The Scientist Who Tortures Surfboards For A Living - Stab Mag
Dr. Luca Oggiano in the lab conducting pressure tests using adjustable weights. This test would later become a scholarly article that Luca presented at numerous conferences.

The Scientist Who Tortures Surfboards For A Living

Here’s what Dr. Luca Oggiano and Donald Brink think surfboard manufacturers are getting wrong.

premium // May 16, 2013
Words by Christian Bowcutt
Reading Time: 7 minutes

We primarily think of surfboards in only three measurements: height, width, and thickness.

But should this be the extent to which we are thinking about the board under our feet?

Italo Ferreira touched on this point in Episode 2 of Stab in the Dark with Italo Ferreira when he said: “This board is too stiff. It takes time to respond. I like boards that flex with me. When you have a good board, regardless of the wave, it pushes you forward. You flow through it. If this board had a different construction, it might go better.”

Italo also spoke on the actual construction — laminating, glassing, sanding, etc. — of a board when he said he prefers a, “very flexy board over a stiff one”. He mentioned that this gives him confidence knowing the board will flex with him as he lands, preventing injury.

Italo weighing in, literally, on the construction/shape debate.

The question of a “different construction” can help us answer the question as to why boards with similar heights, weights, and thicknesses (like in Stab in the Dark) can feel so different. Why do some boards feel manic and some mundane? Why is it impossible to exactly duplicate the “magic” feeling in a “magic board”? And can/should we deduce that mystery magic into numbers we can replicate?

These questions are what Dr. Luca Oggiano wanted to answer. Partly because he’s one of the only people on the planet who can answer them. I chatted with him over the phone to get something more personal than his scholarly, peer-reviewed articles on the subject reveal.

Dr. Oggiano himself conducting an experiential experiment.

“I started surfing when I was younger on the island of Sardinia, Italy where I’m from,” Luca told me over the phone, “then I studied aerospace engineering and took a PhD in Fluid Dynamics Applied to Sports. I then started working with top-level professional athletes in sports like cycling and swimming and also with offshore wind energy.”

Luca’s day job is as co-founder and CEO of NablaFlow, a software company that, “empowers designers (and also shapers) with tools that normally require expensive R&D from hiring engineer consultants. With NablaFlow, they can run those simulations alone,” said Luca, “I believe that by providing shapers with affordable simulation tools, we will be able to make the next major steps in the surf industry.”

A sample of Luca’s published scientific paper, “Modern Surfboards and Their Structural Characterization”. There is math here that I cannot fathom.

Luca had an epiphany one day while working, “While working on an offshore wind energy project I learned how to simulate waves and structures floating on the ocean. I had the idea to apply the same technique of simulations to surfboards.”

Dr. Oggiano then collaborated with Eric Arakawa, The Surfboard Warehouse, and Altergo (a small Italian board company specializing in sustainable surfboards) to conduct a series of surfboard torture tests.

The Mad Scientist, Luca Oggiano, at work. Video: The Surfboard Warehouse

In layman’s terms, Luca is simulating the effects of pressure caused by a surfer’s force on a board using weights. These tests simulate all different kinds of pressures endemic to surfing: normal pressure (just standing), sustained pressure (e.g. carving and bottom turning), and impact pressure (e.g floaters and airs) to compare how different constructions (PU, Epoxy, S-Cloth, Dark Arts, Cork, FutureFlex, etc.) and proportions of construction (we’ll get into proportions with Donald Brink in a few sentences) drastically change the performance of two boards that are the same exact size.

That was a long sentence. Yes, this article is for our nerdier readership.

Luca compares surfboards to wings and turbine blades, something revered shapers like George Greenough and Ryan Burch have done in the past. “No one has ever described a wing or a turbine blade as merely 100 meters long, 30 meters wide, and 2 meters thick.” Luca says.

The team at NablaFlow, which is headquartered in Norway, close to the country’s main surf spots. Luca described the team as a bunch of “crazy, surfing scientists”.

Luca continues, “Yet we as surfers think that length, width, and height should be enough to describe a surfboard,” Luca says, “So how do engineers describe a wing or a blade then? They need to know where the board flexes, what kind of frequencies make it flex, how much it flexes, how fast it flexes. They need to understand how the air (or for surfboards, the water) is acting on each section of the wing or blade. And then they need to understand how all of those variables contribute to lift or drag, two things that are very important in surfing. But while top shapers are looking into this, I believe this sort of thinking is hardly ever talked about or implemented.”

Essentially, a board turns into thousands of different boards when it hits the water. Every turn, pump, air, floater, carve, and even paddle stroke reforms the board’s shape with force ever so slightly. This changes how the board lifts and drags in subtle ways every second. In essence, the board is a shapeshifter, a malleable medium that transforms as the wave and surfer struggle against each other.

Luca’s work involves simulating these transformations and thus, for the first time ever, letting shapers see how their boards morph in real time, which they can, theoretically, use to hack the phenomenon and make better boards.

Visuals for a “torsional stiffness” simulation. A far cry from a planer and a dream.

There are technical terms for these things: Damping is the rate at which the board stops vibrating, in other words, its stiffness. More damping means stiffer, less damping means flexier. A car’s shock absorber dampens the oscillations of the impact thus softening the blow. While there is normal up-and-down stiffness, there is also “torsional stiffness” which is how much the board twists — think of a towel being wrung— during turns.

Stay with me.

What Luca is doing is simple, he’s trying to describe in numbers what Italo is describing in sensations. If Italo is the Isaac Newton that notices the falling apple, Luca is the Newton that formulates the Gravitational Theory.

From Luca’s scientific paper “Modern Surfboards and Their Structural Characterization”: Towards an Engineering Approach” we read: “…assuming identical geometries, a stiffer board would provide less drag than a softer board in clean wave conditions, but it would be more reactive and provide less shock absorption in choppy/rough wave conditions. Added damping would also help in rough conditions, limiting the vibrations of the board but diminishing the response of the board. A stiffer board would be harder to land on after an air maneuver while a softer board would provide a softer landing for the surfer.”

Thus, Italo’s sensations turned into data.

A quick taste of the simulation technology.

But where does Donald Brink fit into this equation?

I basically felt like this article needed some soul to counteract the science.

Donald is the sage, philosopher-king sort of man who collaborated with Mayhem’s Matt Biolos to craft a board for The Electric Acid Surfboard Test with Mick Fanning (which ended up winning). And whereas these simulations would be used with CNC machines, Donald is primarily a hand shaper. I wanted what I thought would be the other side of the argument.

But it turned out that Donald agreed… sort of.

“In surfing we are clawing for ways to describe sensations. This is a science and a mystery. To deduce it down is difficult and wonderful. Surfing is like a study of the whole universe, but in a tiny microcosm [laughs]. And I do agree that measuring surfboards in terms of height, width, and length is a rudimentary, at best, way of describing them.

Another angle of the above fin simulation. The bubbles behind the fin represent drag during a turn.

Donald continued, “…the most understudied facet of surfboard making is proportions. And I don’t even know exactly what I mean by that. I’m talking about the fact that you could go extreme on any part of the board — asymmetricals (which I do a lot of), for example — but there seems to be a certain standard, golden ratio that the most high-performance boards always come back to.”

So, if high-performance surfboards have reached a sort of zenith of maximum output, where can they improve? The conversation went back again to construction, “So much gets lost in glassing.” Donald explained, “Glassing is so important. It’s not just how the shaper makes it. A glasser is a part of this art. Nobody is talking about the construction. The fact that there are thousands of threads of fiberglass that can interfere with the pure shape of the board.”

Donald Brink, Mick Fanning, Mick’s son Xander, and Matt Biolos. Winners of the Electric Surfboard Acid Test with Mick Fanning.

Glass is ultimately what is interacting with the water, anyways. Glassing could begin to be thought of as equally complex as shaping itself. A glasser, knowing how a particular surfer surfs, and where they will be surfing, could change the proportions of their construction to alter the way the nose flexes, and the deck flexes, and the tail flexes, all independently of one another in hopes of making a more perfect surfcraft.

But Donald also brought us back down to Earth by saying, “I don’t think Italo cares about the math, he just wants it to work. Not everyone will be curious or needs to be curious about these things. We just want it to work.”

“If through simulations we can make boards that work better — that feel better — then that’s ultimately what matters. Shapers and surfers are in the business of chasing smiles.”


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