Bridging the gap between the end of the longboard era and the start of the modern shortboard. By Randy Rarick Photos: Keoki
The shortboard revolution began in 1967 when longboards reigned supreme. Then, over the course of only two years, board lengths dropped from ten-foot tankers to seven-foot mind machines. Such was the era of hippies, psychedelics, and an anything-goes attitude.
The start of the “Summer of ’69” actually had its genesis in the fall of 1968 at the World Surfing Championships in Puerto Rico. Back then — long before digital media, GoPros, videos or cell phones — the biannual gathering of surfing’s best was where surfboard design came together and the agenda was set for the coming year. While Hawai’i’s Fred Hemmings eventually won the contest, it was the influence of the Australians that was the talk of the event.
Defending champion Nat Young led the charge. His designs, and those of his fellow Aussies, set American manufacturers on a path that came to finality during the “Summer of ’69”. Nat had spent the months leading up to the event in France alongside Wayne Lynch who had been testing and refining his equipment; it consisted of a slightly fuller, yet pointed nose, round tail, straight bottom rocker and a flotation favorable “S” deck. Keith Paull, the defending Australian Champion, also turned up in France with his version of a similar shape, before heading on to the Caribbean. This was taking place at a time when Americans were still coming off their passé V-bottom boards, and the Hawaiians were adapting their pintails into mini-guns.
At the Puerto Rican event, everyone noticed how much more maneuverable the Aussie boards were and some began to mimic, duplicate, or downright copy the designs. It took about six months for the major manufacturers to develop a design, come up with an advertising campaign, and, finally, publish the ads in major surf magazines, which was how everyone found out about what was happening in the design realm. The American manufacturers scrambled to sign on the Aussies, with Nat Young going with Dewey Weber and Keith Paull going with Bing. Midget Farrelly was already with Gordon & Smith, and Bob McTavish was signed with Morey-Pope. Surf media of the era became infatuated with the influence of Australians; everything was about high-performance.
Their boards were displacement hulls with high rails up front, a rolled belly nose blending into a flat down railed tail and virtually no bottom rocker, which meant the tails were dead straight for speed. This contributed to the “S” deck with a kick in the nose and a hump in the middle, caused by the straight, almost reverse rocker. The move to a “Greenough” style fin, resulted in multiple fin systems, which allowed the fin to be moved up and down, along with more foil in the fin and less area. The three main systems were the modified “Variable W.A.V.E. Set,” the “Fins Unlimited Vari-Set” and the “Guidance” fin systems. All the major manufacturers came out with a model that represented this push, and there were many: the Weber “Ski”, the Bing “Foil”, the Gordon & Smith “Magic”, the Morey-Pope “Camel”, the Surfboards Hawai`i “Aquarius”, and the Design 1 “Reflector”.
For the “Summer of ’69” design project, we decided to take nine of these boards and put them to the test to see what made them such popular designs and how they performed. Our test riders included femme fatale Leah Dawson, who is no stranger to riding vintage alternative equipment. Joining her was Sunset Beach stand-out Willy Asprey, whose versatility on a variety of equipment is legendary in the area. They paddled out on a nice 3-5’ day at Sunset Point and rode a couple waves each. They then switched boards, repeating the process until both had ridden all nine test boards — our version of a consumer reports test on how these boards performed against one another.
The results were interesting. Compared to today’s surfboards, they actually didn’t have much of a baseline to work with. When asked in advance, they both thought the Bing “Foil Narrow” looked like the best board, while in actuality, the Bing “Foil Wide” rode the better of the two. They had a similar situation with the Weber “Ski”: while one would have thought the narrow board would be better suited for Hawai’i’s waves, both riders found the wider version surfed better. As for the Gordon & Smith “Magics”, the wider one with the pronounced “S” deck was a favorite of both and better suited than the smaller, flatter-rockered version. The Surfboards Hawai’i “Aquarius” felt more like a mini-longboard than a transition shape due to its excessive area and lack of rocker. The strangest of the batch was the Morey-Pope “Camel” with a slightly rolled “V” in the middle of the bottom, rather than the rolled nose that the other boards had, which provided for a distinctive looseness, yet hard to control. The cleanest and the best of the batch was probably the Dennis Choate shaped Design 1 “Reflector”, which actually came from the East Coast. Both surfers felt that it was the easiest to ride and the smoothest of the lot.
The overall conclusion of our surfboard design project was that the straighter rocker on all the boards made them faster when surfing a direct line, but extremely stiff off the bottom and in a cut back. The “S” decks provided much-appreciated floatation, while contributing to the flat tail rocker. The slightly fuller outlines with the wide point forward all worked well to give the boards some drive, and each of the round-tails contributed to a smooth rail-to-rail exchange. The lower area fins helped to loosen the boards up and with some time and experimentation of position, could further improve performance.
What is interesting about these boards and the other models from the “Summer of ’69” is that these were, in many respects, the last hurrah for the major manufacturers. They had been trying to emulate the advertising campaigns of the longboard era, but times had changed. By the end of the summer of ’69, these boards were obsolete. The death blow came with the introduction by Mike Hynson of the “Breakaway” rail design, which was the flat-bottomed nose and down-rail design that changed everything. Within months, nearly all boards went to flat-bottoms, more tail rocker, the belly noses were gone, and everyone had low rails. It was also the beginning of the garage soul, where design characteristics were coming out of regional backyard designers at such a pace that big manufacturers could not keep up. Therefore, the shapes of the “Summer of ’69” were the last link between what had been the longboard era, opening the door for the modern shortboard.