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ESSAY: There’s More To Surfboard Design Than Short and Long

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By Dan Colburn, fish lover.

It’s 1986, I had just seen The Endless Summer by Bruce Brown and being a somewhat adventurous soul, I decide I want to try surfing. No surf camps existed (that I knew of), there were no lessons, no instructors. Just me and my brother and a couple of 10’ soft tops rented from Ron Jon’s.

We spent two of the best days of my life at the beach across from Patrick Air Force Base. I found out more about myself in those two days than I think I had in my previous 14 years. It’s funny how you just seem to know when you find your “thing.” I suppose for climbers it’s the first time they stand on a summit. Or maybe the first time a runner completes a marathon.

For me, it was paddling out and sitting among the rolling waves—that’s when I knew that I would always be a surfer, that was the feeling I always wanted to keep with me … for life.

As I furthered my life as a surfer, I thought that boards in excess of 9’ were what you rode unless you had skills the likes of local legend Todd Holland. Fast forward about 5 years and I was experiencing my own “shortboard revolution” of sorts.

My brother, who had progressed faster than me, handed to me his old T&C squash tail. It was about 5’10” with glassed on twin fins and a box for a removable third fin. That board was fantastic; it opened up a whole new world of surfing to me. Turning became an actual option while riding a wave! I rode the T&C exclusively until about 1993 when it snapped in 4’ shore break. (It was to become the coolest coffee table ever but that never materialized.)

From 1993 until around 2000, I rode the standard shortboard design: 6’4” x 18.5” x 2.25” tri fin, mostly because that’s what everyone else was riding. Don’t get me wrong, that was a great design and worked well but in 2001, I had an aquatic epiphany with regards to my choice in surf craft. For reasons I can’t explain, I contacted a local Cocoa Beach shaper and after some lengthy discussions about my surfing style, we agreed that he would shape me a board that was completely out of place in contemporary surfboard design (at least I hadn’t seen anyone riding one at the time). It was a total throwback: 5’10” twin fin, deep swallow tail with a thick, wide outline and would have been more comfortable sitting in a 1978 lineup.

The shaper dubbed that board the “Retro Fish” and it became my magic carpet. When he gave it to me he said it would work well in most conditions but when it got big to ditch it for a conventional thruster. And for the most part he was right; it was amazing in everything from shin to head high but I hadn’t had a chance to really get it into anything with real juice. Until the first hurricane swell of 2002 when I paddled out into well overhead waves in south Cocoa Beach … on my retro twinnie.

Dropping in on a twin fin is a wild experience because you only have the one inside fin holding in the face of the wave as you make your turn so until you get used to that loose feeling, it is as if you’re going to spin out. I quickly discovered that my twin fin was a solid contender in any surf, including overhead, top-to-bottom hurricane swell. I learned to be adventurous and try new things. I promptly sold my thrusters.

Since the early 2000’s, I have been having a blast with short, wide boards that have anything but three fins (I thought about starting a Web site dedicated to boards that had more or less than three fins, but in my haste someone else snagged it).

Fishes, Stubs, Hulls, Twins, Quads, Single Fins, Bonzers—I have found some amazing designs that work really well. Some better than others but they all have their high points in certain conditions. I haven’t ridden a conventional thruster shortboard in over six years. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, I just enjoy the ride of the less conventional boards.

There are so many incredible shapes available that if you stick with what everyone else is riding you’re surely missing out on something spectacular. Hell, you might even find your own magic carpet.

Remember it’s not about how much spray you throw, it’s about the size of the smile on your face.

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