The thought of building my own surfboard has always appealed to me. Naturally, things like time, money and commitment have stood in my way for some time, but that all changed in a heart beat. I came across wood surfboard builder, Patrick Burnett of Burnett Wood Surfboards on the internet and from that moment, a little seed was planted in my brain. It took more than two months for that seed to grow and I finally decided to build my very own hollow wood surfboard. It’s far too easy to walk into your local surf shop and choose a surfboard, whereas building your own, from wood, brings a whole new level of satisfaction.
Choosing a Shape
Patrick Burnett, a surfer and waterman, has a wealth of surfing knowledge and offers building courses for a variety of surfboards and SUP’s from his workshop in Scarbourgh, Cape Town. But what shape to build? I wanted a board that would be fun to surf in the slop, easy to paddle, but it also needed to perform when the waves were cranking. I also wanted to build a surfboard that was different to what I was used to surfing on a regular basis.
Patrick suggested a fish and I immediately liked the idea. I’ve never surfed or owned a fish before and the design appealed to me. I was sold. This particular fish shape is a classic retro Steve Lis outline with a twin-fin setup. The original shape is a 5’6″, this being a step-up 6’0″ of the same design. This particular board also has some added girth in the rails to float my belly but also makes catching waves easier which will help get that wave count up.
Working with Wood
Patrick knows best when it comes to building a wooden surfboard and he managed to source some beautiful Redwood that would, with a bit of blood and sweat, become the Leatherfoot Fish. Like anything, the construction of a hollow wood surfboard happens in phases and with wood, you have the choice to exploit certain characteristics for aesthetic appeal but also to achieve and exceed your surfing expectations. The wood is the key ingredient and the possibilities are endless, making this board and the building experience, completely unique.
Working wood takes time and patience and each phase of the process affects the end result, so paying attention to detail is important from start to finish. Each phase is a challenge, from constructing the decks, building and planing the rails, setting the ribs, sculpting the rails, sanding, chipping away, and sanding some more, its all an adventure. With each sweeping pass of your plane and every shaving that falls to the floor, you learn and discover. Every moment is savored. It’s magical.
As for the artwork on the surfboard, I approached my friend and artist, Steve Erwin, to apply his knowledge and create something unique. I felt that artwork would give the surfboard some character and we decided to take a minimalist approach as we didn’t want to detract from the beauty of the wood itself. The oak tree on the top deck of the surfboard is symbolic of my surname, meaning ‘Little Oak’, while the fish on the underside represents the board itself which has been dubbed ‘Leatherfoot Fish’. The artwork was applied using stencils and water-based acrylic through an airbrush.
I recently had the chance to surf the Leatherfoot Fish in perfect 4-5 ft surf at Muizenberg, which was exceptionally fun. I was brimming with stoke. There is nothing quite like pacing along the face of a wave on a surfboard you crafted yourself. The feeling was just incredible and I can’t wait to do it again.
So, it’s the end of the month and you’re standing in your local surf shop drooling over the slick new surfboards before your eyes and the time has finally come to put your hard earned cash on the counter for a new surfboard, but what do you do? Finding the right surfboard is like finding the right women, it’s flat-out darn difficult but thankfully not impossible. It’s out there, somewhere. There are so many options to consider but what type of surfboard will be best suited to you and your surfing ability? Ultimately, the decision lies with you and you’ll have to consider many factors before making your final decision. To get the ball rolling, you should take the time to think about what type of surfer you want to be, what waves you will be riding and how you want to ride them. That way, you will most likely choose the right surfboard that will satisfy your surfing needs. It’s also useful to remember that there are no hard and fast rules when choosing a surfboard and this is because everyone approaches surfing in their own unique way and everyone will have their own personal preferences. The key however, is to choose a surfboard that will help you achieve your surfing goals while also providing the most enjoyment and satisfaction while you frolic in the surf .
For the sake of finding some answers, I managed to pick the brain of master Cape Town surfboard shaper, Dutchie, of Dutchie Surf Designs to find out more about choosing the right surfboard. Dutchie has been shaping surfboards for over 14 years with an excess of 15 000 surfboards behind his name. With a background in graphic design and an enthusiastic passion for surfing, Dutchie has become highly respected in the surfing industry for his quality workmanship and professional approach to surfboard shaping and his surfboards are being ridden in just about every ocean across the world. Dutchie is a man with a wealth of surfing knowledge and I was eager to step into his office and learn more about these things us humans ride so “gently on the surface of the sea”.
“Surfing these days is all about volume and your height, weight and surfing level is super important. Surfing also requires timing, balance and rhythm, and like golf, surfing is very organic in that it’s impossible to duplicate a golf shot and no waves are ever the same. The first thing a customer needs to understand is that there are different kinds of surfboards for different kinds of surf and they must decide how much volume they are comfortable with and then look at what type of surfboard is suitable for the waves they will be surfing” explains Dutchie.
Some things to think about before you break the bank
• Experience – Are you new to surfing or are you an intermediate or advanced surfer looking for a more challenging ride? Your level of experience will influence your choice in surfboards.
• Fitness – The board you choose to ride should be suited to your level of fitness. After all, there’s no point trying to surf a high performance shortboard if you can’t paddle it into waves let alone stand on it.
• Body Weight – The dimensions of your surfboard must be suitable for your height and weight.
•Waves – The type of board you choose to ride must be suitable for the waves you intend to surf.
• Surfboard Dimensions – Optimum surfboard dimensions will give you maximum enjoyment in the surf.
• Budget – How much are you willing to spend on a surfboard?
Surfboards for Beginner Surfers
Never surfed before? Well, you’re in for a big surprise as Dutchie puts surfing fitness in perspective perfectly, “The ocean, this unknown element, covers most of the earth’s surface and somehow we feel connected to it. Whenever you see people connect with the ocean, like fisherman and surfers, they don’t let go” explains Dutchie. “There’s a very strong bond to a very powerful energy source that we don’t really know anything about. The first thing you must know about surfing in general is that you are dealing with the ocean. Surfing is quite possibly the most physically demanding sport in the world because it requires so many different elements like flexibility, muscle strength, power and resilience and when you paddling out, you actually paddling against the force of the ocean, so it’s a really physically demanding sport. ”
If you are a complete newbie to surfing, you might want to keep your money warm in your pocket before buying a new surfboard that you may only ride once in a blue moon. Many beginners buy a brand new surfboard only to realise that surfing is not as easy as they initially thought and as a result that surfboard eventually finds its way to the bottom of the junk pile in the garage. If you have surfed a couple of times, you may want to weigh up your commitment to surfing before splashing out on a new surfboard. It might be in your best interest to ‘test ride’ different kinds of surfboards to get a feel for what you enjoy riding, so you may want to visit your local surfboard rental shop to do this before buying your very own surfboard.
For beginner surfers however, the best surfboards to learn on are longboards and funboards, preferably made of foam, which helps prevent injury while trying to perfect the basics of surfing. As a general rule of thumb, if you are learning to surf, start with a surfboard that has lots of volume for flotation and stability and as your confidence increases you can choose to ride something with less volume and then eventually as your skill level and confidence soars, you can shave more volume off and attempt riding shortboards which typically have less volume, but require more skill and ability to ride them properly .
Surfboards, such as your longboards and funboards, are best suited for learning because of their forgiving length, width and thickness which makes standing and surfing on a wave that much easier for just about any type of surfer. The theory is simple. The longer, thicker and wider the board, the easier it will be to paddle into waves and the easier it will be to actually stand. Longboards however can be unforgiving in terms of handling the board in the surf and are less performance orientated than a shortboard.
“Hybrid Funboards and your Mini Malibu and bigger Fish designs are very much beginner orientated and these boards are designed specifically for flotation, stability and finding your feet and are popular choices for first-time surfboard buyers” explains Dutchie.
If you simply have to buy a surfboard but are unsure about whether surfing is for you, then you may want to consider buying a cheaper second-hand surfboard until you decide whether surfing is something you want to actively pursue. A good second-hand surfboard can go a long way in teaching you the basics of surfing and it won’t be the end of the world if you ding it a couple of times while you learn to surf. However, if you are buying a second-hand surfboard, make sure that it’s in reasonable condition, meaning that it shouldn’t be severely damaged and shouldn’t be full of dings that will take on water and destroy the board over time. If second-hand is not your thing, then by all means, go big and arm yourself with a new surfboard. In the wise words of Dutchie, “There is no such thing as a cheap, good surfboard and no good surfboards are cheap”.
Surfboards for Intermediate Surfers
Once you have spent sufficient time in the water coming to grips with the basics of surfing and your confidence and ability has improved, you may want to explore new surfboard territory to replace your trusty piece of drift wood that made you love surfing in the first place. As an intermediate surfer, you have probably started learning the basics of wave riding by linking maneuvers together on a wave and you will in all probability be ready to try shorter boards with less volume, but with the advantage of more maneuverability and speed.
Apart from high performance shortboards, the intermediate surfer has various surfboard shapes to experiment with, whether it be the longboard, shortboard, funboard, hybrid, fish or retro, the world is your oyster. However, your final decision should ultimately be based on your surfing ability and the type of waves you are surfing.
Not surprisingly, Dutchie offers sound advice on how to harness your ability and fine tune your wave riding skills, “You need to learn the ocean. The number one problem for people who struggle to progress in surfing is positioning. Every wave has a point A and a point B, where it peaks and where it fades or closes out, and once you position yourself in the right place and catch the wave, the line you ride between those points, and how you approach that wave, that is surfing. Your surfing ability is therefore really important and as you get better, you squeeze that volume out and refine your surfing.”
Surfboards for Advanced Surfers
I’ll go all in and say that an advanced surfer can ride a wave on just about anything, even a plank. Advanced surfers are another breed entirely and if you are lucky enough to be one, you will most likely be throwing yourself into the biggest, most powerful waves on the planet at the drop of a hat, with a fat smile on your face. Dutchie elaborates, “The beginning of advanced surfing is when you starting to control your environment in the ocean. In other words, you start surfing much bigger and more powerful waves. You are handling that, not just surviving, but actually playing in those waves. It’s like when you paddle out and there’s a 8-foot Speedies G-Land freight train coming at you and there’s a guy standing so far back, in the most dangerous position you have ever seen, and you don’t understand why the guy has a big smile on his face while everyone else is running for hills. That’s when you start to master the ocean.”
The high-performance surfboards that advanced surfers ride on a regular basis are designed with a specific purpose and wave in mind and the high level of surfing these guys engage in on any given day is something us amateurs will never comprehend. But one thing remains consistent throughout, no matter what type of surfer you are, it all comes down to what you enjoy, the wave you are surfing and how you going to surf that wave.
Surfboards for Big Wave Surfers
Talk about pulling out the big guns! Always remember, if you want to run with the big dogs, don’t piss like a puppy! In big surf, your choice of equipment becomes critical and apart from your surfing ability, it’s the only thing that stands between you and the towering beast that’s about to break on your head. For this very reason, big-wave surfers need to be meticulous about what surfboard they choose to take into big surf.
Every big wave spot in the world will require a specific type of surfboard suited to the wave. Big wave surfboards are commonly known as ‘Big Wave Guns’ or ‘Paddle-in Guns’ and generally range from anywhere between 7 and 11-feet in length, depending on the wave you are surfing. Big Wave Guns are typically long and narrow with healthy volume and exhibit a pointed nose and tail. These typical ‘Big Wave Gun’ characteristics are attributed to the fact that big waves move considerably faster than smaller waves and the time a surfer has to make the drop onto the face of a big wave is significantly reduced and Big Wave Guns therefore allow the surfer to negotiate the critical drop-in section of the wave while generating enough speed to outrun a large breaking wave. Big Wave Guns are not necessarily designed for maneuverability but are more suitable for holding your line and hanging on for dear life. Although, the smaller Guns can be used for doing turns on the face of a big wave, but only if the wave will allow it.
In the words of Laird Hamilton, if you are “surfing in waves too big to paddle into”, then you may want to consider riding a tow-in board which are generally in the six to seven-foot range and are a bit heavier than your average shortboard which helps with stability while flying down the face of a hefty wave. Tow-in boards are usually fitted with foot straps which help the surfer maintain control of speed and chop on the face of the wave. If you plan on tackling big waves, make sure that you are using the right equipment for the wave and conditions and be sure to speak to local surfers and surfboard shapers to get the inside scoop on the best equipment to use, your life may depend on it.
The process of buying a new surfboard may seem daunting considering the vast array of options available on the market, but don’t let that deter you from your mission to find your perfect board. With a guy like Dutchie around you can be sure that you’ll get the best results. Strive to find the surfboard that is best suited to your ability, height, weight and the waves you will be riding. If in doubt, make contact with a reputable surfboard shaper, like Dutchie, and discuss the various options available to you. True to form, here is some parting advice from the legend that is Dutchie on how to choose the right surfboard, “Go to credible people and do your research because the guy who is selling that surfboard to you in the surf shop, he doesn’t have a fucking clue about a surfboard, the shaper does, he’s the doctor, the other guy is the pharmacist and you can get misdiagnosed with the pharmacist.” Most importantly, whatever you do , keep paddling and persevere with your surfing, the ocean has many gifts to give, you just need to make sure that you are there to receive them.