. Good surfers struggled, styles changed and in many cases not for the best. Arguably plenty of flapping down the line to gain speed, replaced the flow and natural inertia of the wider thicker boards that was carried over from the 70's and into the 80's. Those wafer thin boards were not meant for weak onshore UK waves. These boards were seen in videos by pro surfer at perfect points, dredging reef breaks and world class competitions, and sold in surf shops probably with the surfers being told ' this will make you surf like Slater'. Fast forward twenty years and even those pro surfers are riding boards with more volume, as foam is your friend.
The alternative retro board revolution of the late 90's and naughties, twin fin and single fin designs were being used for fun sessions by the same pros who championed the wafer thin boards, in a bunch of cool videos (pre hipster) like Shelter, and Sprout. Joel Tudor at the forefront of the ride everything movement, was often ridiculed by many and yet today, hailed as the godfather of a movement that possibly saved surfings style.
I suppose the purpose of this foot note and the blog, is that, Foam is your friend. Boards are now being made with volume to suit the surfer, and custom boards are here to meet your needs. Talk to your local shaper, don't be a tyre kicker and waste their time, but ask honest and thoughtful questions and you're get honest answers. Shapers don't put the hard sell on you, yes they would love to shape your board, but they want to shape you the right board. Its simple, they want you to come back, get another and another. I've ridden Gulfstream Surfboards for over 15 years now and will continue to do so. Yes its great to have a board from different shapers, like the Mid Life from Boss Surfboards. Its refreshing, it's different and I hope a relationship that will develop.