Words by Ned McMahon
I don’t know what has happened to our wonderful world of
surfing. When I think back on our history, one thing stands
out far above board design, movies, magazines, clothing
companies, etc. – and that, dear reader, is individuality.
This new wave of boards being made in molds is killing
individuality. It’s starting to resemble what happened in Detroit.
Just look at the beautiful cars of the ‘60s compared to today’s
wedges. Back then, any kid could stand on the side of the
road and name the cars, because they were each different and
individual. Today, it’s hard to tell a Mercedes from a Hyundai.
Our surfboard industry is going the same way. That saddens me.
As a kid I remember being very thoughtful in the selection
of my new boards. Besides having a great shape by someone I
admired in the surfing world, I also wanted some special color
I liked, or a different design from everyone else. That was so
important. Today, a surfer could actually be caught standing
next to another with the exact same board! Not only same
color, but same shape, decal placement, fin – everything! That’s
because these new boards were popped out of the same mold
in an Asian factory.
Yes, it’s true that surfboard technology holds no secrets or
special skills that can’t be learned by any reasonably talented
craftsman. It is also true that the person smoothing grooves
on a machined blank or laminating or sanding doesn’t have to
be a surfer, but I feel there is something missing without that
connection. Is it the elusive “soul” that everyone speaks about?
Is this connection the essence of soul? Maybe it’s not whether a
shaping machine was used or not, but the degree to which the craftsman is involved with
the final product. I’m not
sure I have the answer but
I do know something
There was a day when
a surfer would only get a
board from a guy that had
experience with the local
break, his style, etc. You
wouldn’t go to a known
longboard shaper to get a
state of the art shortboard,
simply because the
shortboard shaper would
have a closer connection
to the experience. Today,
we have boards by the
thousands coming out of
factories where some of
the workers haven’t even
seen the sea. Where’s the
I recently saw a shop
displaying beautiful new carbon fiber boards. They looked
great, the technology is awesome, but all five of them lined
up looked exactly the same – shiny black carbon. Where’s the
individuality in that? To me it’s the difference between original
art and a digital copy printed on canvas. Yes, it still looks nice
hanging on the wall, but it looks exactly like your neighbor’s
hanging on his wall.
Has a surfboard just become another commodity to be
manufactured, used up and tossed on the heap of other waste
we so readily produce? And while many new molded boards are
cheap, what is the cost to the shapers, laminators, pin-liners,
sanders, etc, who have put in a lifetime of dedication?
There are two key ingredients that separate surfing and
surfboards from everything else. To me, one of the most
beautiful is surfing’s purely subjective nature. No two boards
ride identically and therefore personal preference becomes the
quantifier of what is good and bad.
The other this expression: “Only a Surfer Knows the
Feeling”. This is absolutely true – not only of surfing, but of
surfboard manufacturing too.
I think it’s time to wake up. Surfing offers a chance to be
an individual, slow down, breathe deep, appreciate life, and be
a part of the natural world. Let’s keep surfing and surfboards
apart from the rest of our crazy world. Let’s leave this last bit of
nature’s magic to those that have experienced it and then can
translate that magic through the tips of their collective fingers
into something that is beyond the realm of commodity.
Ned McMahon has shaped over 30,000 surfboards over a 30-year career in the
industry, all of them with “soul”.