Surfing has always had a fiery nature. Its history is rooted in a departure from the traditional teleological viewpoints of early-twentieth century America and its conventional uniformity. Since its inception, surfing has progressed seemingly unhindered with a singular focus on the surfer’s autonomy.
Boards, the vehicle of transcendental wave-wiggling, served a straightforward purpose: to allow an individual to move around the wave in whatever way they desires. A surfboard’s purpose remains unchanged, but the purpose of surfing has not. This article isn’t about the evolution of surfing as a whole — though that is a feature of its own — but more about how the shifting and commercialized demands of modern surfing has convoluted the ethics of board production.
In a nutshell, a surfboard is a piece of foam sculpted to shape, wrapped in fiberglass and drenched in resin. The sculpting, or shaping, of boards is where the debate in question finds its roots. It is a conversation between ethics and capitalism.
Reynolds “Renny” Yater, a luminary in the Santa Barbara shaping scene, once “saturated the [SB surfboard] market by making a half-dozen boards” according to the 2019 documentary “Spoons”. Now, Channel Islands surfboards, based out of Carpinteria, manufactures 20k+ boards a year. In order to match this change, surfing has gone to bed with capitalism.
Magnate surf brands like Pyzel, CI and Lost have turned to the machines. Notable surf voices, like “The Inertia,” acknowledge that “as production demands began to grow for shapers, they had to look for more efficient tools to help get the job done faster and more accurately.” In other words, they need to make more boards at a lower cost. The answer is automation via a CNC machine. As Jason Bennett of Chemistry Surfboards says, CNC allows shapers to go from “hand shaping three boards a day … to [banging] out 6-10 a day and [keeping] the consistency at a very high level.
Some famous shapers in the surf community have chosen a different route: continuing the tradition of hand shaping. Ryan Lovelace, a local in Santa Barbara with a shop down on Haley Street, believes his hands should be the ones that make the piece if the board is going to have his name on it. Lovelace grew up seeing big corporations “harming people for greed and personal ambition,” and his opinion on big companies is not unique to him.
As I stood in the surf shop I work in, thumbing through a collection of surf interviews, I was caught by Nat Young’s comment in “Above the Roar”: “How would you present surfing to an audience that is completely ignorant? … I mean, it’s not even a sport. There aren’t any lines to cross, no goal posts, no time period.” Nat is convicted that surfing is everything but a sport. However, surfing is now a “sport”; the surfers wear jerseys. I see competitions on TV with commentators. When surfing is a sport, it makes sense to monetize what you can and grow through a traditional model. When it is a spiritual and artistic pursuit, it makes sense to follow a different, less capitalistic approach.
The tricky part, as Lovelace says, is that “we are in this strange grey period” where you can’t easily tell the difference between the hand shapers and the machine shapers. Certainly, there are companies on both ends of the spectrum, but the vast majority fall somewhere in the murky, ambiguous middle. These middle companies curate their public image in the exact same way: their surf content is filled with homogeneous pictures of stylish shapers glowing with pride. This presentation is by design.
Hand shaping is sexy; supposedly hand-shaped boards sell for a much higher fee. The machine guys tactfully avoid the label ‘machine’ and sell at artisan prices. If a hand shaper used the capitalistic model here, he would either want to offer his product at a lower price or produce more. Translation: spend all your hours shaping or give up hopes for a sustainable income
Lovelace had a fresh idea. We spend more on coffee beans that are Fair Trade Certified. We spend more on goods from companies that are B-Corp approved. These unbiased third parties offer clarity in a pea-soup fog. A third party could exist to verify if a board is made fully by hand, glassed in an environmentally cautious — and legal — way. Moreover, the hand shaper can grin, knowing the monetary gains will enable him to eat more than rice and beans.
There is nothing objectively wrong with surfing as a sport. There is nothing objectively wrong with surfing as a metaphysical pursuit. Maybe I haven’t been indoctrinated with business philosophy enough to think it acceptable for one group to pretend to be another for profit. I’m not sure whether you surf, but if you do, do your homework on the boards you buy. If it isn’t overtly clear, encourage your shaper to be transparent and upfront. If you do not surf, no matter. The gist of my spiel is valuing transparency and spending your money accordingly. Money is the fuel that drives capitalism, but let us not forget it’s also the tool we have to reach a future we are proud of.