A Matter of Size

ancient Hi surfingNo, that’s not what this blog is about. Get your mind out of the gutter.

I just got back from a surfing/kiting trip that took me North up the Baja peninsula to a special spot that is even more isolated than where I live. Not only is it considerably cooler there than here, it is also arguably one of the best places in the world to surf . But it turns out it is also a great place to kitesurf as favorable winds come up most afternoons. This combination of wind and waves is ideal. The learning curve was steep and a few kites were critically injured along the way, but I finally seem to have figured out how to surf along the face of a wave while connected to a kite without letting it overpower what I want to do on the wave or to fall out of the sky right into the impact zone where the waves get to eat it for lunch. It’s not called the “impact zone” for nothin’.

On this visit to Baja Special Spot #1, the waves were small enough to make most people pack up their gear and head elsewhere. We’re talking ankle slappers here, knee ticklers at best. However, I was fortunate to find myself in the company of master boat builder Dennis Choate. Dennis owns DenCho Marine and tackles difficult and high-tech projects such as the design and construction of large ocean-racing sailboats with gusto. He also loves shaping surfboards – big ones, little ones, single finned, tri-finned and quads. A look around his large three-bay garage and multiple storage rooms revealed that he has a particular penchant for making boards that you might call tankers. His quiver boasts several boards over 10 feet in length. The longest one measures 14 feet and is intended as a tandem board, but on our second day out, Dennis rode it solo all the way to the beach over and over again.

tandem_beach_boys

Tandem Surfing with Waikiki beachboys

After trying the 9’2” I’d ridden on my previous visit and having it stall out soon after I popped up, I realized I wasn’t going to get very far on that particular board in the tiny surf. One of Dennis’ friends was getting out of the water and asked me if I wanted to try the 12-foot board he’d been riding. It was a board that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the big surf at Makaha in the early 60s – gently pointed nose, pin tail, but wider around the middle than a more modern gun and with very subtle nose and tail rocker. To my delight and great pleasure that board glided me along the faces of the little waves where the shorter board had stalled. Gradually I figured out where to stand to get it to turn, how to stall so the faster section of the wave would catch up with me, and I took some walks towards the nose and back again. Standing there erect, feeling the energy of the wave push me and that massive board forward, the wind in my face, I recalled an image I’d seen of Hawaiians at the turn of the 20th century standing tall while riding their large wooden surfboards straight in to the beach at Waikiki. In that moment I imagined I shared the pure joy of gliding along those small waves with those original surfers across the ages.

My last wave that morning was a good one – a little larger than the rest (maybe thigh high) – and it took me all the way into the beach, a ride of some 400 odd meters. Dennis and his buddy commented later that they’d seen my ride from the restaurant on the beach. “Just like Waikiki, but without the crowds” said Dennis, making the stoke rise in me once again at the memory of that pure feeling.

The next day as Dennis and I sat and waited for a set to appear, he on the 14-foot tandem board and I on yet another board he’d shaped – this time a narrower wine red 12-footer with softer rails, and a blunter nose and tail – I remarked at how much fun it was to surf such tiny waves, and how much I appreciated the boards he’d shaped that made those rides possible.

Dennis smiled knowingly and replied, “Probably 90 percent of surfers have never experienced what you are talking about. They are too caught up with riding short boards and bigger waves. They look at surf like this and think it can’t be ridden, but that’s because they don’t have the right equipment.”

A wave that was barely a ripple on the water’s surface, probably under six inches in height, passed under us.

“You see, you could have caught that wave on the board you’re riding.”

I considered what he said and wondered at how many people missed out on the fun I was having. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up surrounded by surf culture and came to the sport so late in life, but I’m surprised that so many people would turn their noses up at small, but still very fun surf. Admittedly, an 12-foot board is not an inexpensive toy, nor an easy one to haul around. I could barely carry the boards I’d ridden, resorting to an awkward bear-hug technique to get the boards to and from the surf. I tried carrying one on my head, but it was so heavy I could feel my neck straining under the load. Then it occurred to me, what I really needed was a Waikiki beachboy. Joyful glide and muscle rippled beachboys! Super tanker surfboards are sounding better all the time!

Rabbit Kekai ca 1945

A ripped Rabbit Kekai, the quintessential Waikiki beachboy, circa 1945

How about you? What’s the longest board and smallest surf you’ve ever ridden?

Book Review – Bing Surfboards: Fifty Years of Craftsmanship and Innovation

By Paul Holmes
Published by Pintail Publishers, 192 pages
Topic Relative Score (Surf History, Surfboard Design): 5 out of 5 stars

When I arrived on the East Cape in 2002, following my dream to learn to surf, I was virtually clueless about surf culture and surfing history. I knew even less about the evolution of surfboard design. Growing up in Ontario, Canada meant that, unlike a California kid, I wasn’t exposed to anything related to surf, unless flip flops count. I knew who Guy Lafleur and Rocket Richard were, not the seminal figures in the history of surfing. 

So when I met my neighbor Bing Copeland, I had no idea that I was meeting such a man, one who exerted a huge influence on surfing and surfboard manufacturing and design. When he generously offered to take me surfing because my surf buddy refused to go out in conditions that were anything short of perfect, I was completely ignorant of the fact that I was making the drive down the coast and sharing the waves with a surfing legend.

Ten years later, I read Holmes’s book in amazement and received the education I so thoroughly lacked. Thanks Bing! 

Bing Copeland mid-1960s Waimea Bay. Photo by John Bass.

The first thing you’ll notice about Paul Holmes’s book “Bing Surfboards: Fifty Years of Craftsmanship and Innovation” is the quality of its production. It comes packaged in a groovy reusable cardboard case that will protect it against sun damage and carelessly spilled coffee. Inside you’ll find a beautiful hardcover book in coffee-table format (9.5″ by 12.25″) that contains 192 pages of text and high-quality, historic and contemporary photographs, printed in their original black and white or full color format.

Holmes did a great job of chronicling the various aspects of Bing’s personal life, professional life and his role in the evolution of surfing and surfboard design with a narrative style that is easy to read and flows from one topic to the next and back again. But the book is more than a history lesson, it also contains a treasure trove of archival materials including handwritten pages out of order books and every Bing advertisement ever published, all meticulously preserved by Bing himself. Anecdotes by the guys working on the factory floor sprinkled throughout give the reader an insider’s view of what it might have been like to work for Bing and with the sometimes oddball cast of characters drawn to the surfboard shaping industry.

Bing was an innovative designer of surfboards, but he was also a natural graphic designer and marketer, making the middle third, where ads and archival materials are displayed, perhaps my favorite part of the book. The ads are a reflection of Bing himself, as Holmes puts it “creative, funny, informative and graphically compelling.”

Shapers will undoubtedly be stoked to find a complete review of all Bing Surfboards models and the contributions they made to surfboard design evolution, as well as three pages dedicated specifically to improvements in fin design. Beautiful detailed shots of over 60 classic Bing surfboards are provided along with each board’s serial number, dimensions and significant elements of design and construction.

Whether you’ve ever owned a Bing surfboard or not, if you are a surfer and especially if you are a shaper, you owe it to yourself to add this book to your quiver of surf literature.

Do you own a Bing? If so, tell us about it, or even better post a photo of you riding it here. And what about my Bing board? Well, my financial circumstances since moving to Baja (always broke) mean that I haven’t had the wherewithal to buy a Bing. In 2004, in his classic understated way, Bing handed me a single-fin longboard he was no longer riding and said, “Just make sure it gets ridden.” The fin alone on that board is worth a pretty penny. Up until that time, I’d focused on working towards riding shorter boards, so that board introduced me to the “other” side of surfing, one that is unquestionably more soulful. Riding that longboard on days when the smaller conditions would have normally kept me out of the water induced in me a greater playfulness and definitely improved my surfing. I’ve since begged and borrowed (never stolen) several other longboards, but the dream remains to one day own a performance Bing longboard and at least one of his shorter boards – the retro Karma single-fin or perhaps the fishy Dharma. And to that end, I must get back to work!

Bing in Baja on the board he ultimately gave me. Photo by Gary Swanson