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In Unequal Measure

The past, present, and future of the asymmetrical surfboard. Excerpted from the new TSJ.

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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.”

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Don’t confuse symmetry with balance.” —Tom Robbins

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.

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.

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 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…

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