Ugh! I have chastised myself, all the way through writing this story, about sounding so ‘Cosmo’. So girly. But I am a girly, lest I forget. I love being a girl: painting my toenails, getting my hair done, flirting with the boys on the dance floor and such things. I’m a bona fide surfsister.
So, when I decided to get my very own, very first board shaped, I did the ‘Cosmo’, “oh woe is me! back of hand slapping up against forehead” thing. The damsel in distress vibe. Up until very recently, surfing in Cape Town has been a bro’s world. Somewhat of a gentleman’s club. Ha ha ha – you know what that’s a euphemism for? I digress.
Dave Stubb's surfboard factory
I’d only been on the scene for a year and I really didn’t know a whole lot about surfboards and all the different shapes they come in. I’d been mucking about on a friend’s 6’3, affectionately known as ‘the toothpick’ and had no idea of these things called longboards or minimals. I grew up in Sea Point, and being one of the most insular ‘hoods in South Africa, I had never actually seen anyone surf anything other than a shortboard. Still, that’s no excuse for my barefaced idiocy. I mean seriously, after my first trip to Muizies, one would think I would’ve developed some clarity on the matter. The fact that it took me six months just to paddle hard enough to keep up with the foamies, on that toothpick (I hadn’t even started standing yet) would’ve been a screaming message to me to GET A BIGGER BOARD . . . apparently not. All I wanted to know was – and herein lies my first biggest mistake in surfing – I was going to be a shortboarder! Riding the Factory. By next year. This story has a sub-moral to it too, which I’ll tell you later – it has to do with my little friend, Ego.
Back to size counts. I wanted to get my first board and really wanted one tailor-made just for me. A board that would take my dimensions and level of strength into consideration, as well as my level of performance, or lack thereof. So I went to the experts, my bros, for advice. What I found was that almost every surfer in the world has his own idea of ‘what’s-what’ when it comes to the right board. They’re all experts, and they almost all have opposing opinions.
Similarly, this is the case with shapers. Their opinions presumably are more valid as there is a good chance they’re actually mathematically sound. However, every shaper has his own personal style and favourite spots to surf and this affects his frame of reference. Perfectly acceptable. What I figured out later, with regards to shapers, was that we should allow for intuition when making this decision of who shapes our boards. It’s not just about aqua-dynamics and biology. Your shaper either understands your needs, or he doesn’t. And this you can feel in the first five minutes you’re in his company. Seriously: trust your gut. If you don’t click with him, chances are you’re not going to click with your stick.
I am, by no stretch of the imagination, any kind of expert. I can only tell you about what I deduced from my own little exercise – I compiled a short generic list of: ‘aah ssssh*t, if only I knew then what I know now.’ Besides width, length and thickness, I discovered aqua-dynamics, biology and hey-sjoe-wow: the shaper’s energy.
Like aerodynamics, but the water version. And please note, I’ve made this word up. I’ve yet to find two waves that are the same. And I’ve never even surfed outside of South Africa. In Cape Town for instance, the West Coast/Atlantic conditions are very different from that of False Bay. False Bay tends to be gentler, slower and less hollow, whereas the Atlantic is more powerful, faster, crunching and steep. Chances are that if it’s your first board, you’re probably surfing Muizenberg, Long Beach, Milnerton and maybe the Shipwreck. These spots are all good longboard and minimal spots, which are wonderful beginner boards. You may actually stand up in under six months. These waves are slower and sometimes have very little punch to them. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when these spots are pretty hairy, make no mistake, but generally you have some time to sort your life out. To compensate for the lack of push in the wave, it is advisable to have a bigger board, with lots of surface area to give you more buoyancy to help glide over the water. Also in the case of longboards, minimals and fishes, the rails tend to follow an almost straight line from nose to tail. This means that more water is ‘pushed’ out of the way, for longer, which enables you to propel yourself forward at a greater distance, with very little effort. The board does the work.
We’re actually chicks. As one shaper told me: ‘There is no way on God’s green earth that a woman will ever have the same kind of power in her shoulders as a man.” We’re just not made that way. My best friend, who is a surfer/physiotherapist/girl, with very large ‘cajones’ I might add, confirms this. She says, that due to our anatomy, we should ride differently shaped boards from boys. We simply don’t have the same power. It’s not a macho, chauvinist thing, it’s just biology. And quite frankly, I don’t want that kind of power if it means I’m going to look like Miss Extreme Body USA. I’d rather just compensate for my lack of power, by changing the shape of my surfboard slightly. Don’t be scared to have a nice wide nose if you opt for a slightly shorter board. It’ll dramatically increase your speed paddling into waves. And I know this because I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting caught in lips and whipped over falls, because I was too slow paddling into waves. The first day I paddled my wider nosed thicker board out, I dropped my rate of incidence by possibly 80%. The other 20% was due to my being a rubbish surfer.
A thicker board also helps. The more buoyant, the more effortless your glide. The faster you go, the less your chance of getting whipped over. The problem with a thicker board, your shaper will tell you, is it is harder to duck dive. And it is. But you’ll build the strength and eventually you’ll have your technique right so it won’t matter that your board is thicker. It might just be my personal preference, but I prefer to battle more when paddling out to the line up, and worrying less when paddling into waves. It means less panic at takeoff and you may also find that this will help you to set yourself up better to ride the wave. It’s a tradeoff.
The ‘Hey-Sjoe-Wow’ Factor of your shaper
Shapers are all sooooo sexy. I won’t bore you with my analysis on that, but they are. After all, these guys are the custodians of our happiness – like dealers. We want to do everything they tell us to, because they know Everything. They hold the key. Don’t get misty eyed by all that sexiness and clever surf talk. Try to stay objective and ‘outside’ of the situation. Most of what these guys will tell you will make not one ounce of sense to you. These okes have all been surfing for like 20-plus years. They quite literally are on a level we can’t imagine yet. When they do that, bring them back to the basics. If they suggest something in the shape of the board that will enable you to do something you don’t understand, bring them back to the basics – easy to paddle into waves, stability when popping up. At this stage all you need is something you can trim on, not something ridiculously responsive. If you ‘feel’ like you’re not being heard and you feel like there may be a little condescension going on, just be cool. Take in what you can and then go shopping. Shapers obviously know a lot more than you do, but you know when something is right and easy and when it’s not. If it’s starts feeling like a battle, leave it. It might be that you want your shaper to make all the decisions for you. That’s also okay; just do what feels right. Seriously, go talk to a whole bunch of shapers. You’ll learn shed-loads from them if you do, plus you will be able to gaze at all those sexy men. Don’t rush into making a decision.
Things I’ve learned so far
1) The learning curve in surfing is slow and so should your first board be. This will simply give you more time. It will slow the situation down and help you be more cognisant of what’s happening around you. This will enable you to plan your next move. The more experience you gain, the more responsive you’ll want your board to be. There are of course exceptions, but for most of us it’s a slow journey. Be grateful for that and enjoy every moment and every droplet of water while you’re out there.
2) It’s nearly five years now and I’m still nowhere near being ready to surf the Factory.
3) No matter what anyone tells you, there are no hard and fast rules regarding what style of board should be ridden where. That, as far as I’m concerned, is ‘jus’ some ‘ol bullshit’ that got made up in the 80s. Watch some of those old 70s Dick Hoole & Jack McCoy surf movies. “Bustin’ Down the Backdoor” and “In Search of Tubular Swells”, and then come and tell me you can’t get barrelled on a fat chunky single fin – ala Mark Richards. In terms of surfboard shapes, really the possibilities have only just begun.
4) Most importantly to trust my gut. To listen to the academics and then to feel how I feel about the person delivering it.
How fortunate I am to have discovered this way of life and how much better I am for it.
Later, hommie chickas.
How did I get here?