In an old, canvas shoe bag that hangs on my surf rack, there’s an assortment of fins with last names etched into them. Machado. Rastovich. Merrick. Biolos. None of these are my last name, so how did so many of their fins end up in my possession?
I bought them, and I probably spent far too much money on them.
As surfers, we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what gear we own and, probably to our detriment, what gear we want. The act of buying a new surfboard is fraught with decisions about not only what we need a board to do, but from whom and from where we should buy it (and even more last names: Reynolds. Burrow. Slater.) The surf industry isn’t unlike other industries in that big names sell a high volume of products: everyone wants LeBron’s shoes, or the headphones that, well, pretty much every jackass in any jersey swears by during their warm-up routine. We’re all guilty of it in our daily lives. In surfing, however, it exists on almost an insidious level.
Buying a pair of shoes because LeBron wears them won’t make you a better basketball player, but they probably won’t make you worse at basketball either. Buying a surfboard, however, because Dane Reynolds punts it eleventy feet in the air in 3 foot wind slop might truly make you worse. So why do we do it?
Throw out the industry’s marketing on surf items that don’t affect performance (so no, buying Reef sandals won’t get their calendar girls to sleep with you). Let’s also throw out things that affect performance, but in the ways slightly less meaningful to the actual act: tail pads, leashes, and even wetsuits. It leaves us with the two things that connect your feet to the wave below it: boards and fins.
The sheer amount of information surf companies are putting out regarding what goes into their boards and fins is enormous. Even if only 10% of it is useful, that still leaves an incredible amount of information that the average surfer is supposed to not only sift through, but understand. Fin companies talk about foil, flex, and rake. On top of that, the same configurations come in multiple constructions like Techflex, which sounds like material NASA would use to make a bendy straw. Once you get started on the board aspects of rocker, outline, foil, concaves, you have LITERALLY entered a world of hydrodynamics that I’m gonna guess less than 5% of the surf population can speak to with any real knowledge. I’m not talking, “more rocker is better for curvy waves” but the actual principles that affect how that rocker planes through the water.
The crazy thing about all of this is that pretty much every surfer I know can sit down and talk about all of these things with ease, relative to their own ability level, across more than a handful of brands and dozens of individual models. Hell, even the language we use to describe our collection of surfboards implies the sheer necessity of not just one, or a few, but many. We call them quivers, as if we’re carrying a whole bag of them around on our backs to use, one after another.
One of my buddies explained it to his wife, in the context of buying another board, as being like golf. You need a different club for every shot; you need different boards for different waves. This made total sense to me, until I pumped the brakes and realized that, while I enjoy both, I never, ever want surfing to become more like golf.
On top of all this, though, this idea that certain combinations of boards and fins work supremely well in only the smallest of conditions, the surf industry loves to turn around and then tell us that the boards with our hero’s names on them will undoubtedly work for you, the 10 lbs overweight weekend warrior surfing 2 foot mushburgers at your local break, at the same time as they’ll work in 10 foot barrels grinding down south Pacific reef passes.
The biggest lie the surf industry has ever told: this board works for beginner to advanced, from knee-high to overhead.
Why have we allowed this sheer amount of information to consume so much surf-related discussion time, knowing deep down that so much of it is marketing bullshit, and of what’s left, much of it only applies to only the cream of the surfing crop? Why do we put so much stock into it when a well-known surf company says, on the chart showing volumes of their boards, “Advanced riders can feel a difference from a 5% volume increase”? 5%. I can’t even tell when I’ve gotten 5% fatter, how am I going to notice when you add 1L to my surfboard?
The root of all of this hit me a while back when I was surfing a local beach break, pumping down the line trying to beat the opening section, only to have it come down on me at the last minute, forcing me to fan out rather than get clobbered by oncoming whitewater. My first thought wasn’t, “I shouldn’t have ate those nachos and had that 5th Tecate last night after taking a few days off from surfing.” My first thought was, “Shit, I bet I would have made that section if I’d switched fins before this session.”
That moment made me take a step back, and I thought about all the other times I’ve heard other surfers in the water bemoaning their own choices. Before you call me a kook, think about how often you’ve shown up to the beach expecting waves of one size and found them slightly smaller, and thought to yourself, “Man, I wish I’d brought my groveller.” We’re all guilty of it.
In all of this, I realized why we’re willing to spend so much time thinking about what we’re riding and whether it’s holding us back. Waves are a limited resource for us. There was no guarantee that crowded session that I would have another shot to even come close to beating the opening section. That might have been my only shot, and if there was even a chance that different equipment could have helped, why wouldn’t I have thought about it? There’s no chairlift back to the top of the wave; there’s no jogging back up to the top like it was a stair set and trying that again. You’re at the mercy of the crowd and mother nature.
But in the end, we can’t let the obsession with getting waves become too focused with dialing in the things we buy. If you want to make a change to what you’re riding, make a significant change to the equipment you’re riding. What Youth recently ran an article about interacting with your shaper, and I’ll leave you with a piece of their advice about surfboard sizes, which definitely also applies to overthinking your gear too much:
Do not converse in any unit of measurement you wouldn’t use to describe your penis. This means any unit less than one inch on length, and any unit less than a quarter inch on width and thickness. Be honest with yourself, it is a piece of foam formed with rudimentary woodworking tools by those other than Swiss watchmakers. If you’re speaking in eighths, six-teenths or god forbid thirty-secondths either get a bit fatter or go running for an extended period of time.
Editor's note: if you don't have a penis, ask a friend to use theirs for reference.