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Why a step-up is your next fibreglass purchase, with Russ Bierke

Interview by
 Lucas Townsend | Photos by Rod Owen

So your small wave game is tight. Your make-rate is improving and everything’s kosher under head height. But what happens once those waves start offering up risk? Are you freaking once there’s a real bit of muscle when you come unstuck? It’s because your equipment is all wrong. And the biggest mistake surfers make when the size kicks is being on the wrong board. For confidence, for speed, and for an advantage that’ll set you apart, you need to add a step up to the quiver.

It’s the difference between talking and doing
A step-up surfboard is the difference between talking and doing. A lot of surfers think they’re normal short boards will go in all conditions. It won’t. How many times have you paddled out when the waves are at overhead or more and broken your board trying to duck-dive, or on your first wave? You need the right board to surf bigger waves the right way. A step-up will be the smartest addition to your quiver.

It’s a cash savings plan
You’ll save money purchasing a step-up. It might cost a bit more for the extra fibreglass but it’ll save you money in the long run. How? Because your step-up will stay in one piece when it’s six foot-plus, and you’ll save money because you won’t need to replace the three shortboards you snapped this year pushing them beyond their limits.

Don’t hanker for the aesthetics
It’s fine to start with an old work horse. I’ve learned from the older guys at home that it’s okay to go down to the local surf shop and get a board that’s a little bigger off the rack for $150. Sure, it’s yellow and battered but it lasts for three years because it’s glassed thick and works.

Step ups are decided by wave height and shape
Size depends on the wave shape. A six foot wave will look different at every break. My normal board is a 5’7”, and my go-to step-up for the South Coast is a 5’11”. Once it gets bigger than six foot, I’ll go up again to a 6’2”. Around home we have fast breaking, steep waves. It’s not about getting in early, it’s about getting in on the right position of the wave, which is underneath the lip. That’s a short, but intense paddle to get in, not a long, open ocean paddle like at a bombie where you’re covering heaps of distance. The board needs to be short enough to fit into the curve of the wave, and manoeuvrable enough to surf the wave. There’s boils and steps everywhere and if your board is too big it’ll catch on every hip.

Indo is a different game
If you’re going to perfect waves you need a slightly different board. You’d want it to be a little bit more like your shortboard, with volume left in the tail. You need that responsiveness, but still glassed quite heavy for the strength. You won’t need the tail pulled in as much.

Know the conditions
Pack the step-up when it’s less about turns, more about tubes. Look for your step-up every time there’s hollow waves. If you’re not going out to do turns then take the few extra inches. If you take you shortboard out in really good wave you’ll snap it.

Heavy ain't always bad
Don’t be afraid of weight. Everyone picks my boards up and says, “This thing feels so gross and heavy.” But I prefer it, and I get them glassed very thick with six ounce glass all over. You need weight to keep the board in the water. There’s often lots of wind when it’s bigger so that extra glass will keep your rails reactive. I find if I ride a light board in slabs and bigger waves I just skip everywhere and I can’t get very deep in the barrel. The weight helps hold your line.

Tail shape
Swallow tails are in vogue for step-ups. I was talking to Nathan Florence and a lot of those guys he travels with in Tahiti and they were saying they like small swallow tails in their step-ups. I’ve never experimented with that, the rounded pin has always worked well for me. Their theory is it holds into the waves better because there is two anchor points you can knife in with.

Know your equipment
Get comfortable on your board before a swell. If you’ve got a board that’s completely different to what you normally ride, take it out on a three foot day at your local beachie to get a feel for it before you’re in waves of consequence. You need to have that confidence during a swell, you don’t want to be thinking about your equipment. You want to be 100 percent concentrated on the conditions and waves. If I paddle out on someone else’s board, for the first wave I’m completely freaking because it’s unfamiliar. It makes it even harder to push yourself over the edge.

Quads or thrusters or both
Five plugs give you options. I use quads in my step-ups. They go so much faster, and they hold better. But, there’s some waves that are more suited to thrusters like bowly wave with lots of steps. The quads don’t work there because there’s too much going on and they can slide. Waves like Haleiwa where there’s a rip running through it, or Shipsterns with all its steps, quads don’t go too well.

Bigger boards, bigger fins
Fin size does matter. Fin size is another factor there’s a lot of debate on. I prefer to have a bigger fin so there’s a real anchor in the board. I like a stiff fin with no vector and I use Matt Biolos quad fin in my step-ups. But, all my boards, even the short ones, have five fin setups so I can go between quad and thruster. It’s a good idea if you’re going to be going to a number of different waves.

Thickness=paddle power
Paddle power doesn’t come from the length. A lot of paddle power comes from the width and thickness of the board, not necessary the length. The foam needs to be underneath your chest for paddle speed, not in the tail. A normal shortboard has more foam in the tail for back foot surfing, and to generate speed when you’re standing.  I go half an inch wider and half an inch thicker for my step-up. It’s not a huge deal, and a lot of the foam is spaced on the side of the board. But paddle power is really important because you need the speed, and keeping it short adds to the manoeuvrability. Talk to your shaper, because it’s a really fine line between getting the paddle power required, and being able to surf when you’re on the wave.

Buy short, thick legropes
Do the check before every surf. I don’t double string my leg ropes, but I do check them all before I paddle out when it’s overhead. I use leg ropes that are short, but really thick and I’ll run them through my fingers to make sure there’s no leg rope nicks in it. That’ll be the first point where your leg rope breaks.

Russ is 5’8” and he rode a 6’2” step-up during this session at Teahupoo. It was his first time in the Pacific, and a wave face without steps was a new experience for the 17-year-old cut from the South Coast of NSW. Owen Wright on the other hand drew his 6’5” blade from his collection for the same jams, but he’s 6’2” – it’s all relative.



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