How High-Volume Shortboards Changed Lineup Hierarchies the World Over
Dissecting the “army of quick-paddling, competitive kooks.”
The aggregate board volume of 15 surfers in a one-hour session at Melbourne’s URBNSURF must be north of 600 litres.
And no, the majority of these folks are not riding logs or midlengths. The average length of their boards is actually rather appropriate for the shoulder-high lumps rolling through. And if you ever wanted proof that these boards are functional, you can observe the excitement of fibreglass missiles bouncing off a concrete wall and narrowly missing fallen soldiers as they make their way back to the line.
Almost all waves are caught, not many are well-ridden.
It’s a great snapshot of the modern surfing landscape. Wave comes, over-equipped surfer swings and catches it, blindly ignorant of their surroundings. Luckily at the pool, a singlet-ed marshal keeps everyone in line.
Stab’s Andy Irons and The Radicals furthered a very loose theory of mine – the …Lost Round Nosed Fish and Matt Biolos have a bit to answer for. Let me elaborate.
For those yet to view or too young to remember, a rearview glance at the mid-90’s (specifically 5’5 x 19 ¼, What’s Really Going On?, What’s Really Going Wrong?) places that board right at the forefront of a shift in the mainstream surfing population’s thinking.
Of course, fishes existed and there were already volume friendly options out there (knowing your literage wasn’t even a thing yet), but that board fundamentally changed the way our world thought about planing area and foam.
Around this time, tour shredders were slicing faces with just 17 to 18 inches of width. An abundance of rocker (stretched beyond 6ft), pulled-in outlines, and super low rails were the contemporary performance standard. Outside of Curren’s fish antics and the continued boom of a longboard resurgence there wasn’t a lot of mainstream inspiration or available functionality for the beginner or transitioning intermediate to choose from.
The typical surfing progression was something like two years on a 7’10” mini-mal, with the next step-down to a 6’6” x 19”. If the user somehow maintained interest after years of being a priority buoy, perhaps a further drop in length ensued. Line-ups were notoriously competitive and generally ruled by angry males who had scrapped their way up a pecking order and wanted a share during their reign near the top. Cell phones didn’t record beach fisticuffs or carpark transgressions yet, so litigation threat still hadn’t impacted localised breaks.
The world didn’t look kindly upon newcomers, and it certainly wasn’t making their lives any easier with appropriately proportioned boards.
Ex-CT ripper and long-time surfer / shaper Glyndyn Ringrose speaks fondly of the 1990’s — a decade he spent competing around the globe and selling his own shapes at Island Surfboards. Less heads in the surf, a lack of social media, and paper-thin surf blades were among the benefits. “It seemed like we only sold 6’2 x 18 ½ x 2 ¼ or a variation of that, it was what the market wanted,” Glyndyn said. “With the popularity of surf lessons only just taking off, the idea of user-friendly boards wasn’t well supported and a big gap existed from a needs perspective. It wasn’t always fair, but I suppose for the good surfers, it made things even easier.”
For me, the RNF spearheaded today’s movement. Sonny Miller and Curren’s Bawa Fireball session turned heads, but it was nothing to the collective “wow” that echoed from surf stores globally as the 5’5 x 19 ¼ VHS was worn out in players. Those things looked fun. Not only did they turn on a dime, but they carried speed and made surfing junk enjoyable. Under the feet of the world’s best, they seemed to hold in solid waves too — a huge change from the early 90’s view of a “fish” (think a Skip Frye or Dick Van Stralen special with wide tail and twin keels). Both a product and marketing success story, it wasn’t long before the orders poured in and variations of the model were spawned.
The seed was planted, but the design shift didn’t happen straight away. Old guys were still riding refined outlines as their regular boards, and technique was as important as ever. A lost art, foot movement, was ever crucial to maintain speed through flat sections. Watching standouts like Gerr and BL shuffle forward to plane through a dead spot with style whilst riding a ‘90s banana was always impressive and a huge contrast to the contemporary gap-fillers that essentially promote a snowboard stance in less educated riders of today. Stand up, lean forward for speed (and a few nose pearls!), lean back for turning. Jump up and down when it stops because that is what the good surfers seem to do.
Glyndyn laughs at how much Island’s Burford blanks order has evolved: “It wasn’t until the mid-2000’s that we really noticed the change here in Australia. Shaping machines impacted this too as we didn’t have to be as efficient when mowing foam, but the shift in blanks ordered was more like the 80’s – flat deck options in sizes to support higher-volume shapes.”
As the design-shift rippled across the world, two things happened. The first: existing surfers added a float-friendly option to their regular quivers. How many Wardo or Beschen carves were emulated in the early 2000s on performance fishes? Today, almost every regular surfer owns a step-down or fish outline. The second: lasting impact of the design shift was the new stepping-stone created for improving beginners making the transition from their first wave riding vehicle. After three surf lessons, 6-12 months on a foam longboard, and a few clean face reforms, intermediates now quickly transition to a 40 to 50L 6’4” that they perceive a better look and fit.
Biolos is clearly a design genius. At the very least a marketing savant. He has successfully captured a broad market and manufactured life-changing equipment for many… world titles, lifetime waves, “best ever” boards, etc. His design principles have focused on user experience always, and he was likely the first mainstream shaper to be lauded for it. From previous interviews, as a bigger body, he always worked on a combination of volume and performance and it is clear these traits run through his entire range. Dane Reynolds and the Merrick team added fuel to the fire with the Dumpster Diver in the 2000s, and the Hayden Shapes Hypto Krypto followed suit to really drive the point home.
Whilst frustration might exist in my stereotyped “competitive kook” and the increased competition in today’s line-ups, the benefits of the design shift have likely reached you too. Less length, better foam distribution, more versatility – your best surfing has probably been a result of this. In recent years, the spotlight has turned back to some classic performance shapes. Slater rolled out the Webber / Herring Banana again, and more recently there has been engagement in ‘90s outlines and lengths from guys like Creed and Harry Bryant. Will this steer the market back the other way? Probably not. For most of us, the extra foam is here to stay, although Glyndyn points out that for better surfers, board widths have definitely narrowed and some ‘90s design aspects still have plenty of merit.
The point of this article isn’t to lambast the newcomer, but rather to highlight the easier progression opportunities for our ever-growing sport. Of course it won’t go back to the way it was — things don’t usually regress (even our favourite mid-length has had improvements to make it semi-workable). If you are reading this and mentally checking some boxes, perhaps an appreciation for the young kid on a twig you’ve just paddled around might be in order. That kid is ultimately taking the traditional path to an appreciated surfing life and you’ve taken the shortcut — where performance and style aren’t always a priority.
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