The Surfer’s Journal is proudly reader-supported since 1992. We rely on membership rather than advertising to remain commercially quiet. Become a member below and gain access to every article ever published along with many other TSJ member-only benefits.
Tricking the eye with its apparently nature-defying curvature, the asymmetrical surfboard comes down to the pursuit of ultimate balance.
By Stuart Nettle
Light / Dark
“Symmetry is what we see at a glance; based on the fact that there is no reason for any difference.” [Blaise Pascal]
Until last year I’d never had a reason to ride an asymmetric surfboard. I could turn with equal proficiency off my toe side and heel side, and riding backside was as enjoyable as riding with my face to the wave. It didn’t feel like my approach had a shortfall that required an amendment. There was no reason to try anything different. My surfing felt balanced.
Yet I ordered an asymmetric board anyway, my first. The desire was borne out of sheer curiosity, which is a powerful force for someone who’s surfed for more than 35 years and who has tried just about every design that’s been named. Instantly I recognized it as a magic board, a concept that I’d long since relegated to grommet-hood, and was now forced to revisit. After six months of heavy use I proclaimed it the best board I’d ever ridden. So when it was destroyed I had another one shaped with minor adjustments. Amazingly it went even better.
These excursions into asymmetry have caused me many hours of lost sleep. Images come to me late at night—the sight of water flowing over fiberglass, the myriad shapes a human body can make, how those shapes control the boards we stand on. It’s an excitement that’s intoxicating, a veritable narcotic for a surfer on the cemetery side of 40, who knows his best days of surfing are behind him.
Through the fervor, a thought occasionally arises: “If only I tried this when I was 20.”
“Don’t confuse symmetry with balance.”
The beginning of any conversation about asymmetrical surfboards starts with the human body. We have bilateral symmetry, meaning just one axis of symmetry. It runs directly down our form from our head to our crotch and separates us into left and right sides. A typical surfboard also has bilateral symmetry. The lone axis runs down the stringer.
The trouble begins when the axes—those of the body and the board—don’t align. The usual riding stance puts them at 90 degrees to each other, which can create an imbalance. It takes completely different body mechanics to perform a heel-side turn as it does a toe-side turn. There are many ways to demonstrate this difference but an instructive one is to assume your normal riding stance on flat ground, then rise onto your toes—an easy transition to make. Then try to take the same riding stance but roll onto the heels of your foot. If you’re put together the same as I am, you’ll discover it’s a decidedly more-awkward movement.
To a large degree the physical difference between heel-side turns and toe-side turns is compensated for by our ankle, knee, and hip joints moving in unison. In wider, more expansive turns there’s almost no difference. However, during short, arcing turns the shortcomings of bilateral symmetry become apparent.
To begin with, humans have less range of movement when leaning backward—as happens in heel-side turns—compared to leaning forward. This is mostly due to our knees only bending one way and our hips and ankles having a forward bias. This means any error turning off our heels is harder to correct. There are simply less shapes the human body can make to counteract that error.
This corporeal asymmetry is exaggerated during short, clean arcs, which are easier to do off the toe side as opposed to the heel side. Think about weak waves—say, small Bells Beach—and how backsiders have an advantage when turning off the top, their toe side. They can lean forward and use bodyweight to wrench the board back down the face. Natural footers can struggle to get the board off the top, as short arcs are much harder to perform off their heels. Also, any error in weight distribution is harder to correct. One turn isn’t better or worse than the other. They’re just different.
Snowboarders have long known this—hence asymmetric designs have been an accepted tenet in the mountains for nearly 30 years. Their reason for asymmetry is the same as ours: a disparity between toe-side turns and heel-side turns. The snowboard solution is a deeper side-cut on the heel-side edge, which initiates and controls a turn off that rail.
Though asymmetric boards have been around in surfing for more than 50 years, they’ve never captured the wider imagination of surfers. They’ve come and gone numerous times during the past half century, each time presenting a solution to design but ultimately proving too difficult or confusing for the buying public to wholly embrace.
“Asymmetry is the rhythmic expression of functional design.”
Accepted wisdom says that Carl Ekstrom invented the first asymmetrical board in 1965, and that he patented the design in 1967. It’s an oft-repeated footnote, never questioned. Yet recently I was flicking through a copy of Jack Pollard’s book, The Australian Surfrider, a tome that in content is placed firmly in the 1960s. Among the pages was a small photo of Midget Farrelly’s then-current board. Called the Hook Board, it was designed with one rail shorter than the other, the two rails joining at the tail to form a shallow hook. It was an asymmetrical by any other name.
I quickly flicked to the colophon and found the book was printed in 1963, two years before Carl Ekstrom “invented” the asymmetric board and four years before he patented it. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I dialed the number of Surfblanks Australia and asked to speak to the CEO—Midget Farrelly.
In December of 1962, Midget won the Makaha International championship, then regarded as the unofficial world championship, making him Australia’s first world champ. After Hawaii, he traveled to Southern California where he visited the Yater factory and spied Bob Cooper with an asymmetrical. “My Keyo was a variation of Bob’s,” he told me.
Midget had a reputation as a curmudgeon, which is not wholly unjustified. While he retreated from the media—or maybe it was the other way around—he also somehow managed to keep his opinions in circulation. I use past tense because two weeks after my phone call, Midget passed away. “The hook tail [in the book] is really a Scotty Dillon creation,” admitted Midget over the line. “It’s a variation on an asym I did at Keyo’s in 1963.”
And though Midget’s asymmetrical was photographed in The Australian Surfrider, he quickly moved on from the design. “I was always jumping to the next thing. I didn’t hang around waiting for approval or otherwise.” Scott Dillon, however, put the Hook Board into production. “Scotty was a loveable bullshitter who went hard on the Hook,” Midget recalled. “He made dozens and dozens—the surfing public loved it.”
Except they only loved it for a short while. The same photos used in The Australian Surfrider were incorporated in an advertisement, which ran in a 1963 issue of Surfabout. Yet by the end of ’63, Dillon had stopped shaping his hook tails.
“As a business proposition they’re losers,” says Bob Cooper in a blunt assessment of the commercial viability of asymmetrics. “They do not have shelf appeal and you get bored answering dumb questions from customers.” Cooper has spent 55 years answering “dumb questions” about asymmetrics. The first board he brought to Australia back in 1959 was asymmetric—featuring an offset nose—and he’s been dabbling with them ever since.
He wasn’t, however, the first to skew a board’s symmetry. According to Cooper, “the first asymmetrical board was shaped by Reynolds Yater out of wood, and the idea and the design were Grubby Clark’s. Yater showed up with it at Malibu and it made so much sense.”
Cooper dates the board as either 1959 or 1960. “It was balsa and it was pre-Gidget.” He subsequently went on to produce his own asymmetric model for Morey-Pope Surfboards, called the Blue Machine. Built and distributed throughout 1967 and early 1968, the Blue Machine had an asymmetric fin setup with a bias toward the heel-side rail. It also had a wicked resin tint.
“The Blue Machine was a great board in its day,” says Cooper. “Very progressive and very out there when everyone else was conservative. I still get compliments about the Machine. But as to its selling…I wasn’t allowed to know about the books.”
A year later Cooper moved to Australia. Before he emigrated, he befriended Michael Cundith, a surfer from Santa Barbara, who he’d worked with at Morey-Pope. Cundith was a protégé of George Greenough, and like George and Bob, he would later move to Australia. He calls the Blue Machine “one of the all-time great designs.” However his own discovery of asymmetrics is illuminating.
As a teenager, Cundith fixed dings at Owl’s Surfboards between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. “The boards came into the shop in bad shape because there were no leg-ropes,” he says. “Sometimes the tails would be really beat up and, rather than patch them, I’d urge the guy who owned it to just reshape it and seal it up.”
This wasn’t merely an example of teenage labor cutting corners with workmanship. Cundith knew a shorter rail-line would help with the heel-side turn. “I was young. I was riding shorter boards. So I knew they’d turn better.” This was in the 1950s and Cundith had yet to meet Reynolds Yater or Grubby Clark, or even Bob Cooper, for that matter. Thus he’d struck upon the concept of asymmetry independently of those surfers.
And maybe this scenario isn’t unusual. It could be that many discoveries happen this way, with numerous “inventors” chancing upon a breakthrough while working independently of each other. However, convenience dictates that only one person gets the accolades. Multiple narratives make innovation harder for the public to grasp—much like the asymmetric concept itself.
If the above proposition is true, then the central narrative belongs to Carl Ekstrom. As mentioned earlier, Ekstrom is widely considered the father of asymmetrical design. Like Cundith, he’d never heard of the concept before picking up the tools and customizing a design that balanced surfer and board.
“Before designing and building my first asymmetrical,” says Ekstrom, “I had never seen or heard of a surfboard designed to be asymmetrical. My concept came to me while surfing at Windansea in the early 60s. It was based on the fact that surfers stand asymmetrically on the surfboard and the surfers were either right-foot forward or left-foot forward.”
In 1965 he applied for a patent on his asymmetrical design, and in 1967 he received patent number U.S. 3337886 A for an asymmetrical surfboard which, according to the U.S. Patent Office, “compensates for the offset weight distribution of a rider in normal stance and gives the board substantially equal turning ability in either direction.”
After it was approved, Ekstrom built many asymmetric surfboards in his “ten-board-a-week store.” He also sold the rights to California Company Surfboards and Jacobs Surfboards. “My design goal,” he says, “has always been to design surfboards that have a natural tendency to do what the rider wants them to do.” Ekstrom is still shaping and still applying the same “functional design” principles of asymmetry. However now he’s employing them to shorter, high-performance boards.
Over the years many shapers have dabbled with asymmetrics, including big name shapers, such as Bob McTavish, who set up his asymmetric boards for Lennox Head. Others include Nat Young, Peter Drouyn, Peter Townend, Allan Byrne, and Col Smith. However, until the recent Ryan-Burch-led resurrection, most attempts at asymmetrics have remained obscure, often ending up in the shaper’s personal quiver.
“Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
As the name suggests, the Shortboard Revolution saw boards dramatically reduce in length and also subsequently in weight. In combination this made them easier to turn and somewhat lessened the need to find design features that aided turning. However, just a few years later, the surfing world’s burgeoning professionalism put an acute focus on performance. Board design flourished as shapers sought incremental advantage for their riders over other competitors. Almost every facet of design was open to experimentation: fins, rails, plan shape, thickness, length. Curiously, asymmetrics played only a very minor part in this rush of ideas. And their sideshow role continued. No surfer has ever won a top-tier competition riding a deliberately asymmetric board.
Martin Dunn is arguably Australia’s most successful surf coach—and he’s definitely the longest serving. Dunn has been dishing out advice to top-level surfers since the mid 1980s. Yet not once in all those years has he had to factor asymmetric design into a surfer’s technique. “It’s just not something I’ve thought about,” he says. “I’ve never coached a surfer who was riding them.”
Dunn’s admission suggests an incongruity: if shapers such as Carl Ekstrom are creating high-performance boards that “have a tendency to do what the rider wants them to do,” then why aren’t professional surfers, whose livelihoods depend on apex performance, using the advantage of asymmetry?
The answer may rest in the fact that most top-level surfers have such good technique that it compensates for the mismatch of axes. Veteran Wollongong shaper Phil Byrne concurs. “Good surfers develop their technique riding symmetrical boards and it’s built around that muscle memory. They adjust to the difference.”
If Byrne is correct then the asymmetric advantage becomes less important as the skill level of a surfer increases. It’s also not unusual to read that pro surfers want their boards to be neutral and predictable. Just give them soft curves, a single concave, and they’ll do the rest.
Bryce Young is both surfing protégé and prodigy. The youngest son of Nat Young, he possesses his father’s intuitive gift for wave riding and employs it on anything that floats: longboard, alaia, and all manner of shortboard. A trip to the beach for him often involves carrying three or four different craft. Yet over the last two years he’s increasingly stuffed an asymmetric under his wing, thanks to Ryan Burch, who posted up at the Young’s Angourie house in 2015 and introduced Bryce to the wonders of skewed symmetry.
Young now has 15 to 20 asymmetric boards in his quiver. And despite a predilection for variety, he rides an asymmetric “at least once a day.” His boards generally feature a longer and straighter rail on the toe side for drive, and a slightly shorter and curvier rail on the heel side for tighter, arcing turns. He rides the same boards in lefts or rights without any hang-ups. “It wasn’t until I hopped on asymmetrics that I finally got the speed and projection I always wanted,” says Young. “I feel like the journey has just begun.”
Yet despite impressing with each session and every edit, Young and Burch are still exceptions to the rule that says asymmetrical surfboards belong out on the fringes. And there’s another factor for the design’s lack of popularity amongst pros that should be considered: commerce. Most pro surfers have board sponsors and Bob Cooper’s dictum about asymmetrics—“as a business proposition they’re losers”—is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Specifically set up for naturals or goofys, asymmetric boards impede the manufacturer’s economy of scale. They halve the production run for each board while doubling the required models.
Of interest is the impending arrival of wave pools. The promise of wave pools is that they take the variability out of the surfing equation, providing perfect wave after perfect wave so surfers can improve their techniques. The same may hold true for surfboard design, where consistently perfect waves would allow shapers to hone in on the minutiae of design without the white noise of water in flux.
In a 2011 interview with Swellnet, Greg Webber expounded on the design potential that could be unlocked by pools. “Surfboard experimentation,” he said, “will go nuts and surfers will be able to try amazing new concepts.” Webber also mused that some pool owners might link up with world-class surfboard designers to offer demo craft. “Imagine riding all the unusual stuff that you would never risk buying for yourself,” he said eagerly.
The inexorable march of progress may yet match an asymmetric rider to their board.
“I think that symmetry is a neutral shape as opposed to a form of design.”
Over the years I’ve had many custom boards built. Yet until last year I’d never questioned symmetry. Now that I have, and now that it’s working, I can see a great well of possibilities opening. I can also see the pitfalls.
When Carl Ekstrom patented his idea, it had just one unique feature—different length rails. However, asymmetry isn’t one lone configuration, like say, a twin-fin or a Thruster. Asymmetry implies an infinite arrangement of configurations. Ekstrom’s patent won’t apply to most asymmetrical boards because there are so many ways to achieve asymmetry, beyond different length rails. And this is where the wariness creeps in.
Many surfers—and I include myself in this assessment—aren’t wholly sure why existing features on a surfboard work. Our knowledge is rudimentary. So increasing the complexity of a surfboard is a daunting proposition. Take for example Ryan Burch’s self-shaped asymmetrical designs. Like a modern artist, he appears to eschew all conventions, rearranging known design features into an exotic form. And the form is deliberate—it’s functional, if how he rides them is any testament. Burch, however, has a savant-like understanding of surfboards, while the rest of us are scratching our heads wondering.
In a recent interview, Cape Town émigré Donald Brink, who’s an asymmetrical acolyte, said his modus operandi was to “look at the frustrations common to a specific design and make subtle changes to promote the board’s design characteristics.” He achieves this by allowing “the harmony between the elements,” within the board, your body, and the wave, to “not oppose one another.”
In short, everything balances. I believe my first two asymmetrical boards—the agents of those sleepless nights—were so exciting because they were simple. Compared to Burch’s abstruse versions, the functional form of my asymms were relatively Apollonian: clean, ordered, elementary. I wanted drive off the toe side and turn off the heel, thus the rail was two inches shorter on the heel side, and the fins were also pushed slightly forward on that half, too. It was a quad and the fin clusters were equidistant from the stringer. The whole board was symmetrical until the last third.
Why they worked is very clear to me: they’re the most customized boards I’ve owned, and they’re also the most balanced.