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 is missing.
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 connection?
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”.