Imagine you're floating astride your surfboard with a big glassy wave swelling up behind you. You start paddling and at just the right moment, in one fluid motion, you pop up. Now you're gliding down the face of a wave; your board is skidding, skimming under your feet. You feel the spray on your face and the bright, hot sun on your back. You taste salt, and smell sunscreen and wax. This is surfing, and to many people, it's the ultimate rush.
No one really knows when surfing originated, but by the time Captain Hook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, the natives had already been surfing for centuries. Some of the ali'i (chiefs) rode boards up to 24 feet (7 meters) long, while commoners rode boards up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) long [source: Marcus]. Back then, the longer and bigger your surfboard was, the more status and power you had.
While some traditionalists might appreciate the challenge of paddling out on a 100-pound (45-kilogram), 12-foot (3.6-meter) board made of solid wood, many surfers are grateful for today's epoxy covered, polystyrene-core boards, which are lightweight and durable. Also popular and slightly less expensive are boards made of polyurethane and covered with polyester resin [source: Weaver]. Wooden surfboards are a lot heavier than those made from synthetic materials, but they're generally quite sturdy, and some people prefer their traditional appearance.
No two waves are alike, so surfboards aren't one-size-fits-all either. Pick the wrong board and you may find yourself frustrated when other surfers sail past on waves you can't catch. However, if you resist the allure of the coolest-looking, raciest boards and instead base your board choice on a few key criteria such as your height, weight, skill level and local wave conditions, you'll be surfing in no time. But before you delve into too much detail about board size and type, you'll want to make the most basic of choices: wood or fiberglass? Read on to learn the pros and cons of each.
Wood vs. Fiberglass Surfboards
In 1926, Tom Blake built the first hollow wooden surfboard by drilling dozens of holes into his solid wooden board, then covering it with a layer of wood [source: Couldwell]. This innovation, along with the invention of waterproof glue, soon led to the construction of hollow balsa wood, plywood and mixed balsa and hardwood boards. Wooden boards remained the most popular choice until about the 1960s, when more and more surfers began to opt for fiberglass boards. In recent years, however, wood has made something of a comeback [source: Brisick].
Modern wooden boards are generally made out of balsa wood or available alternatives, such as paulownia, cedar and even plywood [source: Brisick]. Though wooden boards are heavier and usually more expensive than fiberglass boards, they're also stronger, more environmentally friendly and faster in the water [sources: Brisick, Jensen]. Many surfers also find classic wooden boards to be stunning visually.
Fiberglass surfboards, which initially made an appearance in the 1940s, are generally made of foam cores wrapped in fiberglass, cloth and resin. Sometimes they are strengthened with carbon fiber. These boards are generally cheaper, lighter and arguably more buoyant than most wooden boards. There are two major types of fiberglass boards:
- Polyurethane: Polyurethane-core boards glassed with polyester resin are generally cheaper than either polystyrene or wooden boards. They're buoyant, very durable, and a huge variety of "pop-out" (off the shelf) polyurethane boards are readily available to rent or buy from just about any surf shop in the world.
- Polystyrene (Styrofoam): In 2005, the closure of a major foam manufacturer caused a shortage of polyurethane, so surfboard designers began experimenting with polystyrene, which is up to three times lighter and also more buoyant than polyurethane [sources: All About Surfboards, Surf Science]. Polystyrene emits fewer volatile organic compounds than polyurethane, making it a better choice environmentally, and since polystyrene must be glassed with epoxy, these boards are even more fracture resistant than polyurethane boards. On the downside, polystyrene boards may start to delaminate at temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), so they probably shouldn't be left in hot cars [source: Surf Science].
There's more to a board than the materials it's made of -- size can make a big difference in how a surfboard performs, too. In the next section, you'll find out more about different board sizes. Read on to find out which size is right for you.
One of the first things to consider when choosing a surfboard is what size will work best for your height, weight, skill level and riding conditions. Buy a board that's too thin, and you'll sink. Choose one that's too short, and you'll fall off every time you try to pop up.
There are many different surfboard sizes and shapes, but the two main categories are longboards and shortboards:
- Longboards, or "logs," are usually 8 to 11 feet (2.4 to 3.4 meters) long and oval shaped. They are generally thicker than shortboards. A longboard also accelerates faster in the water, making it easier to catch a wider variety of waves. While this makes longboards preferable for beginners, many expert surfers such as Robert "Wingnut" Weaver also prefer the versatility and classic style of longboarding [source: Weaver].
- Shortboards are between 5 and 7 feet (1.5 to 2.1 meters) long. They come with a variety of tail designs, and they're thinner, more light-weight and generally easier to maneuver than a longboard. If you're into fancy tricks and turns, a shortboard might be just the ticket. However, because waves are harder to catch on a shortboard, be sure you've acquired some skills before you try one [source: Weaver].
Consider your weight when you are choosing the size of your surfboard. A heavier person will need more "float," i.e. a thicker surfboard, to stay buoyant. On the other hand, an 11-foot (3.35-meter) long, 3-inch (7.6-centimeter) thick log would be overkill for a child or small adult. The main thing is to make sure you can comfortably carry your board and control it in the water [source: Weaver].
It's also important to think about the type of waves you'll be surfing when you're choosing the size of your board. A lot of riders, especially beginners, might find that a longboard performs better in the relatively mushy, gentle surf of the U.S. East Coast. On the other hand, shortboarding would probably be easier, even for more inexperienced riders, in the larger swells of Hawaii [source: Weaver].
A really good surfer will be able to surf with almost any type board in virtually any conditions. For these more advanced riders, the perfect board type can complement and even enhance a particular surfing style. Read on for a rundown of the different surfboard shapes and styles.
Types of Surfboards
There are lots of variables, including the rocker, tails and fins (see the sidebar on this page for more on those) that go into making a great surfboard. An expert shaper can customize any or all of these variables to create a unique board that will enhance your natural style. Although custom boards don't come cheap, they're not necessarily that much more expensive than some of the better "pop-outs" (pre-manufactured) boards you can buy right off the rack [source: Weaver]. Regardless of whether you go with a pop-out or look into ordering a custom board, you'll want to know something about how different types of surfboard styles and materials might affect your surfing. Some different surfboard types include the following:
- Funboards, at 6 feet 6 inches (2.01 meters) to 8 feet (2.44 meters) long, split the difference between the acceleration of a longboard and the maneuverability of a shortboard. They're perfect for kids and smaller adult beginners, and they also make good transition boards for larger adults looking to work their way down to shortboard surfing.
- Foamboards, foamies and softboards, are -- as the name implies -- made of foam. This decreases the risk of injury while increasing stability and buoyancy, making a foamboard the perfect choice for a beginner. You can find various types of surfboards -- longboards, fish and even shortboards -- made out of foam.
- Eggs are around the same length as funboards, but with a more rounded tail. They're good for surfing smaller waves, rather than doing tricks, and you can use them with any type of fin setup.
- Fish are shortboards with a wide, round nose and a "swallow" tail, which improves the ability to catch waves without sacrificing maneuverability. Fish are usually 5.4 feet (1.65 meters) to 6.4 feet (1.95 meters) long.
- Mini-Mals or Malibus are slightly shorter longboards with a thinner profile and tail to make turning easier.
- Guns are big wave surfboards, at 6 feet (1.83 meters) to 10 feet (3.05 meters) long. They have pin tails and pointy noses, making them easier to paddle out and giving them more control over the biggest waves [source: Weaver]
Now that you've gotten an overview of the various types of surfboards, it's time to go back to basics. Read on to learn all about the best surfboards for beginners.
Most surfing resources will tell a beginner the same thing: It's really important to start off on a big, thick longboard. But what exactly constitutes a longboard? For a six year old kid, a 6.5-foot (1.98-meter) funboard might qualify as a longboard. A 180-pound (81.65-kilogram) adult, on the other hand, probably needs something more along the lines of an 11-foot (3.35-meter) log. As a general rule, your first surfboard should be a minimum of 16 to 20 inches (40.6 to 50.8 centimeters) taller than you. You also want it to be at least 2 to 3 inches (5.1 to 7.6 centimeters) thick [source: Weaver].
Beginners shouldn't worry about the shape of the surfboard. Tail shapes and fin setups come into play further down the road, after you've learned how to catch a wave, pop up and balance. In the beginning, stick with a simple, oval-shaped, single-fin longboard. If your first board comes with more than one fin, that's fine. Chances are you won't even be able to tell the difference at first.
Beginners should also seriously consider starting with a foamboard or softboard. Every beginner will get whacked in the head by his or her surfboard at least once. Foamboards are made with soft materials (think boogie boards) and have flexible fins, making learning safer for beginners. Foamboards are also less expensive than some other boards. You can also learn on fiberglass, but if you do choose a fiberglass or epoxy board, get one with a thicker coating -- this helps protect against dings.
When you're picking out your first board, think of the local surf shop as your friend. Not only will they have invaluable surfing advice and knowledge about local wave conditions, they also might be willing to let you rent or try out a few different boards. This will help you get a sense of what works best for you before you actually shell out the big bucks for your first surfboard.
Follow these tips and you'll be catching your first waves in no time. Then you'll be pouring over the previous sections of this article trying to decide if a fish tail or a square tail will help you finally learn those bottom turns, reentries and cutbacks your friends are doing. By then, you could be hooked for life on one of the most popular water sports in the world: surfing.
For more information on surfing gear, explore the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- All About Surfboards. "The History of the Surfboard: From Wood to Fiberglass." (12.28.09)http://allaboutsurfboards.com/history-of-the-surfboard/
- Brisick, Jamie. "Ancient Surfboard Style is Finding New Devotees." New York Times. 12.04.09. (12.29.09)http://www.boston.com/travel/articles/nytimes/articles/2009/12/04/ancient_surfboard_style_is_finding_new_devotees/
- Couldwell, Andrew. "History of the Surfboard." Club of the Waves. (12.12.09)http://www.clubofthewaves.com/culture_surfboard.php
- Couldwell, Andrew. "Types of Surfboard." Club of the Waves. (12.12.09)http://www.clubofthewaves.com/surf_surfboards.php
- Filosa, Gary Fiarmont R. "The Surfer's Almanac." E.P. Dutton. 1977.
- Jensen, Paul. "Hollow Wooden Surfboards." 09.2009. (12.28.09)http://www.hollowsurfboards.com
- Marcus, Ben. "From Polynesia, With Love: The History of Surfing From Captain Hook To the Present." Surfing For Life. (12.11.09)http://www.surfingforlife.com/history.html
- The Surfing Handbook. "Surfboard Fins." (12.14.09)http://www.surfinghandbook.com/surfboard-design/surfboard-fins/
- The Surfing Handbook. "Surboard Tail Design." (12.15.09)http://www.surfinghandbook.com/surfboard-design/surfboard-tail-design/
- Surf Science. "The New Word on Surfboard Foam." (12.28.09)http://www.surfscience.com/topics/surfboard-design-and-anatomy/materials/surfboard-foam
- Weaver, Robert and Scott Bannerot "Wingnut's Complete Surfing." McGraw-Hill. 2009.
- Werner, Doug. "Surfer's Start-Up: A Beginner's Guide to Surfing." Track's Publishing. 1999.