Stab Magazine | Review: The Best Step-up I Never Owned
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Review: The Best Step-up I Never Owned

A board designed for a tight, steep chip-shot? Where do I sign?

hardware // Sep 24, 2017
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

A few months back, I wrote a story about a new JS being one of the most game-changing surfboards I’ve ridden. I also mentioned that it fit in the same club as a bespoke board James ‘Chilli’ Cheal had made me. Between being torched by friends about the piece’s (deserved) hyperbole, quite a number of people have since asked me about the Chilli and what made it special. So, here I am, uncomfortably talking about myself again.

A while back, I became obsessed with the chunky reefs around Sydney. After a morning session before a flight to the Mentawais, I was blown out of a better tube than anything I found the following week. It altered my thinking. Why travel for surf, when I can get world class waves on the short and heavy reefs near home? From then on, if a swell approached, I reorganised my life around it. 

And this is how I operated for some time. It was working: I was getting very tubed. But, I was also breaking a shit-tonne of boards. One year, I broke close to 20 – which isn’t surprising as they were mostly super-light, pro hand-me-downs. (Was that sentence the next worst thing to a name drop? Apologies.).

During a conversation with James Cheal one day, I asked about getting a board with more strength, and more volume. Both the appeal and the catch of Sydney’s shallow reefs is how quickly they stand up, and how round they get. The problem, however, is staying at the bottom of the wave while paddling. The moment you’re at the top, you’re freefalling into it as it runs off. But if you can stay positioned at the bottom third of the wave while it lurches, you’ve got a far higher chance of making it. I would say that 60 percent of the work is done before you even get to your feet.

I don’t have the skillset of someone like Mark Mathews or Ryan Hipwood at wrangling late drops, so I need all the help I can get. Almost universally, these guys can ride their shortboards in these kinds of waves and get some of the most extraordinary barrels you’ve ever seen. But they’re surfing waves like this almost every week of the year, while I’m doing it a few times each winter. So the dream surfboard for me either hides my flaws, or makes the task easier. 

When Chilli delivered this 5’11” (my shortboards are 6’0”), I found it kinda ugly – mostly because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It didn’t look dysfunctional, just… unique. Super bulky under the chest, and chunky all the way down to the tail, which was pulled into a rounded pin with five plugs.

The first thing I noticed after jumping off the rocks at Cape Solander was that it paddled like a 6’4”. When a wave approached, I swung and scratched in early for a quick tube. 

Wave number two ran off when I pulled in, and I surfaced to find it’d gone the way of so many before it: Aggressively buckled. I paddled in and returned it to Chilli.

He had it fixed, painted over the buckled area with a red paint roller and it picked up some more weight with the extra glass. 

“In most cases, this broken board would have just been sent to the bin,” James said. “The weight post-buckle? Shit, that’s a hard one, but I remember talking to our repair guy, Marciò, and I told him: Don’t be scared to put some weight in this. Just from holding the board under your arm, it felt like there was 1.5 liters added to her.” 

I took it straight back to Solander after it was fixed and… it… felt… extraordinary. The added weight made it easier to paddle. The short length meant outside rail/nose area didn’t catch as you took the drop, and the pulled-in tail meant you didn’t spin out off the bottom. This was a board for when the waves were powerful, so the extra weight had absolutely no negative impact. It paddled like a 6’4” or longer, but unlike a 6’4”, didn’t have extra nose to catch on late takeoffs, wasn’t hard to weave in the tube, and didn’t have a traditional wider tail to slide out on. The perfect blend of length, weight and drive.

“Where it was broken worked out to be the perfect place,” James said. “It’s like we put a ribbon of weight just forward of your front foot, which is great for when you need to lean forward in the tube. The board reacts and gives you that forward drive when it’s most needed.”

This was my go-to board every time the waves were solid. It took wild beatings. It was indestructible and almost certainly provided some of the best waves of my life. But, the real surprise was when I started taking the board out at bigger non-reef waves. On big beachbreaks, it provided that extra paddle power, but it drove like a step-up. It held rail and was responsive in the pocket. Since it was becoming such a reliable board, I took it on a few trips to Fiji. In eight-to-10 foot Cloudbreak, it got into waves it shouldn’t have and once up and riding, was incredibly reliable off the bottom. 

Just quickly: You may be thinking that it sounds like the Hypto Krypto; chest volume, thick rails, pintail and can be ridden short in big waves (think: Craig Anderson on his 5’4” at 12-foot Kanduis). But the main difference is the nose shape, closer to a regular shortboard’s than a Hypto, with no wide surface area up front, nothing to catch, and better for hooking sharply into a steep wall on take off. 

“It came from a design that I knew was good stock, but the thinking behind it was, I just need to simplify and slow this thing down,” James says. “When you’re surfing real waves that are hollow, you just need boards that aren’t going to create too much air under the surface so they don’t do weird things. I tried to push as much foam from tip nose to tip tail, still keeping in mind I needed a rail shape that would be sensitive to push into the water.”

It’s uncomfortable to claim a surfboard and even weirder to do so with photos of yourself riding it, but I’m luckier than most when it comes to boards—I get a lot of them—and this one is now an essential part of my quiver. When the waves are on, I know I’ll be sharing the lineup with guys who surf most days, do breath training and jujitsu on their down days, while I’ve been spending most of my hours handcuffed to a laptop. Surfers at the top of the food chain don’t need a board like this. Nor would they probably like it. But I assure you, if you’re surfing reefs that stand up quickly – or even shifting beaches like South Straddie or Baja Malibu – this is a board that will buy you time in critical situations.

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