Let me be honest, I don’t want surfboards to be designed on computers, sent to factories in Thailand and shipped back to us en masse without the shaper ever touching the material. I’m not a purist—really I’m not. And as someone who doesn’t make surfboards, and will never try, I have no right to expound righteously on this subject. But still, a big part of me—I think the part that wishes we all grew a different rare vegetable on our windowsills and bartered with each other from our front porches at meal time—wants surfboard shapers to be people who still draw their visions in the sand and give boards away from banana leaf huts.
To anyone actually trying to make a living from designing surfboards, which have notoriously low profit margins, that’s unfair. But you should know my bias, and know that as I drive to meet this former Apple designer guy, Thomas Meyerhoffer, the man who designed that translucent eMate for Apple in the 90s and has become recently renowned for using his technology chops to design some revolutionary type of surfboard, one that looks like a compressed hour-glass alien spaceship, I have my reservations. It doesn’t help that Meyerhoffer, a very hip man with a Swedish accent, a thin goatee, and a shaved head, meets me in the parking lot of his home break in Montara in a shiny white BMW.
Man, this is not how it should be, I’m thinking from the smelly confines my rusting van with 370,000 kilometres on it (you do detect a hint of jealousy). This is just not, not—not wholesome.
But neither would it be wholesome for me to judge this man so early in our day-long relationship. I have to give him a chance. It’s our first date. And since the waves are slop here in Montana, we decide to drive up to Ocean Beach, San Francisco, for a better shot at testing out his gizmos. (And no, I don’t like calling surfboards gizmos, and yes, I’m feeling a little bitter that Meyerhoffer wouldn’t let me take photos of his Miami Vice looking home to remember the scene. I mean, what surfer cares about that kind of stuff? But the drive will give me a chance to drop into a less judgemental space. We are all one, all one.)
We are rounding the bluffs on Highway 1, chatting casually now, and while Meyerhoffer explains about quitting Apple 10 years ago and starting to surf everyday, I’m not really listening. I’m thinking about the fact that I too am so dependent on technology, recording our conversation on my iPhone. I’m forcing myself to see myself as the same as Meyerhoffer. These are the exercises strange people have to do to feel normal. And surprisingly, it doesn’t take long.
For starters, Meyerhoffer is nice. And I like nice people. And he doesn’t seem at all weirded out by the fact that the doors on my van don’t work, which goes a long way in my book. Also, he went to art school. One I haven’t even heard of. And he’s deep. “A surfboard is a very complex shape, a never-ending curve,” he says at some point in the conversation, and I like this statement. With his accent, it sounds like a sort of koan. Can curves really never end?
And like this, five minutes into our drive, Meyerhoffer has transformed into a sort of bohemian guy who just happens to have lots of money, a friend you might want to give you advice on your love life or what sort of refrigerator to buy or whether to quit your job and take up oil painting.
In other words, I can finally listen to him.
So let’s start over, shall we?
Curves are a good place to start. Meyerhoffer is all about them. He recently designed the first “soft computer” for a start-up called Chumby, which is like a little beanbag with Wifi. It’s very cute. He also designs bubbly ski goggles, snowboard bindings, expensive chairs that look like something George Clooney would model in, windsurfing sails. He is a refiner, taking stuff that already works well and making that stuff work better, in an out of the box kind of way, of course.
That’s cool. Whatever.
But a surfboard? This is sacred terrain. Every surfer knows that real shaping is an art that only a select few—usually hand-craftsman who have been surfing since they were in the womb and who have been anointed by the Hawaiian gods—really excel at, and even fewer become innovative enough to design something that is profoundly innovative and functional. Meyerhoffer started surfing later in life and he designed these alien boards with CAD software, which would be the equivalent of making French wine in steel barrels. You might get away with it in Napa, but you’d be barred from Bordeaux for life.
Meyerhoffer is clearly used to the heavy scepticism. “I never did this to get famous,” he says without my prompting. “I did it so people could enjoy a different feeling…People see the board and they think that I made it like this to differentiate it from other surfboards. Or they think, ‘oh parabolic, it’s like a ski.’ But it has nothing to do with that. I didn’t design the board to look like this. It just became like this. I started to take away, and I took away a lot of mass. So where do you take away? You take away where you don’t need.”
Meyerhoffer determined that what you don’t need is all that rail, and he basically scooped out chunks at the waist of the board and took in the tail drastically, making it long and narrow.
The idea came over five years of trial and error at solving a problem. Meyerhoffer loved longboarding because of the momentum you get with a big boat-like plank. But he missed the agility of a high performance shortboard. He also liked single-fin hulls, a sort of in between model, for their speed and glide. But those boards, Meyerhoffer found, really only work well on point waves that usually have a predictable way of peeling down the line. Most of us surfers find ourselves in the same predicament and so spend enormous amounts of time and money acquiring just the right combination of boards to fit the changing conditions and our fickle moods. Meyerhoffer set out to make a board that could do it all. He was bound to be criticized, at least by those closed-minded surfers, whoever they are.
The model he has started to settle on, the one we are about to ride, is the result of letting himself make a lot of boards that simply failed. “Sometimes I’d go out on these really weird boards that I know won’t work at all and I look like a total kook,” he laughs. “But I still have to take them out to test a theory.” Anyone who has suffered the stink eye one gets from surfing poorly on a good wave knows what a sacrifice that is. But it appears, at least from the press, to be paying off with this model, which has been receiving praise from the likes of pro surfer Peter Mel. Retired pro surfer Mike Tabeling has gone so far as to buy one Meyerhoffer in every size. He recently told Surfer Magazine, “That’s what the Meyerhoffer does-it brings back the fun of your shortboard days, as you can make this longboard really turn.”
But this is all rhetoric. I may like Meyerhoffer after our friendly drive, but I still think his alien babies in the back of my van are likely dripping radioactive material into the bag of stale chips I’m planning on salvaging for lunch. And since I’m not a longboarder, I wonder if Meyerhoffer’s claim that I can surf it like a shortboard will be even close to true. Doubtful.
We’ve arrived at Ocean Beach, which is basically slop as well: barely one metre waves and disorganised. Meyerhoffer doesn’t seem like the stressed out type, but he is visibly uncomfortable from this. Even after good press in Surfer Magazine, The Surfer’s Journal and some The New York Times, Meyerhoffer seems to be trying to convince the surfing community that his works of art are worth around $US800 a pop, not to mention worth every single person you meet on the beach asking, “what the hell is that?”
“It’s just going to feel like crap if we go out here,” he says.
Excuses excuses. He’s already lowering our expectations.
And there is no time to keep looking for waves. So, after fielding 10 or 15 questions from surfers who approach with their heads cocked—”are you the Apple surfboard guy?”—in we go, paddling over the rough, textured deep green lines, through wisps of fog, on our brand new Meyerhoffers, which, to my surprise, feel really good to paddle: light, streamlined, comfortable.
I have a theory that any good board feels that way from the very first paddle. So far, I have to admit that the alien board feels down right proper. And fortunately, it’s not as bad as it looked from shore. A relatively clean line churns toward me.
I get in easy, just like I would on a longboard, minimal paddling, and begin cruising down the line of a waist-high crumbler. I do some pumps along the face and—wow, OK—it bobs along the face much more easily than a normal board this length. Less responsive than a shortboard, but still, impressive. Without much rocker, the board is certainly fast and as the wave peters out, I edge toward the nose to hang five. That works too. Damn it, these things actually surf, like, well.
I paddle back unable to conceal my grin, but trying. Meyerhoffer grins back. He can tell I like it. Technology is winning. Maybe a dolphin will come and bite the nose off. Yea, that’d be cool.
And besides, that was just one wave. I didn’t need to turn. I’m pretty sure that when I do the board will just topple over with all that rail missing. But, on my next wave, as I go to cut back, the thing just flips around in a 180, like one of my little twin-fin boards would. And that’s just weird. Boards this long and buoyant don’t turn like that, not the ones I’ve ridden.
This is—I admit—very, very fun.
And so I surrender to the superiority of the machine. My crusade is over. Insert a chip in my head and get it over with. And the icing on the cake is that you can feel how the Meyerhoffer works while you’re riding. If feels just the way he described it to me in the car. “Once you’re on a steeper wave,” he explained, “you ride on the back of the board, the tail, so you don’t need the stuff on the front of the board and it will feel like a shortboard. But you still want to be able to nose ride it and have that length, plus have the board transition so that once you paddle into a slightly steeper wave it has the drive of a shorter board too. And that’s it.” I get it: a shortboard inside a longboard. It’s sort of like, oh screw it, an iPhone.
And there’s your sure sign of the apocalypse—comparing a surfboard to a mini computer. We might as well, as Stephen Colbert recently put it, go have “end of the world sex”.
I’m still holding out some hope that Meyerhoffer will stop having his boards manufactured in Thailand and start hand shaping them from recycled egg carton foam and sell them only to Tibetan refugees within a 16 kilometre radius of his garage. (He’ll have to make an exception for my friends and me, of course.)
But I have a hunch that his new design may be the beginning of a whole new wave of surfboards. I still think the design has something to do with aliens and radioactivity, but that will just be fodder for a cool comic book series where Meyerhoffer becomes immortal.
Trademark on that idea by the way. I’m not that much of a hippie.
[Video/Photos by Robert, who took many waves to the head to get them]
Summermodo is a chance for Giz to get outside and test our gear where it belongs.