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Surfboard Flotation: 99 Liters of Beer on the Wall

Posted by James Fulbright on

The floatation of a surfboard is pretty darn important, wouldn’t you say?

You certainly want your surf craft to have positive buoyancy. Generally speaking, that means the calculated volume of your surfboard should float your body weight.

We have been in a period of board design, where pushing the envelope by reducing length, is the current norm. Full-grown men are wanting to ride 5’2”-5’4” surfboards, so the volume of foam needed to float said full-grown man will need to exist somewhere within the board: other than in the length. It could be hiding in the overall width and thickness flow for example. It is what I like to refer to though as “a slippery slope”. It’s what most surfboard manufacturers now refer to as “liters”.

I despise that word. That’s all board buyers even talk about or concern themselves with now…liters. It’s the, “he knows just enough to be dangerous” word. It’s the, “hey, I’m cool and I know a shit-ton about surfboard design” word. It’s the, “I’m not going to even consider that surfboard until you can tell me exactly what the liters are” word.

I’ve been building surfboards since the mid 80’s and up until a few years ago, myself and my shaping colleagues called it “thickness”. It’s always been referred to as “thickness”. The sole reason the word “liters” even came into play was due to the birth of computer shaping machines and all the algorithms associated with robotic milling specific surfboard blanks of a predetermined volume, based on a computer file.

Prior to the advent of CAD programming for surfboards, a hand shaper relied on years of knowledge gained from shaping thousands of boards, as well as feedback from their team riders, as to whether or not a specific size and thickness properly floated a rider of a certain weight. It became second nature for a production hand shaper to be able to properly size a surfer up, based on their height and weight, experience level, and a number of other factors, including what boards they had been riding, where they surfed, how fit they were, their age, etc.

Now, some goober grape of little ability or experience thinks that if an internet website wordsmith told them that the 5’2” Wave Gobbler Model, with 37.65 liters was right for them…hey, put a fork in it. It must be true and be the magic board of their dreams (more like in their dreams). Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about how “floatation” is such a relative term.

What exactly IS floatation, when you are talking about a surfboard? That actually is a tricky question.

Some people complained that a board didn’t float them properly as they sat in the line-up waiting on the next set! Good Lord have mercy. I have heard complaints about a board sinking on a bottom turn or cut-back. Say what? The best one was when I was told that the board he bought sank in the tail while he was paddling, while the nose stuck way up in the air. The board was out of alignment, he surmised. Kill me now.

I can’t even begin to imagine just how many surfboards I have sold over the 32 years of owning a surf shop. I’m gonna take a wild guess of 10,000. I know that I have produced roughly 5,000 out of the various factories I have personally owned and operated and I’m going to assume about that many more people who came into my shop had a preconceived notion that surfboards produced elsewhere were the better choice and bought a national brand-name surfboard from me.

I realized early on in my board building career and surf shop ownership that not everyone thought that buying locally made surfboards had merit. After all, we live in Texas. What could local board makers possibly know about surfboard designs? Quite a lot actually.

They evidently had the idea that the Hawaiian, Californian, Australian or Floridian shaping gurus had a much better handle on small wave designs, but hey, it’s all good. The important issue isn’t the name or place of origin of your rip stick, but it’s functionality. I can tell you this unequivocally: It certainly does not have to do with what everyone else is riding at the moment. We are surfers dammit. We are supposed to dance to the beat of our OWN drum. We are rebels and leaders: not sheeple.

The main point I’m alluding to here is this: I have had at least 10,000 conversations with other surfers about surfboard designs and features and in those conversations, the size of the surfboard in relation to the potential rider (and the waves they were riding) came up more often than not.

If I thought that a surfboard they were thinking about buying wouldn’t float them properly, especially in the mediocre conditions along the upper Texas coast, I would tell them straight up. They always despised me for it. They all thought I was dogging them or suggesting they were not capable of riding a certain sized surfboard.

They think if Joe Blow can rip on it here then so can they! Based on experience and personal observation, the vast majority of Texas surfers buy and ride boards that are too small for them, now even more than ever.

In the current era of mathematically equated liters setting the bar and surfboard lengths falling below 6’, Texas surfers are once again shooting themselves in the proverbial foot by attempting to fit in with the rest of the surfing populace.

Baaaaaaaa (that’s supposed to be a sheep). Why oh why do so many surfers think they have to follow the herd all the time? It was bad enough when everyone was on an 18” wide x 2” thick Elf Shoe type board. But now, they seem to be solely focusing on the “liters” bullshit and deciding on a very short, quirky named compact disc with little to no drive, coupled with thick, sometimes 18” wide noses( that take an act of Congress to legitimately duck dive): all for the sake of…what?

Just because you weigh a buck fifty and a website wordsmith tells you 31 liters is right for your weight doesn’t mean it’s right for YOU. This isn’t Snapper Rocks. Quit it!

There are so many other variables to consider…foil, rocker, outline, deck and bottom contours, wide point, rail edges, the surf itself…and then maybe “liters” (scoff). Another variable to consider when the board doesn’t seem to “float you”, whether it is when you are paddling on it, sitting on it, looking at it or surfing on it is OPERATOR ERROR.

Yes, it is a possibility, however remote, that the surfboard is not to blame. You could have a surfboard with 99 liters, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to the pilot. 🙂The next barno to come into the surf shop and start throwing that dreaded word around might see a 99 liter Pabst Blue Ribbon flung at ’em…hence the name of this blog-99 liters of beer on the wall. 🙂

Surfboard Design

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