What Determines Whether A Board Design Leaves A Lasting Impact On Surf Culture? - Stab Mag
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Noa Deane, Stab's 2020 electric acid taste tester.

What Determines Whether A Board Design Leaves A Lasting Impact On Surf Culture?

Spoiler alert: it’s not cool resin tints.

features // Apr 27, 2022
Words by Ethan Davis
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Kelly’s win at Pipe in 2008 on a stub-nosed 5’11” six-channel quad at solid eight-to-ten feet Pipe represented a turning point in step-up board design. In the decade and a half since, step-ups shrunk significantly allowing surfers to turn sharper, weave through tubes and knife steeper drops. At the Pipe CT this season, only a handful of surfers rode boards longer than 6’7s at postcard 10ft Banzai, opting to sit on the inner ledge and ass-drag more critical cones from deep. The entire approach to Pipe has changed thanks to widespread adoption of more refined equipment.

When Kelly clinched his fifth Pipe Masters win in 2008, Channel Islands’ Travis Lee told Surfer: “Kelly worked with Channel Islands’ CAD software and library of designs to marry a 7’0″ K-step and a 6’0″ K-board into a completely original 5′ 11” with the wide point pushed forward. Once our in-house CNC machine milled the blank based on Kelly’s specs, then he walked the board over to Al’s shaping room to have him put his finishing touches on the Deep Six. 

Fly like a deep six. Photo by CI

The final form was a 5’11 x 18 1/2 x 2 1/2 round pin, which enabled Kelly to get into the hollow waves earlier and deeper allowing for adjustments that only a shorter board can provide. The Deep Six is the latest in Kelly’s quest to ride boards shorter than normally thought possible in surf conditions all over the world.” 

Short of shouting from the roof of the Slater Designs factory, the North Shore quiver your average CT guy rode in Hawaii this season is the most telling sign of Kelly’s successful conquest. They would be considered tiny by noughties standards.

Kelly told Stab his mini-step-up theory in the Pick Up. “People often ask me, ‘How do you ride a 5’3” at 10ft Haleiwa?’ To which I respond, ‘Well how does someone ride a 60ft wave on a 5’8” tow board? All you have to do to ride a bigger wave is catch it first’. The idea with my mini boards is that you just don’t waste space. So the nose and tail block are wide for how short it is, but weirdly, it feels long. I don’t even like surfing it in small waves. It actually needs energy.”  

Most designs which created lasting impacts in surf culture did so by making surfing more high-performance (HP). HP has validated and popularised board models and shaper status since Tom Blake stuck a rudder to the hull of his timber log circa 1939′ and started swerving. Need we mention Simon Anderson at Bells circa 1981? Or more recently, Filly T’s unrivaled small wave swordsmanship year-on-year see half the WSL finalists riding Marcio Zouvi’s at Lowers last season.

High-performance will always be the ultimate yardstick board design comes up against. But high-performance can still be programmed into boards that aren’t prototypically high-performance. Not all singles/mid-lengths/bonzers/twins are made equal, despite the fact that none are optimized to pull rodeo flips. A high-performance bonzer may even be something that exists.

“Kelly and Mick were always changing their boards because it’s the one sure thing that will instantly affect your performance,” says Stab’s resident board tester and CUSP co-host, Stace Galbraith. “Mick’s were subtle, he just got shorter and shorter, Kelly’s were a lot more aggressive, but similarly, they were both trying things that allowed them to perform better”.

“Jack Freestone could still fetch 9’s for his surfing on Album’s at Haleiwa. Mikey Feb too. They’re just high-performance twins. They’re not ‘alt’ shapes. All the concave and rocker are ripped straight from the hi-fi models. They even surf them the same. It’s almost like the biggest difference with ‘alt’ boards is psychological. For a consumer, they help you reframe surfing level from trying to ‘rip’ to ‘having fun’ despite not losing any of the performance.”

There’s a placebo-like effect of riding boards marketed as ‘fun’ or ‘alternative’. Namely, that expectations are reduced so surfing of the equivalent performance is measured in relation to a lower benchmark. This is a good thing for us lay folk who could benefit from the periodic reminder that surfing, first and foremost, is about enjoyment, with getting better at the art a close second priority. There’s enough kooks huffing after bogging rails on wafer-thin thrusters (myself included) to make an alternative class of boards that are more ‘user-friendly’ but still smuggle high-performance inside a more forgiving/quirky outline/fin configuration.

That is an ‘alt’ shape we can all get behind.

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