Surfboard 101. How to choose the right surfboard – a beginner to lower intermediate guide
Surfers obsess about two things: waves and surfboards. Today we will talk about the latter. Why? Because the right surfboard can change your surfing, and that can change your life. It has definitely changed mine.
But, before we dive into it, there are a few concepts in need of explanation.
If you just want the gist of it, feel free to skip all this and go straight to the final part.
We can start with the most common: length, width, thickness and volume.
Length refers to the extension of the surfboard from nose — the front end — to tail — the back end.
Width specifies how wide a surfboard is at its widepoint (i.e. its widest point). Width tends to decrease as it nears the extremities (nose and tail)
Thickness tells you how tick a surfboard is at its thickest point. This thickness also tends to decrease towards the ends.
Volume measures the amount of water a board moves when plunged into it. The more volume a board has, the more it floats.
All these measures are important when choosing a surfboard that suits your level and your goals, but by themselves they mean nothing. The secret lies in the mix between them, which create both the outline and the foil distribution:
The outline is seen when you the look of a board from the front or the back. It results from the curves that arise when you combine a specific length and width (which is measured at different parts of the board, and not only the widepoint — but let’s keep it simple).
The foil distribution corresponds to the distribution of thickness throughout the length and width of a surfboard. This thickness distribution highly influentiates the volume of a surfboard (i.e. how much foam it has, and hence the amount of water it dislocates when sank)
The outline and the foil distribution can in turn be married with different rockers and rail shapes.
The rocker is the amount of curve there is from nose to tail, measured along the bottom of a surfboard.
Rail shape is the shape of the outer edges of a surfboard, which we call rails.
Last but not least, we have construction. This pertains to the materials and techniques that are used when building a surfboard. There are a million different constructions under the sun, but for this post’s sake we will narrow it down to the most commonly sold:
Polyurethane + fiber glass (normally called a PU surfboard).
Polyethilene + epoxy resin (normally called Epoxy surfboards).
Now in English, please!
But how do these measurements and constructions affect the way a surfboard moves on and through water?
Just like tall people tend to be heavier, because they have more mass, so too longer surfboards tend to have more volume, which means that they float more. These bigger boards create less drag when moving, since they sink less, hence creating less resistance. This is why sur school boards go from 7’ to 9’. Still, you can have very long boards that are thin and narrow, and these will be hard to surf on.
The length of a surfboard also determines how long the rail is, which in turn affects the way a board turns. Longer boards draw longer lines, whereas shorter boards fit easier into tight angles. Accordingly, longer boards are used in bigger waves, where you need to draw longer lines to get where you want, whereas shorter boards favor smaller surf, because you can fit them into smaller spaces.
Wider boards are more stable than narrower boards. Not only because wider boards tend to have more volume than narrower ones (thickness and length maintained), but also because the wider the board the bigger the distance from your feet, which rest (hopefully) at the center of the board, and the outer edge that sinks in the water (i.e. the rail). This means you have to be stronger in order to push a wider board into the water. It is also the reason why heavier surfers normally use wider boards, while skinny surfers usually prefer narrower boards. It is also the reason why beginners benefit from wider boards: their unvoluntary and often uncontrolled movements will not affect the board so much, whereas on a narrower board small movements have immediate consequences.
You can then a have a board that is wider in the center and narrower in the tips (nose and tail), or a board that maintains more width from nose to tail. The first have a curvier outline; the second a more parallel outline. The curvier the outline, the easier a board is to turn, the more sensitive it is; the more parallel the outline, the faster and more stable a board is, but the harder it is to maneuver. The secret lies in finding a happy medium that suits your needs.
Thickness is also directed related to volume: the thicker the board (width and length maintained), the more volume it has. But the secreted lies in understanding where the thickness is placed. A board can be thicker in the center and refined towards the rails (creating a domed deck), or can be evenly distributed throughout the deck, making it flatter. The more domed the deck, the easier it is to turn a board — because you have leverage that helps you tilt the rail —, the flatter de board, the more stable it is, but the harder it is to move around.
Intrinsically related to the distribution of thickness is the rail shape. More domed decks tend to have thinner, more angled rails, whereas flatter decks tend to haver rounder, “boxier” rails. Sharper rails are more sensitive and bite the water really well; rounder rails are more forgiving. The former are often used in bigger, cleaner surf, since they help to control a board at high speed. The latter are usually used in smaller waves, and also when there is a lot of texture in the water, since they do not get stuck in the bumps created by the texture. As a general rule, more experience surfers can use both thinned out and boxy rails, whereas surfers with less ability benefit from boxier rails, which forgive their mistakes.
Rocker is, I believe, the most important variable in a surfboard, and often the less considered by novice/intermediate surfers. The more rocker a board has — the more curve in the bottom of the board, from nose to tail — the more maneuverable it is, but the harder it is to generate speed. The flatter the rocker, the faster the board goes, but the harder it is to move. Hollower waves give you lots of speed, so what you need is a maneuverable board that allows you to control it. At hollower waves, more rocker can actually give you more speed, because you can use the steeper parts of the wave without losing control (a flat board will skip, which leads to less speed — think about cars: if you enter a tight turn with too much speed, you will slide out and lose all your speed; if you have a car that is able to accelerate and brake faster, you can come in at the right speed and leave the curve with more speed than you came in with). At fatter, slower waves, less rocker gives you the speed the wave lacks. Once again, better surfer can handle more rocker or less rocker, depending on several things, whereas less able surfers will not know how to generate speed on a board with more rocker. And remember: in surfing nothing ever happens without speed.
As for construction, let us simplify things even more: PU boards are better at hollower waves and/or waves with more texture, because they are easier to sink and hence easier to control. Reversely, Epoxy boards float more, which means that they are easier to paddle and generate speed easier. They are often used in smaller waves and/or by surfer who want the extra help in paddle power and speed generation (pros often use them for this reason).
To be continued...