I’m listening to a Spotify playlist entitled “Surf Rock Classics” to tap into a little surf history inspiration. The trumpet in Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” is blaring in my headphones and makes me feel like I’m at a 1960s Malibu beach party, the nearby waves crashing in rhythm with the iconic guitar riff while 12-foot longboards line the beach. But despite the epic music that came from this booming era of surf culture, 1960s California is nowhere close to the origins of surfing.
Depending on who you ask, wave-riding is older than the Bible. We’re talking about evidence of Peruvians cruising on wooden water crafts as early as 3000 BC. They used wave-riding as more of a practicality when returning to shore after a day of fishing, but the ingenuity of surfing was definitely there.
Peruvians may hold the title for developing the first wave-riding water crafts, but it’s generally accepted that Polynesians from Tahiti and Hawaii are the first to consciously surf waves, riding wooden planks made from the timber of sacred trees. But it wasn’t until old mate Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778 that what we now know as surfing was officially put on our White Westerner’s radar.
So while a bit of research pulls me back to reality that 1960s Surf City, California was not the genesis of surfing as this Spotify playlist would have me believe, I’m realizing that we’re experiencing a full circle moment in the surfing world. Let me explain…
Obviously the OG surfers in 1700s Hawaii didn’t have plastic, foam or fibreglass to shape their boards, so they used what they had on the island: a whole lotta wood. Boards were massive, ranging from two to six metres long depending on your social status. Royalty were entitled to the enormous 90 kilo Olo boards while the general public had to settle for the versatile, 12-foot Alaia boards and all were clunky, heavy and slow-moving.
Wood dominated the early days of surfing and the original surf legend himself, Duke Kahanamoku, rode his custom shapes made from local breadfruit trees and imported redwood in the early 1900s, creating what would one day be a prototype for the popular Waikiki model which would come out decades later.
As time went on and technology improved (thanks, WWII), shapers started experimenting with designs made from plastic, polyurethane foam and fibreglass, changing the way we approach surfboard design forever.
And rightfully so! In such an exciting time for surfboard innovation, plastic, foam and PU were proving to be groundbreaking materials that allowed surfers to hone their oceanic skills and “WUHPOW!” much easier than wooden boards could ever allow.
Now that the materials were proving durable and inspired innovation, the focus on performance was higher than ever. From the discovery of adding fins, rocker and concave, the priority to make boards smaller, lighter and faster was at the top of everyone’s list.
So long behemoth tree trunk planks of wood that could barely manage a turn and hello to ripping designs that could be modified based on wave conditions and ability.
And we’ve done it, my friend. Over the years, surfers have created some incredible boards which have given us the opportunity to hone our wave-riding skills in the name of dancing with Mother Ocean’s absolute and unwavering power. Go us. We rule.
But like most things in life, too much of a good thing can set in motion unintended consequences. Plastic and oil-based boards have dominated our surf-centric lifestyle for the last several decades, and we’re finally seeing how this fallout is impacting our society, planet and of course, our ocean.
With excessive production and consumption, not to mention lack of regulation, we’re coming to grips with the fact that maaaaaybe the toxic chemical, polyurethane and foam-focused materials aren’t so great for the environment, particularly when broken or damaged boards typically end up in landfill.
Is our legacy as surfers truly reduced to landfill? I know that’s a depressing sentiment, but let’s use this stark reality as a motivating factor in getting our shit together and make some conscious changes in the way we build our crafts,
Because yeah, our PU boards rip, but is performance really the best excuse we’ve got when the planet is under serious threat?
We’ve reached a pivotal point in the surfing world. Over the last 75 years, we’ve harnessed the innovation of superb board design, unleashing unprecedented style, skill and stoke. But just because our beloved surfboards are proving to be harmful to the environment, it doesn’t mean we have to go back to the clunky, massive, wooden planks of the first surfers. Au contraire my friend, we can indeed have both.
Surfboard designs that elevated performance, weight and shape using plastic and foam were great for a time, but we are in a unique position to take a different approach. We can combine modern technology with original, natural materials for an entirely new take on the traditional surfboard.
It’s a beautiful thing to see how we’ve come full circle with surfboard design. From wood, to plastic, and back to wood again, we now have a chance to take a massive step forward in merging performance and sustainability. What’s old is new again, except this time, we’re taking the old, and making it heaps better.