Change can be good and, in some cases, completely necessary. This is not one of those cases. This is the world of surfing, where hand-shapers have pioneered the designs that have allowed surfers to tear apart their local breaks, from George Freeth’s original wooden planks that captivated beachgoers to Bobby Martinez’s Al Merrick stick that he rode to victory in Mundaka last week. Creating these wave crafts has always required incredible skill, as well as an innovative imagination that shapers of the past and present possess.
Clearly, hand-shaping is the very backbone of surfing, so what’s with the plastic? Companies that manufacture molded boards have crawled out of some hole and appear dead set on sticking around. These boards are constructed in China somewhere, where some kid pulls a lever, the mold gets filled, and BAM -you’ve got a board ready to be ridden without a shaper ever touching it. On the business side of things, this seems fantastic, with virtually no labor costs and the ability to construct far more boards in a day than a hand-shaper ever could, but when has surfing ever been about dollar signs?
On Oct. 13 and 14, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego, surfers from all over California came to pay tribute to the masters of surfboard design, and by that I don’t mean the Chinese kids that pull the levers. At the Sacred Craft Consumer Surfboard Expo, booths were set up for the top surfboard companies, advertising new designs and showcasing their most innovative models. The main attraction, however, was an aquarium-like glass box where crowds gathered to watch hand-shapers in action. Shaping surfboards by hand is an amazing feat, and it drew quite a crowd. The selected shapers were happy to show their artistry, even though they probably felt like animals in the San Diego Zoo, encased in glass with gawking onlookers all around them. The expo was packed with patrons who happily forked over some cash for a new stick or simply stayed entertained by the seminars, talking to shapers or watching the talented pen work happening at the Lost booth, where boards were receiving fresh paint from a few insane artists.
There were a few booths that were not receiving much love from the crowd, and, not surprisingly, these were the booths showing off molded boards. Spokesmen from these companies must have felt awkward intruding on an event that was meant to honor hand-shapers, not some new cookie-cutter technology. No matter how awkward they felt, the crowd was not sympathetic in the slightest.
As I walked through the expo, I noticed a familiar face, but I could not quite place who it was. After pondering it for a good minute, I realized that it was Robert August of “The Endless Summer” fame. Having stared in the 1966 film, I thought about how strange it must be for him to see this new technology, devoid of the soul that has always accompanied a hand-shaped board. Many people claim that this new technology is the future of surfing, but I know that I could have asked anyone in that expo and received a very different response. A world where molded boards dominate the industry is indeed a scary one, but as long as people like Bobby Martinez keep putting World Championship Tour points on the board with hand-shaped, polyurethane surfboards, then it’s a world we won’t be living in anytime soon.