Jim Banks On: How The Retro Movement Has Changed Modern Surfboard Design
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I remember when I first started surfing and playing around with the 1970's, Steve Liz’ style twin keel fish designs. It was probably about 2004 and there was a small underground crew In Byron Bay exploring similar things, and so we had started a small, unintentional, underground movement.
I remember turning up for a surf at Broken Head, NSW one morning and someone had graffitied something to the effect of “no twin fins allowed!” on the side of the walkway. At first, I was shocked that someone had felt so threatened by our little movement, and even a bit offended that in their opinion we had no right to choose what we wanted to surf on. But then I found a quiet chuckle arising inside me with the realisation that this threatened graffiti artist was missing out on some of the best fun possible on a surfboard!
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And now, the last laugh really is on him, because not only has the retro surf movement completely and irreversibly changed modern surfboard design forever. It is very likely, that the boards he and his mates are riding these days are all seriously influenced by retro surfboard design.
You’ve probably noticed over the last few years that high-performance boards have changed quite a bit. This is because both shapers and surfers alike have discovered there are many aspects of the retro designs that work really well; they not only feel really nice under the feet, but improve the board’s performance on a wave.
The most obvious contribution that the retro surfboard design movement has given to modern surfboard design is the glide. That irresistible, addictive feeling of a surfboard gliding freely through the water and across the face of a wave. Something that had been completely lost with the late '90s high rockered, skinny, tight in the pocket, modern high-performance boards. Those boards could barely get around a decent section when you needed them to, and you had to work them like crazy if the wave happened to slow down.
Enter the retro boards – Low rocker curves, generous plan shapes and low drag, fin configurations that glided so sweetly from section to section, pulling beautiful smooth turns as they swooped effortlessly across the face.
It actually took a while, but as the retro movement ticked away, slowly finding more and more devoted followers, who found a whole new lease of life in their surfing, modern surfboard design started changing.
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I think the first change I noticed from the high-performance builders were the flatter rockers that are an essential feature of the retro style boards. Not only does the flatter rocker carry across dead sections better and build up higher trim speeds, it also allows the board to have more drive and project further out of turns. As the modern performance designs started to be influenced by the retro movement, and the overall lengths of the modern boards dropped, this extra speed and projection became an essential component of the newer shorter, performance designs.
With many of the retro crew riding the much shorter, twin keel fish designs, it quickly became obvious that the current thinking on appropriate lengths and widths for a surfboard, also needed to be seriously overhauled, or just completely thrown out the window. And so, the modern board lengths dropped, as the overall widths increased.
Not only did overall lengths drop and widths increase, but wide points moved forwards and noses became fuller. The end result was a high-performance board that now carried across dead sections and planed across the water better in general, with the extra width adding a stability that compensated for the shorter lengths. And now that they were shorter, they also fitted better into tighter turns and pockets, just like the shorter wider retro style boards.
Now here’s a funny thing, the retro movement caused tail widths to get both wider and narrower. On one hand, the super wide tails of the twin keel fishes and similar designs made it plainly obvious that tail widths could be pulled way out and you could still have a great performing board. On the other hand, with all this extra speed, glide and drive that the modern boards were now enjoying from the retro design influence, it became obvious to performance designers that we didn’t need as much drive and speed out of the tails. We could pull the tails in to improve control and the ability to make quick direction changes. So while some tails went out in width, others got pulled in.
One key aspect of retro board designs the devotees were hugely enjoying was the extra volume of retro boards. It made paddling easier, they planed across dead sections better and they found that they could now catch larger waves with shorter boards. There didn’t appear to be any compromise to performance, so of course, the high-performance boards followed, and not just with the designs for the average weekend warrior but also for the pros, because even for the pros, boards that were easier to surf, meaning they could surf better.
One of the more subtle features of the retro designs is the use of vee in the bottom contour. Back in the '70s, concave was not unheard of but use of it was pretty rare. Nearly all boards were vee bottomed. A vee bottom is a type of contour where if you had the board upside down, the stringer would be sitting higher than the rails and the flat panels that ran off each side of the stringer to the rails would form a very subtle vee if you were to cut a section from rail to rail crossways through the board.
A vee allows the board to sit over on its rail easier and also allows the water to escape off the bottom of the board easier; as opposed to a concave which tends to make the board sit flatter on the water and slightly trap the water as it moves across the bottom of the board. Over the last few years, I have been seeing quite a few modern performance designs are now starting to use subtle vee's under the nose and out behind the fins of the boards. Generally, the overall effect of this increases the boards trim and glide speeds while reducing and offsetting any possible over reactive tendencies of existing concaves, making the boards feel friendlier and more forgiving under the feet, just like the retro style board designs.
This is not to say that modern surfboards designers might not have worked these things out anyway, but the undeniable fact is that the retro design movement was making good use of these design features way before modern surfboard designers started incorporating them into their own designs. I think you’ll find that all but the most stubborn of shapers will happily admit that modern surfboard design owes a lot to the retro design movement.
Although, it hasn’t been a one-way street. There would be very few retro style surfboard shapers and designers who haven’t taken aspects of modern surfboard design and applied it to the retro designs. For example, I love the twin keel fishes, with their fantastic glide and swoop. Initially, I found them limited in larger waves, so for the last 10 or 12 years I have been blending aspects of modern high-performance design into the retro style fishes to create a board that still has the wonderful retro glide and swoop, but can now also pull into deep barrels and perform powerful carves and high-speed slashes out on the face if need be.
And so, Mr. Broken Head, anti-retro surfboard design protester, I hope you’re enjoying your modern high-performance style surfboard because your modern performance board has changed a lot over the last ten years. It’s changed because of surfer and shapers like myself, who saw something wonderful in the retro designs and devoted thousands of hours of our time, of our creativity and our ingenuity, to understand and develop these designs, and make them work. Because of us, your high-performance boards are now a much easier to ride, better-performing board than they were ten years ago, thanks to the sometimes, weird-ass, off the wall and just plain funky, retro surfboard designs.
Jim Banks is a Cronulla boy at heart. He was red-hot grommet and a huge star-in-the-making in the 1970s and 80s, grabbing the world's attention by beating Mark Richards in his prime. Known as insane tuberider he was totally fearless. After competing as a pro in a couple of comps, he famously ditched it all to become the ultimate tube warrior.
Banks moved to Indonesia and became the explorer of perfect reef breaks and has dedicated his life to the search as well as building amazing, world renowned boards. Jim Banks still lives in Indo. He is soulful, easy going and still is an unbelievable tube rider; three qualities that allow him to make incredibly well designed and built boards.
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