The Making Of Stab In The Dark
Five years later, here’s what we’ve learned.
In Stab’s history, no project has connected like our double-blind surfboard taste test Stab in the Dark. The idea was appropriated from a gift to us by Nat Johnsen, a clever Quiksilver marketing exec, who suggested we get cleanskin wetsuits and test them all side by side. As it happened, we explored this concept but given the wetsuit production lead time and the identifying cuts and silhouettes from most brands, we pushed it to the Too Hard Journal, Volume 14.
It was 2015. I’d been in business for over 10 years and was spoiled for choice about what surfboards to ride. I was obsessive about surfboards. I had convinced myself that the boards pros rode somehow had more time and focus put into them than the rest of ours. What I struggled with was there was absolutely no way of discerning how boards went between brands and shapers. There were some opaque reviews and board tests run by surf mags but given the fact that it was a pay-to-play model, they lacked integrity. There were Surfboard of the Year titles but these seemed nonsensical: based on sales or marketing or team or other arbitrary factors rather than sheer performance.
Of course, Stab in the Dark is flawed: two “identical” boards are far from identical but if we could provide a platform that promoted honesty and transparency without shaper or brand bias, we felt as though we could provide value to our audience. To aid this, we were adamant that shapers enter for free so we didn’t have sugar coat feedback.
We pitched Stab in the Dark to Julian Wilson, who was between surfboard sponsors at that time, and he liked the idea of riding some new shapes. The thing that struck me and still does, was the fact that he said surfboards immediately give him feedback when a wave has power. He says that when he stands on a surfboard, he… just… knows. The power of West Australian waves was non-negotiable.
Initially, it had been a lot of work to get shapers to commit to this project. Darren Handley thought the talent was a great but lower calibre surfer, Dion Atkinson. Most had similar predictions. Not a single shaper assumed we could wrangle a talent like Julian Wilson. It wasn’t easy. Shapers required multiple calls and emails to be sold on the project but after a few weeks, we’d secured a troupe of shapers we were happy with. The true genius of this project struck me when I showed up to a property at the back of Yallingup and I was staring down at 11 surfboards shaped by the world’s best shapers: they were all perfectly suited to me. And, without badges or branding, they looked infinitely more otherworldly.
Over the next 10 days, I learned a lot. It is still the best surfing I’ve witnessed in real life. Watching the film today you’d think I was enamored by our subject but what you don’t see in the film is just how shitty the surf was. So many windy and dumpy sessions that were near impossible to surf. I’ll be the first to tell you that Julian can be a diva but he was the furthest from that on this trip, surfing for up to six hours in the coolish water in the same questionable pair of green Hurley boardshorts.
You know the ones.
Julian is typically a very tough interview. He can seem bored, uninspired, and deflects, often like a politician talking about exactly what he wants despite the question. Stab in the Dark, however, wasn’t about the surfer’s disposition or makeup. Besides maybe airport hacks, there’s not a subject in the world pro surfers are more adept with than surfboards, and since the questions aren’t about them, you find a whole new curiosity and passion in their personality.
When we edited Julian’s film in 2015, we were in peak The-Surf-Clip-Needs-to-be-2:30 to be seen. It was suicide to let a film run at 16 minutes, but we sent it live and… it… just… worked. Our Vimeo clocked 50k views almost immediately. At that point in the eyes of shapers, Stab was a bunch of posers whose audience cared more about a boardshort print than surfboards. That perception changed when surfboards started moving off the shelves: a box with a seven-board custom quiver for our staff landed in our office with the message: thank you for stab in the dark.
From here, the property caught on fire. We tasked Dane Reynolds with testing in South Africa before premiering the film to a crowd of 2,000 in New York City. Then we had Jordy Smith in Indo, and we followed up with Mick Fanning chasing a typhoon in Japan. Last year we had been in talks with John Florence until he was injured, so we decided to get the troupe together for the all-stars event. What started as a breezy boat trip to Indo soon escalated. Jordy was in South Africa and didn’t want to leave (we’d already paid for the boat that we later used for a wave-starved Stab Innocents trip with Craig Anderson). Julian couldn’t make it and was hoping we could shoot in Tahiti before the world tour event. Then, after trying to make last-minute reservations in Tahiti, Jules pulled out. Mick had a small window because he’d just driven from Melbourne to the Gold Coast with his new rig and was ready to drive around Australia upon his return (after his knee surgery following the South Africa trip, followed by Covid, he still hasn’t done the trip). And, Dane was juggling three young kids.
Getting these three guys in a room together is the only thing better than getting them in a lineup together.
Alan Van Gysen
Dane was keen to go anywhere that didn’t have any surf tourism infrastructure. After we committed to South Africa, I thought I’d at least make him happy. So I committed and swung at business class tickets for the 24-hour journey to Joburg via London. “What’d you do that for?” was his response. “Thank you, but I’m happy down the back. I don’t fly business.” Fuck. True to form, Dane stayed an extra day in South Africa, forfeited his biz class seat and flew home in his economy seat.
Once we landed in South Africa, the boards didn’t arrive and so we went to the local surf store and Dane and Jordy rode stock boards. As they surfed on civilian surfboards without stickers at a righthander breaking off a rock wall, they looked like a couple of tradies who’d just clocked off after a week on the job.
The next day Mick arrived with the first batch boards and the energy between the three changed. Mick unknowingly takes the alpha male baton from Jordy. There’s so much talk about surfboards but the derivative conversations that surround the trip are what pack the most punch. Dane and Jordy ask about Mick’s beer brand, Balter, and its recent success. They passionately talk beer and various brews, Jordy noting that he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol for the year (it’s August). After much deliberation around craft beer, Mick asks Dane about his favourite suds. Dane has a reputation when it comes to brand alignment and is famous for walking away from or turning down very large contracts because he doesn’t use the product. When it comes to beer, however, Dane fires up and discusses Coors Light with unadulterated enthusiasm. “I see Donovan Frankenreiter in Coors Light ads, and think: motherfucker!” he says. “I bet he doesn’t even drink the shit!“
Anyways, Mick is injured after 24 hours and Jordy resettles as principal male once again. “It’s nice to see you smile again, Jords,” I say.
“Why?” he asks.
“Mick’s gone,” I say. “Now you can resume your role as alpha male.”
“Oh, fuck orf!”
Jordy’s surfing spoke for itself in this film.
After five years of Stab in the Dark, this is a love letter to say thanks to all of our shapers who put their businesses on the line for a shot at a win. Some boards get the best waves and the best attitude, others get the shitty attitudes and onshore surf. We also want to say thanks to the surfers. The surfers all take it more seriously than we’d have ever imagined and put in real time and sincere effort with every surfboard.
Most importantly, we want to thank those of you who pay for our projects, none more so than this one. We know that it must hurt when our projects are free like day-old-bread on YT months later. Page impressions and clicks might have been a business in 2015, but those days are done. Thanks for the support and for allowing us to make these marquee properties.
We’ve got two new iterations of Stab in the Dark happening over the next six months which we’ll share more with you shortly.
We’d love to hear how you’d like to see this project evolve (email me [email protected] or write in the comments below). And, before you suggest the following, here are some answers to questions you might have already…
You should have multiple surfers: We had Brendon Gibbens surf with Dane Reynolds in South Africa. Trying to find a narrative arc with a closing and singular resolution is near impossible.
Why don’t get the everyman to join a pro? Essentially that’s what I did in the first iteration. My favourites were the CI and the Dahlberg: two surfboards that didn’t get near the podium with Julian, so it makes it a counterproductive consolation prize: This is what an average surfer likes but here is the real winner. It didn’t make much sense to us.
Why don’t you have more unknown shapers? We try to include three to four new faces each year but what we’ve found is that the big-name shapers with the biggest reputations always finish high.
Why don’t you include some complete unknowns? We’re working on something here.
Why don’t you let the shapers make boards of different lengths: There are too many variables. We hope that you get the best apples-to-apples comparison with some basic constants. That’s why we created the Electric Acid Surfboard Test.
Why don’t you shoot in a wave pool: we’ve been offered to shoot in the Surf Ranch and we might shoot a final in there one day but most of us surf in the ocean, so we want to find a board that works in the ocean.
You should do more or less boards. Commencing with Julian, we’ve always asked our test pilots how many boards they want. They’ve all said that 12 is around the number they feel confident testing over eight or nine days.
Why don’t you do a Slab in the Dark edition with Jamie O’Brien at Pipe and feature just step-ups? Yup, it’s a good idea.
You need a goofy. There isn’t a single left in the latest film. You need to shoot for longer. Yes, all valid points. Top tier talent is time-poor. What we sacrifice in availability, we pick up in smarts and surfing ability. We ditched Indo despite having a boat booked last year. We were planned on Mexico the year prior and bailed on that last minute for South Africa. It’s very difficult to find very good uncrowded waves in a window that’s been set for six months. And, I’m natural so we just happen to find ourselves at rights most of the time.
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