The Houseboat Paradox

Midlengths, masscult, and the universal pull toward surfboard singularity.

Light / Dark

I’ve noticed a change in the surfboard design small talk that fills the lulls in lineups and beach parking lots everywhere. It begins with the same question it always has: “What are you riding?” But lately it’s been followed with a common bit of inanity that you also may have encountered: “How many liters is it?”

Volume has been a common measure of surfboards for about a decade now. If it was at first unclear how it would influence the path of board design, over time it’s become a thorn in the side of shapers, contaminating the way that some surfers evaluate every board on the rack, no matter what kind of board it is. The reason for that tells you a lot about what’s wrong with surfboard design in 2023.

San Diego–based shaper Stu Kenson—who’s made everything from Maverick’s guns for the very best big-wave surfers to an array of small-wave crafts for Joel Tudor—has criticized the vapid overreliance on volume as an increasingly central point of reference for board design. “A trash can has volume and you can’t paddle it or surf it,” he said on the Surf Splendor podcast.

Jon Pyzel made the same criticism in his appearance on the show: “I hate to just talk about volume. That’s something people are so hung up on—volume, volume, volume.”

On the Dirty Water podcast, …Lost founder Matt Biolos also cited a fundamental misunderstanding of volume as the biggest problem he sees on custom orders: “For years and years, [boards were] under-volumed and too high-performance, and now guys are making the mistake in the opposite direction. They’re slaves to volume calculators. They’re riding corks where they can’t submerge the rail into the water.”

You generally won’t find volume notched along the stringer of shapers who can still count themselves as craftsmen, and there’s an obvious reason for that. Volume is a metric derived from the shaping machine, an extrapolation from the other three dimensions that shapers have commonly relied on: length, width, and thickness. In other words, it’s difficult to determine a board’s exact volume unless it’s being designed on a computer. 

And volume is really only useful for one type of surfboard: surfboards that sink (i.e., shortboards). In that instance, it primarily becomes useful because the general guiding principle of shortboard design is to streamline a board close to the minimal required volume. Within the narrow confines of shortboard design, where all boards exist within more or less the same rigid form—seeing only slight nuanced variations in width, length, thickness, rocker profile, concavity, et cetera—referring to volume makes sense and can act as a helpful point of reference for understanding how one design might compare and perform versus another. Where it quickly falls apart, and where shapers seem to have identified it reaching a point of absurdity, is in talking about surfboards of just about every other kind.

A board 4 feet long could, theoretically, have the same exact volume as a board that’s 7 feet long—but the way they come into contact with the water and move through it is completely different. Put another way, where volume was originally intended to be multidimensional—a combination of the three traditional dims—it’s now metaphorically become one-dimensional, flattening the discussion of all surfboards into a kind of sameness, a way for jocks, tech bros, and gear guys to seem conversant in surfboard design without ever needing to reflect on what kind of surf experience they really want to have.

It makes sense that this would bother shapers who have dedicated their lives to the notion that surfboards can do more for your experience of riding waves than those interchangeable widgets you find on the shelf at Costco. And yet you do see volume listed on something approaching a majority of surfboards getting pushed into our fair seas—not only shortboards, but boards of every shape and size cut from machines. You definitely see it in the catalogs of the big machinists, no matter which board they’re marketing.

For all the talk in our post-Seedling/post-Sprout world of surfers having more options available than ever, surfboard design is stuck placing shortboards at the center of its universe, pushing everything else to the margins as an alternate. “Alt board design” has to be one of the most grating terms, for the way it condemns everything in the board design universe to revolve around the shortboard. And if we are to think of board design as subject to the same realities as all the universe—where ages of slow expansion may one day end in a rapid collapse—it seems we have neared a point of maximum expansion, and surfboard design is now at risk of contracting back to a point of singularity.

You see this happening in the way that shortboards have moved toward increased volume—not so much high performance as medium performance—while so-called “alt boards” have become more foiled versions of their previous selves. (The highest compliment they can receive is that they ride “like a shortboard.”) Some of this hybridization has undeniably resulted in designs that are more accessible to the average surfer, providing options that have allowed more people to surf better in workaday conditions. But, in making the jump, industrial-scale board design also panders too much to some broadly considered average rather than catering to the needs of the individual.  

Surveying the state of surfboard making, it’s troubling to consider that there hasn’t been a paradigm-altering breakthrough in the last 40-plus years—like, for instance, the fin, the foam blank, or the thruster. And if there has been, it’s the very thing driving us toward singularity: the shaping machine.

Consider the “midlength”—perhaps the second most grating design term—as an example of this regressive march toward homogeneity. The writer Dwight Macdonald couldn’t possibly have been referring to it in his seminal 1960 screed titled Masscult and Midcult, but he might as well have been. In his polemic, Macdonald was primarily criticizing the effect of pop culture—masscult—mimicking great works of art, which had created a new category of dull imitators and fakes—midcult. 

“In Masscult the trick is plain—to please by any means,” Macdonald wrote. “But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” 

He argued this made it more challenging than ever to distinguish works of quality and originality from works of derivative trash. You can probably relate to this in the experience of television entertainment and production, where earlier shows that achieved some level of originality (The Sopranos or Mad Men) have spawned countless “prestige TV” replications, which can all start to feel pretty forgettable—not good, not bad, but perfectly midculty in their imitative sameness.

When you see someone like Joel Tudor get on a rant about midlengths, he’s essentially pointing out the same problem: how midcult production is now influencing surfboard design. There is nothing more midculty than the notion of the midlength for the way it collapses many distinct categories of otherwise interesting design concepts into one monolithic category to make them marketable to a wide swath of tasteless consumers. Go to the website of any one of the big machinists and you’ll find at least one reactively marketed midcult midlength, turning the whole design trend into a parody of itself.

More broadly, Kenson described another shift he’s observed among the big machinists that adds to the convergence of board design at a time when it’s easier than ever to grab someone’s board off the rack and copy it. “Surfboards got to a point within the last five or 10 years, say, where you go into a big factory and you see other brands’ boards in there,” he said on Surf Splendor. “I understand why they do it. ‘They’re keeping up with the competition’ is one way you can look at it. But there’s [also] kind of outright theft, [which] is another way to put it. And I’ve seen that too.”

This is how we have arrived at the paradox that there are objectively more surfboard designs than ever—and more new TV shows and more new books and more new everythings than ever—but that it can all feel less inspiring and less innovative, somehow blurring together into a singular gray wash. It’s left us with a whole bunch of surfboards that, in their desperation for midcult appeal, suffer from the same fundamental design problem as a houseboat: not a good house, not a good boat.

To empathize with the position of any shaper who’s gotten successful enough that they’re mostly producing boards for surfers they’ve never met, it’s difficult to avoid some level of disconnect from letting your personal design tastes and preferences lead the way. Channel Islands head designer Britt Merrick spoke about this challenge with Stab magazine: “Performance boards are the least popular and least demanded boards on the market, which sucks because they’re the boards that interest me the most. It’s pretty easy to make cruiser boards that work well. That’s not a hard thing to do. But to make a really good performance board is, like, the hardest thing in the world.”

Similarly, Pyzel spoke about his reticence to add a midlength to his catalog, despite the obvious market demand, in an interview on Dirty Water back in 2020. “I’m under a little bit of pressure to develop a midlength since they’re so hot right now, and I’m gonna resist that pressure,” he said. “I’ve honestly never ridden one in my whole entire life.” Since then, however, if you go to the Pyzel board catalog, in addition to the shortboards that most surfers wish they could ride as well as John John Florence, you’ll now find a design known as the Mid Length Crisis, complete with a volume calculator.

Volume calculators accompany the marketing copy for just about every so-called midlength out there, a useful kind of acid test for spotting midcult offerings. Biolos put into perspective the utter pointlessness of the volume calculator for those boards: “If you’re getting a midlength, don’t even think about the goddamn volume. Throw everything you think about volume out the window, because you’re basically cutting your board across the center and sticking another foot in the middle of it.”

Midlengths are hardly the first marketing trend to collapse a whole bunch of unique design progress into a newer, duller, singular category. Take the fish as another example. Today, you see just about anything with a wide-enough swallowtail described as a fish, despite the fact that the design reaches back to much more specific origins—borne of necessity for kneeboarders like Steve Lis to fit the curve of hollow, well-sculpted reefbreaks better than the lengthy rail lines single-fins of that era ever could. 

A fish, the way it is now marketed, has come to mean almost the exact opposite of its original conceit: not a board for good waves, but a small-wave grovel board. And sure, a fish can be made to suit either of those ends, but you wouldn’t know it from the collapsed understanding of the design that the market has dictated.

Is there any way to reverse the direction of the contracting surfboard-design universe? Maybe it’s one of those odd things that’s easier done than said. It’s hard to speak about any kind of solution without falling into the same prescriptive traps as the volume calculator or the brand of monolithic surfboard marketing that’s become part of the problem. Developing and following one’s own personal tastes is the easiest way free of the singularity trap—the only way to keep the culture of surfboard design vibrant and expansive. 

There are countless surfers and shapers who stand as examples of this. You can find them at your local break, tapping some under-considered design vein suited to their peculiar needs. You can also find them progressing the state of the art in the best and most terrifying waves on the planet.

For instance, Emi Erickson was the only woman to ride a wave to completion in harrowing conditions during the finals of the 2020 Peahi Challenge big-wave contest, and she did so on a wide-point-forward 10’6″ downrail single-fin design that’s been out of surfing’s popular consciousness (and mass marketing campaigns) for decades. It was a hard-earned choice after the 2016 contest at Peahi, when she’d felt pressured to ride boards similar to most other contestants’ and sustained a horrific wipeout and almost career-ending knee injury. 

“That first year, I listened to everyone tell me you have to ride a quad,” Erickson told me. “I saw absolute carnage because of the common approach people take to a wave like that. I’ve learned you have to be reasonable in your approach and know yourself enough to factor that into your equipment, rather than having some fantastical idea of what you’re going to do.” 

Erickson emphasized that what worked for her at Jaws clearly wouldn’t even be suited to everyone who surfs in similar conditions.

“A few years ago, Nathan Florence picked up one of my single-fins,” she said. “He basically said it was unrideable to him. But the style of surfing I enjoy is so much different, and I don’t think of myself as that technically gifted.” 

Erickson’s discovery of boards that are suited to her surfing came as a result of seeing past design trends and the conventionally held wisdom of the moment. “Because I came to surfing late, I didn’t have much of a preconceived idea of what to ride. I didn’t know what was cool at first, and I had no concept of what I was supposed to ride.” 

Most surfers will never find themselves tested in conditions half as terrifying as Erickson did. But pursuing a divergent path that leads to worthwhile ends isn’t a question of scale. Similar breakthroughs are available to anyone willing to tune out the midcult white noise stirred up by the latest trend in favor of exploring long-forgotten or as-yet-undiscovered reaches of the board design universe.