The First Cut Is the Deepest

Long misunderstood and overlooked, the channel bottom holds boundless potential for its faithful.

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Surfers d’un certain âge may recall falling under the spell of what seemed like Aussie magic in the late 70s and early 80s. It was the surf and its riders, mainly—Mark Richards, Cheyne Horan, Rabbit Bartholomew, Gary “Kong” Elkerton, and others as seen along Queensland’s points and beaches in the mags and videos. Wrapped up in this era, right there under their feet, was a unique design that also seemed to have sprung from some magical place: the deeply grooved, fanged-out channel bottom.

The design obviously had something to do with water flow, and beyond its application in point surf, Col Smith and Allan Byrne’s North Shore exploits on the boards during that period suggested that they also offered serious heavy-water benefits. The short of it is that on a wave, whether as a single-fin or twin or thruster, properly shaped channel bottoms produce a feeling of “seamlessness,” treading a line between what might be called “air-cushion turning” and “dynamic drive.” Overall, the Aussie program felt raw and fresh, a counter to the mustachioed soul-patrolling of burnout California. 

Longtime surf scribe Nick Carroll was and remains all in on the concept, and he recalls the early days of the channel bottom’s development under Byrne and Smith: “We were surfing Sunset a lot together around 1984. I got a couple of boards off AB and was just blown away. Everyone was looking for a magic bullet, because they were kind of bored with single-fins. They’d experimented with every different technical skill you could get out of a single-fin, and they were still coming up a bit short. Col found the magic bullet with those big channels from [shaper] Jim Pollard.”

Channel-bottom history involves overlapping and divergent spheres of influence, but Pollard is widely recognized for his influence on Smith and thus Byrne, the latter perhaps the design’s most popular proponent through the ensuing decades. Today, as in years past, channel bottoms are the domain of regional specialists, the major manufacturers perhaps unable or unwilling to mass produce them. 

To learn more about the design, its past, and its functionality, we checked in with five channel-bottom adherents, shapers connected to the brain trust of Smith and Byrne either by firsthand working relationship or through experience on the original designs. Each possesses insights culled from more than 40 years of commitment to the concept, having long realized that Pollard, Smith, and Byrne had it right pretty much from the start.

Straight-line tracking? Col Smith, an early adopter of the concept, spins the doubters all the way out at Narrabeen, 1977. Photo by Hugh McLeod.

Phil Meyers
Free Flight Surfboards
Lennox Head, New South Wales

How did you come into Col Smith’s sphere of influence, and thus to channel bottoms?
We were friends from the early 70s. I hadn’t actually seen one when I first started shaping. All I was doing was putting grooves up the boards, releasing through the flyers. I went to a contest in Sydney and most of the Maroubra guys were riding those first channels. We stayed at Col’s place on the way home and hatched a plan to come back the next week. We started working together and did the Free Flight Col Smith channel design. If anyone had a major influence on channel bottoms, it was Col. He was the one who introduced them to the world and then opened it up for everyone else. It just happened [for me] because I was interested in what he was doing and was attempting to do something similar. 

Is it fair to say that more channels means more lift? 
Yeah. Some boards will reach a velocity—you can feel it—and they can’t go any faster. With the ten-channel, you never reach the point where you can’t go any faster. The more you pump, the faster the board goes. If you get one of those ten-channels on a powerful wave, that’s where they come into their own. 

What are your thoughts on bigger, gunnier boards—like, into the 8-foot range?
I just sent an 8’6″ to a guy who surfs Black’s. I’d say once you get to a certain stage, like 20-foot, you wouldn’t use a ten-channel. It’d be too much. But in the range of 10- to 12- to 15-foot, yes.  

Photo by Andrew Shield.

It seems like the ten-channels run really far up the board, past midships.
Yes, they’re very long and pretty deep. A lot of channel-bottom boards are so shallow, I can’t see the bloody point. I’ve never been shy of just going full on. Obviously, Col wasn’t either. You see those old photos; you see the boards are working. The fear factor has always been from the industry, which is why it didn’t really take off. A lot of shit has been put on channel bottoms from a manufacturing point of view—“Oh, that’s a nightmare for the sander,” all that sort of stuff. It wasn’t about how much money you could charge, it was about the adrenaline you got from riding them. It’s not as hard as they think.

How would you characterize “correct” channels?
You have to make them look like a set rolling in. They’ve got that curve, like a wave. I made some square ones with resin edges along every channel, square and sharp, and it was a bogger. You don’t want that dominating the turning in the board. You want that curve that gives you the lift, that creates all the air bubbles—that Venturi effect. As soon as you go overboard and really harden them up, it’s a different turning effect. I just gently run a light screen over the edges when I’m finished with them. 

Have you adjusted the design at all over the years?
So, Nick Carroll is on his fifth ten-channel single-fin, and we’ve done a few little things like kick the tail a little bit more. But I’m using the same basic technique we used back then, off an old board I had in 1981. It’s got a very narrow nose, like ten-and-a-half inches. It’s got concave in the nose going into a vee with channels. I made that board for surfing two places down here; both are super-hollow reefs. I couldn’t ride that board anywhere else. All the ones I’m doing now are based on what we were doing back then. No dramatic changes at all. A lot of younger guys get on these boards and they’re surprised how much fun they can have on them. 

The channel bottom seems to take the single-fin to another dimension.
When we first started doing those, it was like we put an engine in those old pintails. It was like chalk and cheese. All of a sudden we had this incredible, different feel. Even though they were full-on pintails, they were incredibly loose compared to a regular pintail without channels. People say that it’ll be like riding a train track. It’s nothing like that. It actually gives you lift and a more friction-free feeling. When you look at some of those old photos, you can see that they’re incredibly flighty; the surfers are riding them way back on the tail. You can see that they’re creating lift and speed. I could never go back to flat-bottom boards.

Dale Wilson
Byrning Spears
Currumbin, Queensland

You were hired on as a sander at the Hot Stuff factory in 1994, working for Allan Byrne. What’s changed with channel bottoms from then to now in their design?
I’ve got boards here that were made in the 80s, and we’re still making them the same way. The fundamentals of that design are insane. Every time we played around with it, we went back to the original design and went, “Ah, that’s better.”

It’s really interesting how small the fins are on the channel-bottom thrusters you do.
A customer recently picked up his first channel bottom, a 6’8″. He got it for pumping waves, but said, “I was surfing in 4-footers and I could do snaps on it.” I told him it was all about the fins, because they’re so reduced. It’s all about making it turn. But in the barrel, you just stand on the tail and it shoots you. You’ve got all the power you want. The best thing about channel bottoms is that you blow people away. They think it’s just going to go straight, but they go good in everything. My bread and butter is that 6’2″ to 6’5″, or the 6’8″ boat-trip six-channel thruster. Now, since we’re not traveling, my most common board is the twin-fin. I hadn’t ridden a twin since back in the day, but after I made myself one, I get why people are into them. 

Are you doing an MR-style plan shape?
It’s a six-channel double-flyer swallowtail—a little bit fuller in the nose, but still refined. I’ve sort of adapted that thruster into the twinnie. I filled out the nose and put a slight beak in it to get more volume. I upscaled our fin—it’s an AB-style fin, but in a twin-fin—to about 120 percent. 

Can you describe what’s happening hydrodynamically with these boards?
It’s about capturing the water under your front foot, and that’s why we run the concave forward, then split that concave into a double. That feeds the water into the channels, which are in quite a big vee. So between your feet you’ve got all this power where the water is getting forced into the channels and then out the fins, where all the flyers and the swallow are trying to get the water out. To turn, you just stand on the tail. Even though the board’s going fast, it’s easy to turn.

Are you doing any single-fins?
Yeah, I do a lot of single-fins. They’re so fast. Friction free, I’d say. 

Photo by Russell Ord.

Can the machine cut the channels?
I rarely hand-shape anymore, and I did one recently with the channels cut in with the machine just to try. I was blown away. It was through Shape3D, and it had its issues, but it was nearly there. The machine took 20 minutes to cut it. It takes me ten to get it to that stage, and half an hour to design it. It doesn’t really weigh up at the moment, but over time it will. If you’re mass producing, it could help, but every board is a custom for me. I put the channels in with the sander, so it doesn’t take me long. I’ve done thousands of them, so I know exactly what I’m doing. I get the pre-shape off the machine, but all the channels still need to be done by hand.

Can you share any tips on how to successfully laminate these designs?
With cracking along the channels, a lot of people cut their flyers for the fiberglass to tuck into the curves more easily, and that’s the biggest no-no. Wherever your flyers are, you have to wrap that cloth around them on all your layers. Those flyers, if you don’t cut them, they’re super strong. There’s some finessing with the glass when you’re lapping it. And be careful with your lap sanding. When you’re lap sanding, you don’t take any of that cloth away. If you get those two laps good, your channels won’t crack. 

The biggest key with the glassing is to start from the middle channel, then work out. And less is more. I’ll start from the middle channel and glass it so it’s all wet out, go to the next channel and so on. Glass the whole board, lap it, then, at the very end, work the channels. I’ll watch people glass the channel and they’re constantly fiddling with them. I just want to say, “Hey, leave them alone. Get the board glassed, then finish the channels.” I see sanders do it too. They’ll half-finish the channels. The way I sand, I machine the whole board and hand-sand the channels. The sand job, unless it’s glass-on fins, should only be about five or ten minutes longer than a flat bottom. 

What’s the biggest board you feel channels are appropriate for?
The biggest we go up to is 8’6″, for Cloudbreak, Western Australia, etc. Anything over that, you’re pretty much in survival mode, and you don’t want too much happening. Bigger than 8’6″ and you’ll have to talk me into it! There are two jokes about channel bottoms: Your glasser and sander are going to hate you, and they don’t go good in choppy waves. We just shake our heads.

Hamish Graham
Superstix Surfboards
San Clemente, California

Growing up in Santa Barbara in the mid 80s and early 90s, I remember Dana McCorkle really excelling on your channel bottoms on the points. How did you get into them here?
Allan Byrne had broken off from Hot Stuff to start Byrning Spears. I was on the Gold Coast on my honeymoon, and he asked me if I wanted to do Byrning Spears in the States. I built a Byrning Spears factory on the corner of Gutierrez and Salsipuedes in Santa Barbara. One thing about Allan, he was charitable with his knowledge. I’m his protégé in one sense. Dale Wilson, on the other side of the world, came into the Hot Stuff factory and started off sanding, and then Allan was freelancing—shaping Hot Stuffs and Byrning Spears. Literally, at that time, we were the best in the world. And the standard that was set was so high that there are few people that could measure up. Even to this day.

Photo by Jeremiah Klein.

I’ll always remember how generous you were, showing me how you prepare the bottom contours ahead of shaping in the channels: putting the vee in first, then the forward concave, splitting to a double through the vee to sort of “receive” the channels.
In the subtle double concaves, as you feed the channels out it straightens the rail line on either side at the front of the fins. And then it dissipates out through the tail. That’s the trick. A lot of guys try to put channels into concaves, but it has the wrong angles and makes it even worse for the glasser because the cloth wants to pop off. Putting too much concave in the channel area, you take too much meat out of the board, for starters. The boards bend and twist, and it puts so much pressure on the channels that it cracks them. With channel bottoms, you don’t need big fins, though we’ve always used a bigger center fin. It lets the board hold, and you can draw a longer line. [In smaller, flatter-faced waves], I’ve made the fins all the same size. On boards made for up north, I want to go back to the larger center fin. They just work better. [As far as rocker goes], we’ve always used a long lead-in curve, then bowed it through the tail—almost exaggerated. Because when you put the channels in, it straightens it anyway. The vee creates a release as you rock the board rail to rail. It wants to go rail to rail immediately, and it’ll accelerate. 

How do you finish your channels?
I take a sheet of 320 wet-and-dry paper and pull it with my fingers from the top of and into the channel, and it knocks the top off the edge. That way, when they hot coat the board, they can put the edges back in. Here’s a trick: When they’re hot coating the boards, hot coat the front two-thirds of the board. Then when you do that stroke where you pull it from the nose down through the channels, you’re not going to pull excess resin into the channels that’ll pool up. If the resin does pool, they have to come back with a 1-inch brush and drag it through the channels.

There was no truer believer in the channel bottom’s viability than the late Allan Byrne, who backed up his devotion both in the shaping bay and in the lineup. Acid testing where and when it counts at the 1981 Pipe Masters. Photo by Jeff Divine.
Showing off asymmetrical experimentations on Oahu, 1986. Photo by Jeff Divine.

Simon Jones
Morning of the Earth Surfboards
Byron Bay, New South Wales

Let’s talk about your round-pin twin-fins—both the shorter Fiji model (sub-6-foot to about 6’9″) and the Massive (a fuller-nosed shape in the 7- to 8-foot range). The boards seem to have sprung up fully formed. Where’d they come from?
When I was growing up at Manly Beach in Sydney in the late 70s and early 80s, I surfed with Barton Lynch. His sponsor at the time was Aloha Surfboards, made by a guy named Greg Clough. Greg made Barton a couple of twin-fins. One of them was a yellow rounded pin. I remember going, “That thing’s insane.” During that period, when people stepped off singles and onto twins, the surfing just moved so fast and far ahead in that little window—surfers generating insane speed and doing amazing roundhouse cutbacks. I never forgot that Aloha yellow twin. Probably seven years ago, we were doing an article with Tracks here in Byron Bay, and in the rental house was an Aloha rounded-pin twin. That spurred me on to making a couple.

How’d you figure out the lengths?
The first ones were all sub-6-foot. Torren [Martyn] was a pretty strong shortboard surfer at the time, and I’d made him a few boards. The first one was a swallowtail with four channels that he rode in Indo one winter, then we went to swallowtails without channels for a while, then I did the first of those Fijis with the rounded pin and the channels. They worked well. The next one I made was 7’11”. I had an 8-foot blank, and I was like, “I’m going to get the biggest twin-fin I can.” That was essentially the first Massive. I rode it and fell in love. I immediately gave it to Torren. A few hours later, I got this frantic phone call from him saying, “This surfboard has changed my life.”

Photo by Ishka Folkwell.
Almost 50 years after Jim Pollard unveiled what many considered the first “true” channel bottom, a renewed interest in single- and twin-fin versions of the design, specifically in waves of consequence, has proved it to be more than novelty. Torren Martyn makes use of every bevel and chine on a Simon Jones shape somewhere in New South Wales, 2021. Photo by Nathan Oldfield.

I’d think adding the channel bottom was like putting an engine under those boards. Did you have a background in what I always think of as “Aussie-style” channel bottoms?
I’ve always admired the guys making channel bottoms, especially Phil Myers. Once I started making them, I compared boards with and without channels. I think one of the main attributes you get, especially in more challenging surf, is the board is sitting down into the wave face to a larger degree. The effect, with those multiple surfaces, is that the board is no longer skipping like a stone would.

Do you shape single-fins?
I do. I think they’re a really important part of maintaining good surfing. There’s an element of you going to the board, rather than calling the board toward you. They definitely enhance your rail surfing. Thinking about channel bottoms, I think one critical aspect of a good channel bottom is to have as vertical a wall as you can in the channel. If you’re not getting that, you’re not getting the full benefit of the feeling. Andrew Kidman said to me once that they’re like little rows of fins all the way along.

I noticed there is a newer version of the Fiji that has moved from the round pin to a wider tail block with a diamond- tail. Wider tails sort of straighten the plan shape. Are you moving the fin placement back a touch to lock it in?
You understand. I made a 5’9″ and Torren did a Desert Point trip with it, and it became a hot favorite. My reasoning behind the board was for riding smaller craft with less fins in proper reef waves. I wanted him to have a lot of directional rail for making long, deep sections, so you’ve got that longer-running rail, projecting longer turns. They’ve gone up to 6’10” at the most. [The fins have moved back], but not a lot; they’re at about nine-and-a-half on those ones, the back of the fin. I’ve been running them with what we call our “medium upright” fin. I’ve got a new fin template arriving next week that’s actually a little smaller in area, with a bit more rake. There’s definitely something to be said for not too much fin in bigger waves. I find that when the fins are too big, they can make the board kind of buck. Donald Takayama always talked about how if the rail isn’t creating any release, you’ve got too much hold there. I strongly believe in that. If you’ve got the right rail shape, you’ve got so much hold in that. You don’t need a big fin.

Dave Parmenter
Aleutian Juice Surfboards
Kauai, Hawaii

Your channel-bottom squashtails run from about 6’8″ to 8’2″, right?
Yeah. But I put channels on everything. For 30 years, I’ve been running into this headwind of people saying, “Oh, those big gutter things, they track so much.” Or, “They need good point waves.” That’s never been my experience. I don’t think people understand. I think the main reason why channels aren’t on every board, or they have that reputation for being problematic, is that shapers and glassers are fucking lazy.

You mentioned the most important board in your professional career was a 6’5″ channel-bottom thruster you shaped. What was so special about that one?
I’d been shaping off and on since I was a kid. When I started to get more serious, I was fixating on those single-fins like Rabbit used to ride, the Hot Stuff ones you’d see in Queensland. But I kept riding the same 6’2″ Rusty on tour that everybody else was riding. So I bought a used Hot Stuff single-fin on the Gold Coast and kept it with me, and I rode it between events or if I was surfing a back beach. It was a palate cleanser. I was like a dog eating grass when it needs to throw up. Then I started making bigger boards. I wanted more authority, a bigger board in front of me. In January 1988, I shaped a Simon Anderson–influenced, deep-guttered, six-channel thruster with a pulled-in nose and the hips back a bit, and that classic Simon squaretail. I took out this board that was kind of funky, had bumps in it, and was asymmetrical, and I could surf again. I won the Katin on it. I took it to Bells and it was a revelation. That was the 6’5″.

Photo by Andrew Kidman.

What’s your take on thrusters versus single-fins, as far as channels go?
I was making channel-bottom thrusters all through the early 90s. Then, as I started shaping more single-fins for myself, I realized how my relationship with the tri-fin made the transition easier. You can go back to single-fins, but no matter what, that thruster turning axis is imprinted on you. 

Explain how channels work, and how you design yours.
If you add up all the square inches of channels—regardless of whether they’re deep or short or shallow—they add up to more than fins, and they’re essentially zero drag. Channels work two ways: Horizontally, going down the line, they give you grip and projection. Then when you start doing turns and going vertical, you have half the water going over them, the cavitation, and the other half hitting those channels, and you have this power-steering effect where the board has this unique control. I put my channels on the board where each one, inside to outside, [has] a different depth. They “peak” at different points. The outside ones are always the deepest, because it’s like a fin. At no point do those six channels extend beyond the influence of your back foot. On a 6’8″, the middle channel, which is the longest, fades out at about the 24-inch mark.

How do you approach channel bottoms for bigger surf?
I had a 9’2″ I made for big Makaha Point. It was a widow-maker with six channels—not super deep. But on a gun over that size, I prefer to go Brewer style—straight flat-bottom with a classic vee panel with a wing behind the fin, wide point up. You’re going so fast, especially at Makaha Point. On boards that are 10’0″ or 10’6″, channels just don’t seem appropriate.

[Feature Image: Pinball Wizard Bugs Bartholomew with a six-channel single-fin on the North Shore, 1980. Lam-free with white glass-on, for the win. Photo by Jeff Divine]