The champ's shaper on biases that keep us from nailing the perfect board…
I’ve learned by now that unless a surfboard conforms to a set of very narrow, and specific, strictures, I’m screwed.
It’s gotta be short (five-six for little waves; a five-nine if I’m gonna chance my arm in waves up to six foot), wider than the norm but thinner than recommended, almost no entry rocker, a dirty big straight section through the guts and a pretty wild kick in the tail. Outline-wise, I like curves. I get my speed from the rocker.
If I get a board from a new shaper and he deviates from the formula, I’ll surf it on one wave, maybe two, then throw a For Sale sign on it.
It’s not that I won’t try, I just don’t…know…what to do.
Sweet spots are sweet if you can find ‘em. If you can’t, surfing becomes tedious, difficult, impossible.
Which is why I lit up Jon Pyzel, John John Florence’s shaper since the champ was five. I wanted a shaper’s angle on how we should approach different boards purely on technique. It’s true that kids should come with an instructional manual. Surfboards ain’t any different.
Here’s how it would work in my perfect world.
You’d buy your model, Stubby Bastard, Bottom Feeder, Sub-Driver, Toledo 77, whatever it is, and you get a square of paper, folded six times, that clearly states in diagrams and words where the sweet spot is, how you should apply your stance (is it a fixed-stance sorta board, do you need to roam up and down?) and where the board can and can’t go.
For example, is it a straight-up-into-the-lip sorta shape or a nurse-your-bottom-turn-but-tons-of-down-the-line speed sled? You’d read, you’d ride and adjust your game accordingly to the manual.
I got more questions, theories for Jon, too.
Let’s clear up a few mysteries.
BeachGrit: I’m going to posit something. We all lose our minds over volume but I believe a forgiving rocker can solve a multitude of evils in a board. Tell me your opinion.
Pyzel: Volume is so hot right now! People are getting volume obsessed and overlooking the other aspects of design that make a board less or more user friendly. Yeah, sure, added volume (read floatation) can make a high-performance design more user friendly but as you theorise bottom rocker plays an essential role as well. A flatter rocker equals a faster board while surfing and paddling and is your best friend in average-to-below-average surf (most peoples’ day to day).
BeachGrit: And coming from the other angle, a beautiful board (perfect outline, foil, bottom curve, foil etc) can be unrideable to a certain surfer if the rocker is too high-performance.
Pyzel: Unrideable is a strong term but I agree that the lower-level surfer could be losing out on too refined a board. Average drivers don’t drive F-1 race cars to the market, so why would an average surfer choose the F-1 version of a surfboard? Here volume can help. If the surfer is a little better than average, surfing in good waves and trying hard to improve, a bit less rocker (especially up front) and a fuller outline and foil will give you a huge advantage and turn struggle into joy. I can’t tell you how often I paddle by some guy on a “Pro” type board who is not having any fun. I wish I could just hand them the board they need and change their whole way of looking at surfing.
BeachGrit: Now, I want our readers to up their ability. I want ‘em better after this interview. Tell me. How do you ride a high-performance board, a JJ special? And don’t just say y’gotta do turns. Give me specifics, Jon, I know you got the key…
Pyzel: You can have the same characteristics of a pro-level board, sensitivity, carveabilty, quick response and liveliness, but this brings us back to volume. Everyone can ride the same designs that I am making for John John, but they need to super-size up a bit. Add some width and thickness (how you adjust volume) and you are gonna have a board that paddles better and carries speed easier.
BeachGrit: It ain’t as easy as that. God I wish it was.
Pyzel: Of course. And then you have to put in the effort, work on wave selection, wave positioning, keeping the board in the power zone, keeping your weight in the right place, centred, not pushing too much on your front foot and bogging. Yeah, it’s harder but the rewards can be huge too.
BeachGrit: Now let’s talk stance. Where the hell do your feet (going fast, doing turns) have to be on…
a.) A board with a continuous rocker, fair bit of a nose and tail kick.
Pyzel: Centred to back-foot weighted is the best call. Keeping your speed up and pivoting off the tail through turns.
b.) A board with a three-stage rocker, not much nose or tail kick
Pyzel: This type of board allows for a lot of movement and has a large sweet spot so you don’t have to overthink it. Weight forward for speed, step back onto the tail to turn. Just the basics.
c.) A goddamn super-curved high-performance board…
Pyzel: If I have to tell you where to put your feet, you shouldn’t be riding this board.
BeachGrit The fabulous Terry Fitz famously said, build your style around your boards, not the other way around, unless you rip. What do you think?
Pyzel: That is rad! He’s right. If you’re riding a board that is good for you, it’s gonna lead you in the right direction and help you improve. Maybe the best thing you can do is to really take a look at how your board is working for you, paddling and surfing-wise, and see if you can’t imagine something better. Maybe a board that would help improve the chinks in your armour. Are you struggling to catch waves? Do you have trouble keeping speed and making sections? Can you wrap through a smooth cutback without digging rail? Do you want to smash the lip harder and more vert? These are things that a surfboard design can help you with. Don’t keep riding that piece of shit your friend left in your garage two years ago! Goddamn!
BeachGrit: Are the old beginner, intermediate, advanced surfer categories outdated? I know intermediate surfers who can rotate, advanced surfers who throw their boards away? Do you think there are better, and more specific, categories? Front-foot, former skater, back-foot-learned-to-surf-in-the-nineties kinda guy?
Pyzel: Surfing is a rainbow of styles, abilities, skill sets and desires. I’m the same as you. I see kooks land airs and rippers doing old-school cutbacks to the beach. There is merit to the beginner, intermediate, advanced categories, but who really even cares? Go surf. Do what feels good. Try to have some style when you do it. Style is always in style.
BeachGrit: Average guy, wants to be front foot, but mostly isn’t. Surfs terrible beachbreaks eleven months of the year, three days when it’s six foot and goes to Indo once a year. He’s five-ten, 78 kilos? Describe his quiver.
Pyzel: The Ghost 6’1” x 19.63” x 2.63” x 31.70L round pin, for his Indo trips and when his beachie has a decent bank. He’s gonna get in easy and can push it into the two-times overhead range in clean conditions. It’ll fly, turn on a dime and hold as hard as he can push.
Voyager 1 6’0” x 19.00” x 2.44” x 28.80L squash, for the good days at home and the fun-sized days in Indo. High-performance with a touch less entry rocker to keep it flowing. This is JJF’s new shorty he debuted at Snapper.
Stubby Bastard 5’11” x 19.50” x 2.44” x 29.30L squash for your every day board. The volume and width pushed up front, relaxed entry rocker for speed and paddle power, plenty of tail rocker to keep it loose and snappy. High performance with hidden help.
Sure Thing 5’9” x 19.63” x 2.44” x 30.10L double-bump squash with baby channels. The Electralite EPS construction for a great strength-weight ratio and lively feel. For weaker, slower waves or just to liven up a normal session. Take it to Indo and get loose or make the most out of blown slop at home.
BeachGrit: What about a teenager, average ability, sixty-five kilos? What’s his dream craft?
Pyzel: Get ‘em on 25 to 27 litres. This may sound like a lot of foam, but it’ll be helpful at that stage of their surfing. Get into waves early, flow through turns. It’ll allow them to progress faster then if they struggled through on an overly refined piece of equipment.
BeachGrit: Tell me, how do you feel about fins? Are they the classic Pandora box? Dare we open?
Pyzel: How do you feel about wings on an airplane? Fins are important and complex because they can play a giant role in the performance and feel of your surfboard. I’ve had people tell me that they weren’t happy with their new board until they switched out the fins and it became their Best Board Ever. That said, fins can be both overwhelming and confusing, so I always like to try my boards with the same fins (setting a baseline) before I change ‘em. That way I am always feeling how the board works first and then I can fine-tune to maximise performance or adapt to different surf conditions.
BeachGrit: Should boards come with a fin-type recommended by the shaper?
Pyzel: Man, you’re better off finding a set of fins that you like and use those as your baseline. Everyone has different approaches to how they surf and having one set of fins for everything can work, but it’s nice to be able to play around and change the way a board performs and feels. Also, and this is a generality so don’t shoot me, but you are going to want bigger fins in smaller surf and smaller fins in bigger surf. Counterintuitive, no? But listen. If you imagine fins as wings on an airplane you get a good idea of their effectiveness. A fighter plane (think gun, big waves) going super fast only needs small wings because the speed is creating a lot of lift. A larger, slower plane (grovel board, slow waves) needs big wings to help keep it up in the air.
BeachGrit: Customs still worth persisting with, you think? Or are we all better off chasing a pre-existing model?
Pyzel: First. It is really cool to connect with a shaper and talk about what you’re looking for in your board. He can guide you in the right direction and for some the anticipation of waiting for that board to get shaped and glassed is a gratifying part of the process.For others, the joy comes when you walk in the shop and choose the board that feels good. Right here, right now! You can walk out of the shop and go straight into a surf. If you’ve done your homework and are dealing with someone with a bit of knowledge you should be able to get exactly what you would have ordered anyway. And, with the beautiful benefit we all love, instant gratification.
BeachGrit: Okay, how about this. Local shaper who actually touches your foam or a board that’s been sliced by a famous brand’s ghost shaper?
Pyzel: How about I explain something. As the local shaper grows his business he inevitably finds that he needs some help keeping up with orders. He finds another local shaper who doesn’t have that sort of problem (volume!) and takes him under his wing and shows him where he likes his rails tucked, his edges crisp, his round-tails just right. You have to know that both the local shaper and the ghost are doing their very best to make a great board. The big difference is the ghost is making a board designed by someone with (usually) more depth of experience and a higher level of development that has been, hopefully, tested and refined with the input of talented surfers. I am certainly not saying you will not get a great board from the guy down the street, because there are a lot of highly talented shapers around the world that just keep it local and do their thing! Every well known shaper in the world was that guy too.
BeachGrit: Tall, skinny guys. Any particular angle you take with ‘em?
Pyzel: A touch wider, but thinner is route that works. Being tall gives you a higher centre of gravity so you can easily go rail to rail on a little wider board, but being light you benefit from as thin a board as possible for sensitivity’s sake. The added width allows for the thinness while still retaining enough foam to float you around.
BeachGrit: Tell me a secret about surfing technique you’ve learned from your phenomenal team rider.
Pyzel: Never claim
(Note: This story first appeared in issue number 336 of Surfing Life magazine, which you can buy here.)