How to Choose a Shortboard for Surfing
In 1966, jaws hit the sand when Nat Young showed up to the World Surfing Championships in San Diego, California on a 9-foot, 4-inch board and proceeded to slay waves. Although much shorter boards had been experimented with in the 1940s and 50s, the late 60s is when shortboard design innovation really began to explode.
Today, numerous surfers and shapers continue to challenge the status quo. As a result, the shortboard is still evolving. The countless number of designs can make matching an ideal shortboard with your ideal conditions a mind-boggling task. Have no fear, though. This surfing guide will provide valuable info that will help you through the shortboard selection process.
Shortboard Design Influences
Every well-designed shortboard is created with a specific application in mind. The answers to the following questions should be considered when selecting a board:
- Surfing style: Do you surf with a lot of power or are you all about finesse?
- Ability: Do you catch waves easily and generate speed well?
- Wave type: Do you generally surf hollow/fast or mushy/slow waves?
- Wave size: Are you looking for a board to charge big or small waves?
- Mass: Are you a light, average-weight, or heavier surfer?
The majority of shortboards are between 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 10 inches. The ideal length within that range depends on factors such as your ability, mass, style, the type of waves you surf, board materials, board shape, and board thickness. As a general rule, wider board designs require less length than more narrow models.
The nose, middle, and tail dimensions of a shortboard can vary quite a bit. However, the most popular shapes are between 11 and 13 inches wide at the nose, 18 and 20 inches wide in the middle, and 14 and 15.5 inches wide at the tail.
Most shortboards have a pointed nose. This not only helps you drop in on steeper waves, but it also makes it easier to duck dive. However, shortboards with a more rounded nose will give the board more surface area and make it easier to catch waves.
The tail of a shortboard can have a huge impact on how it handles. These are some of the more common designs:
- Square: A very responsive tail design, but one that also produces drag.
- Diamond: A softer version of the square tail; not very common.
- Squash: A rounded version of the square tail; not as responsive, but more versatile and commonly used.
- Pin: Generally seen on boards suited for larger surf, this design holds the wave well at higher speeds, and is usually chosen for its stability as opposed to its maneuverability.
- Rounded Pin: A less extreme and much more versatile version of the pintail.
- Round: A good choice for hollow and fast waves, this design provides more tail lift for a looser feel.
- Swallow: Most commonly used in small-wave board designs, it has increased surface area that results in more lift and speed.
- Bat: Used in conjunction with straighter rail outlines because it allows for a wider tail, this design performs similarly to a swallow tail.
The contours of the bottom of a shortboard affect how it travels over the water. These are the most common types of contour used:
- Convex: Sometimes used in sections of a board to prevent tracking.
- Flat: A fast bottom best reserved for small and slower waves.
- Concave: Used to enhance maneuverability; best in clean, large waves.
- Vee: Can make a board easier to turn, but also makes it slower in a straight line.
- Channel: Utilized to increase lift and speed, but channels can also act as mini fins and make a board tougher to turn at slower speeds.
High-performance shortboards are designed to be put on edge. As a result, they are known for having a significant amount of rocker. More rocker equals a slower but more maneuverable board. Less rocker (flatter) will result in a faster board that’s tougher to turn. Shortboards designed for bigger surf and more powerful waves usually have the most rocker, while boards with less rocker tend to work better in smaller surf.
If you need a board to perform well in smaller and slower waves, go with a softer edge and fuller rail — it won’t dig in or sink into the wave as much. Harder edge, low-volume rails will bite into the wave more during a turn and offer more control in bigger, faster surf.
The shape of a shortboard plays a major role in how well it will work in specific conditions. Boards with a straighter rail outline usually plane better and get more lift. In general, though, a rounder, curvier template will be more conducive to tighter turns. A longer and straighter design will be better for more drawn out arcs.
Shortboards are constructed with a variety of different materials. Foam/fiberglass and epoxy boards are the most common, but there are numerous other composite materials being used to build high-performance shortboards. Each combination of materials and the actual manufacturing process will affect board weight, durability, buoyancy, and flex.
The following traits will all affect buoyancy and performance:
- The density of the materials used
- The amount of surface area a shortboard has
- The thickness of the board
Hot Tip: For Big Surfers
Shortboarders who weigh over 200 pounds often need a little more volume. A shortboard that’s slightly longer (6’5” to 6’6”), wider (19.5” to 20”), and thicker (2.5” to 2.75”) offers extra buoyancy. Furthermore, epoxy or composite boards will provide heavier surfers with a little more float and tend to better withstand the added deck pressure.
You need some volume in order to catch waves. Once you’re up on a wave, though, you don’t need much at all. For that reason, it’s important to determine the optimal amount of float for you and the waves you surf; a fine line can often separate a sinker from a board that feels too corky.
Flex refers to how snappy a board is. A springy board can help you accelerate out of a turn and generate more speed when you’re surfing. This is a concept that shapers and board manufacturers have been experimenting with for several years now; it’s very well understood in the ski and snowboard worlds.
The general consensus is that foam boards are livelier than other materials when they’re new, but tend to deaden with use. Newer composite materials and construction methods could change that in the near future.
Construction materials, shape, size, volume, glass, and fins all influence the weight of a shortboard. As a result, total mass can vary quite a bit. Shortboards are built to be light and maneuverable, as opposed to durable. The majority of shortboards weigh between 4.5 to 6.5 pounds. Contest boards generally weigh the least, but also only tend to last only a few months.
True shortboards are built for maneuverability in clean and powerful surf. However, the cost for design features that lead to more responsiveness is the creation of drag, which makes them tougher to paddle and/or get through the flat spots of waves. As a result, a lot of surfers are turning to hybrid designs, such as the “fish” and “egg.” Designs like these are wider and have less rocker. These boards can be a lot more fun in smaller, slower, and mushier waves.
It’s nearly impossible to find one shortboard that will work great in all conditions. That’s why advanced shortboarders have a full arsenal of boards that cover a variety of wave types and sizes.
If you’re lucky enough to find your soul mate of a board one day — one that will do it all for you — have it replicated a couple dozen times and store the clones away in a vacuum-sealed vault!